05.05.13

The Neighboring Movement: A Simple, Radical Idea

Meet the members of an innovative movement that is taking the Bible’s commandment to love your neighbor seriously.

When the Bible commands Christians to love their neighbors, what if it really means what it says? That’s the simple, radical idea behind the “Neighboring Movement”—a group of pastors, church members, and civic leaders around the country that may be coming to a neighborhood near you.

In January 2009, a group of churches in Arvada, Colorado—a community of about 100,000 people northwest of Denver—concluded that they weren’t doing enough to help their city. Arvada was facing an aging population, a relative dearth of services for seniors, and a rising number of homeless individuals and families across the community.

The pastors of around two dozen congregations requested a meeting with the mayor of Arvada, Bob Frie, a local attorney and political veteran. In a small meeting room at a local church, the two sides got together to hash out how congregations could help solve the city’s challenges. The clergy had big ideas for community interventions, from after-school programs to food pantries, but Mayor Frie had something else in mind.

“There are a lot of issues that face our community,” Frie told the pastors. “But the majority of them would be drastically reduced if we just became good neighbors—if we took Jesus seriously when he said to love God, and love your neighbor.”

The pastors, leaders who reached about 24,000 people every week, were flabbergasted. A politician was telling them to do something that was supposed to come naturally to churches, but in reality, wasn’t happening: to love their actual, physical neighbors, the people living right next door to church members.

“The mayor of our city said that to a group of pastors,” Jay Pathak, a pastor and leader in the Neighboring Movement, said on video about the meeting. “It was convicting—embarrassing actually!”

After the initial shock, a lightbulb came on among the clergy. As Dave Runyon, a pastor and one of the organizers of the group, told me, “We suddenly realized that our churches had a watered-down definition of the Great Commandment. Our Bible tells us to ‘love our neighbor,’ but we were defining ‘neighbor’ as everyone in the world. Unfortunately, when everyone in the world is your neighbor, that often means no one is. We started thinking, how about we start by loving, in practical ways, the people right next door?”

Prompted by Mayor Frie, the group decided to address that disconnection and created something they called a “Neighboring Movement.” Leaders of 21 churches began preaching sermons encouraging their congregations to embrace the discomfort, messiness, and beauty of relationships with their next-door neighbors, whether those neighbors shared their faith or not. The goal wasn’t proselytization; as Runyon told me, “the focus is relationship.”

Practically, this means two simple things to the Neighboring Movement in Arvada: use a block map to learn the names and stories of people in the eight households closest to their home and throw a block party in their neighborhood at least once a year. “One of the best thing that Christians can do in our cities is throw really good parties,” Runyon said. “No one needs another potluck. They need real parties where people from different backgrounds can meet each other, have a good time, and kids can connect and play.”

“One of the best thing that Christians can do in our cities is throw really good parties.”

In large and small ways, the outreach led by church members in the Neighboring Movement began having an impact. Through the movement, Ken and Janis Baney reached out to their neighbors in Arvada and discovered that one of them, Jim, had cancer, and Jim’s wife was overburdened with work. In response, Ken offered to bring over dinner once a week. He told Jim’s wife, “On Tuesday nights, when you get home from work, you just spend time with Jim, and I’ll fix dinner,” according to Ken. He and Janis did just that, supporting their new friends and giving the family more time to spend with each other, until Jim passed away.

When Todd and Karla Tillapaugh saw Chris Crowe moving into their Arvada neighborhood, “we thought the Clampetts were moving in,” Karla said, referring to the family in The Beverly Hillbillies. Looking at Chris’s yard, Karla remarked, “lots of stuff is left over and it trickles around the neighborhood—in the summertime, there’s stuff everywhere!”

But because of their participation in the Neighboring Movement, Todd and Karla found out that Chris Crowe wasn’t just another messy neighbor—she was a longtime foster parent, who had adopted seven children through foster care. The bikes and toys outside were a function of “managed chaos,” as Chris put it, the reality of being a loving mom to a large and diverse family.

“In the midst of all that mess, Chris was investing in the lives of kids that nobody else wanted,” Karla remarked. The discovery prompted her and Todd to ask themselves: “Can we join her in that—in investing in those kids?”

In many ways, the Neighboring Movement presents a response to the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon, Americans’ well-documented and growing social alienation from each other. Where impersonal, social-media-based interactions and a divisive political discourse have pushed us further apart, the civic and religious leaders in the Neighboring Movement are trying to stitch us more closely together, one block at a time.

And it seems to be working. Word of the Neighboring Movement in Arvada began to spread to other communities, including Duluth, Wisconsin; Midland, Michigan; Lancaster, Ohio; and Modesto and Fresno, California. Churches and civic leaders are attracted to the simplicity of the program—mapping and learning names of folks right next door, forming relationships with those same people, and throwing parties—as well as the connection between the program and Christianity’s Great Commandment. Runyon and Pathak developed tools for leaders who want to start a Neighboring Movement, including the “Art of Neighboring” website, which has step-by-step instructions to get a Neighboring Movement going in a new community, and a book by the same title.

I asked Runyon what the primary barriers are to the Neighboring Movement’s growth, and he told me “time and fear.” “People have to be willing to give up a little bit of time in service of developing relationships,” Runyon said, “and get beyond the fear of folks who may be different from them. But if we can do that, the rewards are vast.”

Mitch Majeski, a pastor in Fort Collins, Colorado, wholeheartedly agrees: “This neighboring thing is amazing ... It’s one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I don’t ever want to do anything else.”