Know Thy Neighbor: Being Present without Agenda

note: This article originally appeared on the ABPNews site on June 3, 2014. Over the course of summer, I got to know many of my neighbors in the church community. Some have attended the church I serve; never darkened our doors. Regardless, I now feel more deeply connected to the community than I would have without spending weekly time getting to know our neighbors and valuing them as human beings.

The Wave

This morning as I was driving into the neighborhood of the church I serve, I realized I was behind one of my church members at the stop sign. I waved furiously, hoping that he would look in the rearview mirror.

He did not.

As I pulled through the intersection , I realized that the truck coming towards me contained another person I knew. I waved at Don (which is not his real name, but is the wrong name that I called him when I saw him at church on Sunday), a man who had visited our church on Sunday.

He also did not notice me.

As I came around the bend in the road, I saw two women who were walking together in the opposite direction. I didn’t know their names, but I knew that I had met them last week. I waved a warm hello their way.

They were too busy talking to one another to notice.

Instead of being discouraged that no one would return my morning greetings, I found myself smiling as I turned into the church parking lot. Only one of these four people is a member of my church. Two of them have never (to my knowledge) visited a worship service. And yet, I felt a sense of connection to all of them because I knew them as my neighbors. In the past week I had shared space with all of them, and I felt the connection between us, even if they were ignoring me.

The Community Market

A few weeks ago, our church began a new project. We are hosting a weekly “community market” in which local vendors from the area come and set up shop while a food truck delivers hot food and neighbors and church members come to spend time mingling and shopping. The three non-church members I had encountered on the drive this morning were all neighbors I had met at last week’s market. The project was a vision of a church member who thought it would be a great way to be a force for good in the neighborhood.

And she was right.

But it has also been an amazing force for good for me.

For the first two weeks, we didn’t even have any information about our church available at the market because we want to communicate to them that we are more concerned with who they are than with them becoming a part of our fellowship. For the past three weeks I have had the opportunity to meet and chat with hundreds of folks from our neighborhood, and I haven’t tried to talk a single one of them into coming to church. While a few people have asked about the church, there have been no lengthy theological discussions, just talk about family and how good the fish tacos out of the food truck are.

A Theology of Place

While the concept of the local parish is still alive (at least according to my neighbors) in the Mormon church and in rural areas, the idea of being responsible as a congregation for the people of the community has diminished as neighborhoods have changed and as churches have become a consumer commodity. The church I serve is a “different” kind of Baptist church, and so we have members who drive over an hour to worship. I’m thankful for those who can identify with the way we do life to the degree that they drive out of their way to come be a part of life with us.

I’m also thankful for the people who live around our church who have found a place to call home that may be farther away from them than we are. There is a lot to be said for being comfortable with the place where you worship.

But maybe the ideas of theological affinity and the local parish are not mutually exclusive. I think we can be a church with a clear identity that also doesn’t forgo the needs of our local community. The more we can be ourselves as a congregation and as individuals, the more we will be able to be truly present with our neighbors without needing them to be other than they are.

This seems to be how Jesus was dpresent with people. He was fully himself, but he didn’t ask them to be different before he would be present with them. He didn’t approach relationship with people because he needed something from them. He simply was present with people because that is the nature of God, to be present.

Tacos and the Kingdom

For now, I look forward to inhabiting the space outside my window each Tuesday with my neighbors and church members alike. I look forward to watching kids who were strangers two weeks ago spend time playing soccer in the grass. I anticipate the food truck tacos and fresh strawberries.

And I anticipate that over time, the neighborhood will be closer to one another because they are spending time together. I believe that we will be closer to the neighborhood because we are being present without motive. And I believe that in these things God’s kingdom will be glorified no matter where people are worshipping each week.

And maybe, if I’m lucky, we’ll all start waving at each other a bit more.

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