Frequently, I’m asked how a neighborhood group is different from the simple call of Jesus to love your neighbors. The approach really comes down to how we see mission. We are all called to reach out to those around us as individuals, and Jesus calls each of us to love where we are. This is the life of a true Christ follower. We are to be on mission as individuals.
There is a definite power, though, when mission is also done communally rather than just individually. Jesus did not send out the disciples individually. He sent them out in pairs. The entire book of Acts was about teams of people going out together. Seeing this in the Bible, and learning how to operate this way are very challenging when your entire upbringing and life are built around an individualistic paradigm.
This is the default thinking in most American churches. Here’s what it looks like. We gather together for worship in a large environment, and then we go out – as individuals – to be Jesus to those around us. This might mean our actual neighbors, our “neighbors” in our work place, or those we meet at the grocery store. The bottom line idea behind this is, “I am on mission.” Occasionally, people will include a spouse in this approach to try to think communally. We need to be reminded “the two will become one”. When we are on mission as a couple, we are still thinking through an individual missional mindset.
When we look at the Bible through a communal mindset, we see things in a different light. Jesus wanted the disciples to pair up for a reason. Paul and Silas went on their first journey as a team. (We at least know Luke was with them as the writer.) The decision to send them was made as a team. (See Acts 13:1-3) The Jerusalem church functioned communally. (“It seemed good to us…” in Acts 15:28) It’s fascinating how our American mindset has labeled these journeys individualistically by calling them “Paul’s First Missionary Journey”, etc. It was not an individual missionary journey. It was a communal one.
Rethinking, Retraining, and Reminding
Shifting to a paradigm of communal neighboring is not easy. We will almost always default to individual thinking. We have to rethink, retrain, and remind.
We continue to rethink the way we view mission to try to have groups gather and scatter together. Three Christian neighbors inviting a not-yet-Christian neighbor over for dinner or to watch a sporting event can have a profound impact. Two Christian families inviting two non-yet-Christian families on their street to participate in a Bible study about parenting could have a tremendous influence. Three Christian families in a neighborhood inviting three not-yet-Christian families to go serve at the local food pantry could be a powerful witness. We must rethink toward communal mission.
This won’t come naturally, so we have to retrain communally. Design ministries – like neighborhood groups – to create communal experiences. Give people the tools to do things together rather than individually. Tell stories from the platform every weekend of communal neighboring. Pray weekly in your worship service not only for the not-yet-Christian living around you as neighbors but also for the Christian partners to help reach them communally. We must retrain toward communal mission.
The powerful gravitational pull in American culture toward individualism will require constant reminders. We must come back regularly (weekly at the least) and intentionally to a communal focus. We need to evaluate all of our ministries and events through a communal lens. These reminders are verbal from the platform, in our written communication, and in the way we tell our stories. We must remind toward communal mission.
A New Day
There is some power in individuals living intentionally on mission, and we can, no doubt, give anecdotal stories of individual impact. Could it be, though, one reason the North American church is losing influence and strength is because of her individualistic approach? The truth is most people do not feel equipped or able to live missionally on their own. A new approach (which is really a 2000 year old approach) to communal neighboring might be exactly what the church needs.