Most people, when they move, picture the ideal neighbourhood: friendly couples, with well-behaved children, who drop by (always at the perfect time) with a plate of cookies—or perhaps to mow your lawn.
What we get, too often, falls far short of residential utopia: streets and subdivisions full of busy people who barely have enough time and energy to tend to their own lives, let alone take an active interest in their neighbours'. On a good day, we get eye contact and a quick wave. On a bad day, we get the guy from three houses down stomping across our back yard, swearing at Elvis, his loose beagle. (Hey, at least we know the dog's name now.)
And we feel guilty: Guilty that we don't find the time—or more often, the courage—to knock on a neighbour's door or approach them in the yard. Guilty that our neighbourhoods seem cold and unfriendly and that we're not helping matters. And, most importantly for Christian couples, guilty that our home is not a beacon for a neighbourhood full of lost souls.
All of which begs questions. How can we establish connections and, eventually, real, caring friendships with the people behind those doors and across those fences? How can we be strong Christian witnesses to our neighbours without coming off as the too-perfect-to-be-true Flanders family from The Simpsons?
Looking for Opportunities
John and Sheri Winters have moved several times, from Nebraska to California to Illinois and, finally, to suburban Grand Rapids, Michigan, where John's a physician and Sheri's a homemaker and mom to their three boys.
"When we moved here, it was December," Sheri says. "In Michigan, everyone hibernates. So if you see your neighbour going out to the mailbox you think, Now's my opportunity! I'll grab my boots and go get my mail, like it's a coincidence."
Chance meetings happen much more, well, by chance, when the weather's warmer. But the idea remains the same: Look for opportunities to connect with neighbours without bugging them.
"Most people are so afraid to interfere with someone's space," John says. "But you almost have to do that—unless you find that someone really does not want you in their space, then you sort of sense that. But if you just assume that no one wants you in their space, then you end up taking a long time to get to know each other."
Leslie Levine, author of Will This Place Ever Feel Like Home? (Contemporary Books), knows about that dilemma. "You never want to intrude on someone's privacy or their time," she says, "but sometimes what eventually becomes a strong friendship starts out as just a wave or a 'hi' or borrowing something.
"Being naturally shy is an obstacle, but don't make it an excuse," Levine says. "You might give yourself a nudge here and there and say, 'I've got to go outside of who I usually am and just try.'"
Levine also suggests tempering your expectations. "It's a wonderful thing when a neighbour becomes a friend, but it's also a wonderful thing when a neighbour is a neighbour," she says. "But I don't think there's anything wrong with reaching out as the newcomer and showing people that you're happy to be there."
You may think, But we don't expect to be here long. What can we possibly do?
Sure, some communities and neighbourhoods are transient. Chances are, you live in one. Either you or your neighbours might move on, maybe before a friendship even fully evolves. But using that as an excuse to hole up in our houses makes us awfully lonely people.
"I think some people see their lives as a snowball that starts very small, and then you just keep rolling and picking up experiences and people," Levine says. "There are some people who don't believe in that, because they've never seen it. But if you have friends in other cities, then you know that you don't necessarily pick up people and then just drop them just because you leave, or just because they leave."
An Impact for Christ
Norm and Becky Wretlind's life ministry began almost thirty years ago—with a fight. Having lived three-and-a-half years in their Anaheim, California, neighbourhood, they sat in their car one night after church and argued.
From their window, they could see about twenty houses on their cul-de-sac—representing twenty sets of neighbours they hadn't come close to reaching for Christ. Their guilt and frustration hung over that street like a cloud. Having previously done missions work in Bolivia, they couldn't understand why neighbourhood evangelism proved so much harder.
Norm, a salesman, thought they should go door-to-door, handing out gospel tracts and asking people if they knew whether they were going to heaven or hell. Becky favoured a more subtle approach, hoping the neighbours would see Christ in the way they went about their daily lives.
Their argument ended in fervent prayer that God would show them how to reach their neighbourhood. Less than a week later, a friend invited them to an evangelism training conference. Its theme: Successful witnessing happens when people take the initiative to share Christ and leave the results to God.
The week after the conference, the Wretlinds' baby sitter stopped by to thank them for a high-school graduation gift they'd given her. Norm began asking her about her future, and the conversation quickly turned to spiritual matters. Later, the girl prayed to receive Christ.
"As she walked across the street," Norm says, "Becky and I both felt that cloud—that sense of guilt that we were being dishonest neighbours by not verbally sharing who we really were—had dissipated."
The following December, the Wretlinds planned an evangelistic Christmas party for their neighbourhood. Norm even invited a guest speaker. Another Christian couple in the neighbourhood originally had helped plan the party, but then backed out because they thought the idea was too aggressive. Norm cancelled the guest speaker and considered scrapping the entire event, but then felt led by God to continue.
About twenty people came. The group played games and sang Christmas carols. Toward the end, Norm asked each guest to share a favourite Christmas tradition or memory. Once they had, he told about his faith journey.
"The response caught us off guard," Norm says. "They were enthusiastic that I was able to talk about God freely and openly."
Within a month, a women's Bible study had started in the neighbourhood. Within two months, three women in the group had accepted Christ. "We thought, This is amazing," Norm says. "We'd been there three-and-a-half years, feeling guilty, afraid, not knowing what to say or how to say it. And then after we had resolved to simply take the initiative to share Christ with our neighbours and leave the results to God, all this happened."
Soon after, Norm was transferred to the Dallas area, where they held an open house for their new neighbourhood.
"We had them sign our guest book," Becky says. "Every day, we held hands with our daughters and prayed for all those neighbours. After about three years, we looked at that book. Out of the twenty-eight neighbours who came, nine had come to know Christ."
This was the beginning of a neighbourhood church that, twenty-five years later, has 1,300 people. The Wretlinds now live outside Denver, Colorado, and have founded NeighborHope Ministries (www.neighborhope.com) to promote neighbourhood evangelism.
"What we've learned over the years," Norm says, "is that a neighbourhood party sponsored by a Christian—an intentional, friendship-building gathering—is always going to be successful, because in many cases it's the only way most of the neighbours will ever meet each other. So at each party, we include a sharing time where all the personalities come out. It creates a sense of, 'Hey, we belong to each other. We're neighbours.'"
Okay, let's hear it: We don't have the gift of evangelism. We're not outgoing people. Our house isn't big enough to have the neighbourhood over.
The Wretlinds will have none of that.
"The question is, Is your heart big enough?" Norm says, noting that they used to hold summer block parties in their driveway and Christmas gatherings in their two-bedroom home. Taking that uncomfortable first step of knocking on a neighbour's door and inviting them over for coffee, they say, will begin changing your perspective.
Norm believes it's less a question of spiritual gifts than one of simple obedience to God. Jesus told us to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 19:19).
"At the heart of successful evangelism is love for other individuals," Norm says. "That's what touches them."
"I used to pray for a passion for lost souls," Becky says, "but it wasn't until I actually stepped out my front door and began to rub shoulders with my non-Christian neighbours that I began to really feel a passion for them. And then it was God doing a work in my heart as I just made my time available."
Time. Now there's a real obstacle to all of this. Amid running to and from work, school, and even church activities, the neighbourhood can become a pretty low priority.
"We can't be so busy with other Christians in the 'holy huddle' that we don't plan any time for the non-Christians around us," she says.
Opening your home means opening yourselves to neighbours who need spiritual help. And that takes readiness—through prayer.
Becky says, "Prayer is the bottom line for neighbourhood ministry together, for impacting your neighbourhood as a couple."
Jim Killam, an MP regular contributor, teaches journalism at Northern Illinois University. He and his family live in Poplar Grove, Illinois.
© 2002 by the author or Christianity Today International/Marriage Partnership magazine.