Be a Gospel Neighbor
“The aim of hospitality is to forge relationships strong enough to bear the weight of truth.”
—Dustin Willis & Brandon Clements
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I’ll never forget Andrew. He joined the church several years ago. He came from the UK and didn’t plan to be in the States very long. Andrew was young, single, and lived in a small apartment. He had every excuse under the sun to not be a good neighbor. And yet, he is one of the most hospitable men I’ve ever met. He regularly welcomed co-workers, next-door-neighbors, and church members into his home. During his last Sunday here, I asked the evening gathering if they’d ever been in Andrew’s home. Nearly every hand went up. In a small but important way, Andrew made a difference. By opening up his home and sharing his life, he helped others see the priority of the Lord, Jesus Christ. He is a gospel neighbor.
Every Christian wants to make a difference. It’s part of our spiritual DNA. We know humanity’s greatest need is salvation, so we long to see our friends respond to the gospel in repentance and faith. But if we’re honest, we admit we struggle here. We know our friends need the Good News, but we have a hard time opening our homes and opening our mouths to make the gospel known. Too often, we’re like a postal carrier who can’t seem to leave the driveway.
Being a good neighbor is a crucial component to being a faithful evangelist. We should all aspire to be gospel neighbors. But first, I want to assess a couple typical ways we measure evangelistic success.
THE METRICS OF SUCCESS
It’s tempting to equate healthy evangelism with results. I recently heard a Christian leader lamenting the lack of baptisms in our state. He assumed this is because we aren’t evangelizing enough—and he may be right! We should certainly pray for more baptisms. But since God is the Giver of life, a decrease in the number of baptisms is not necessarily due to a lack of evangelism. After all, we plant the seeds through evangelism, and it’s up to God to give the growth in conversion and then baptism (see 1 Cor. 3:6). Therefore, I don’t think “number of baptisms” is the best metric for assessing our commitment to evangelism.
Instead of counting the number of baptisms, we could instead count the number of times we shared the gospel in any given week. Counting evangelistic conversations is a much better metric. It reminds us that even though salvation is in the hands of the Lord, we must tell people about Jesus (Rom. 10:14). Should I, as a pastor, challenge every member to share the gospel once a day? I’m thinking about it, and do think the frequency of evangelistic conversations is a better gauge of our spiritual health than the number of baptisms we register.
However, there’s an even better way. In addition to praying for baptisms and encouraging numerous evangelistic conversations, faithful Christians will seek to open up their life and homes in the biblical practice of hospitality. I love how Dustin Willis and Brandon Clements put it: “The simplest way to change the world is to leverage your ordinary life for his history sweeping mission of hospitality.”[i] Simply being a good neighbor, a gospel neighbor, is an important part of living an evangelistic life.
IS NEIGHBORING BIBLICAL?
A number of passages in the New Testament call us to be good neighbors. The most obvious is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Christians are to show mercy to the overlooked and unwanted. Every Christian should have a Christ-like disposition to all—happily loving those in need. This is the spirit of the first half of Galatians 6:10 where Paul tells the churches to “do good to everyone.” This applies to the Syrian refugee around the world, the homeless man across town, and the lonely widow and busy young family right next door.
The requirement for hospitality gets to the heart of neighboring. It’s even a qualification of elder leadership. Any man who wants to shepherd God’s flock must be hospitable (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8). In describing an elder’s calling, Alexander Strauch noted, “An open home is a sign of an open heart and a loving, sacrificial spirit. A lack of hospitality is a sure sign of selfish, lifeless, loveless Christianity.”[ii]
Though Strauch applies this qualification to hospitality within the body of Christ, there are good reasons to think Paul intended a broader view. For example, the author of Hebrews exhorts us “to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2). Like Paul, he is very concerned about hospitality inside the church. He may be exhorting believers to open upon their home to Christian travelers. But the language is broad enough to include those who don’t know the Lord.[iii] Paul has a similar message in Romans 12:13–14: “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Paul demands a spirit of generosity to all: the brother or sister, the stranger, and even the enemy!
Faithful pastors and Christians alike will strive to be good neighbors. They’ll open up their homes to people around them. Such hospitality is not without cost (it takes time and money). If this cost seems high, remember the words of our Savior in Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Yes, gospel neighboring is biblical.
COWARD IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD?
Gospel neighboring is important. Just to be clear, I pray tons of impromptu evangelistic conversations are taking place throughout the week. Not only that, I encourage Christians to invite their unbelieving friends to church gatherings. These public meetings are a good place to hear the gospel. But I fear if we neglect the hard work of gospel neighboring, any culture of evangelism we build will be far too thin and shallow. Gospel neighboring makes our evangelism thick and deep. Though it’s great to share the gospel with whomever you meet—God’s Word is sufficient to save—it’s appropriate to share the gospel in the context of sturdy relationships. Gospel neighboring strives to make such relationships a reality.
If pastors are faithful to share the gospel to the gathering on Sunday morning, but are not faithful to make Christ known on their own block, are they really evangelistic? As the quotable Dallas pastor Matt Chandler challenges, “If you’re a beast in the pulpit but a coward in your neighborhood, something has gone wrong.” But this isn’t just a criticism for pastors. All of us need to hear this. If you’re willing to engage in a ten-minute conversation with your Uber driver, but are unwilling to invest in the people God planted in your family, workplace, or neighborhood, are you truly a faithful evangelist? I don’t think so.
A CHALLENGE AND A CAUTION
The challenge is for every church and Christian to see the importance of engaging our neighbors—the people God has specifically put in our lives. Whether it’s a house we drive past each and every morning or a co-worker we talk to each and every day.
The cold hard truth is many of us don’t even know who’s living next door. Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon in their book, The Art of Neighboring, devised an ingenious exercise to see how well we know our neighbors. Draw a chart with nine boxes (think tic-tac-toe) and mark your home at the center. The other boxes are the eight nearest neighbors in your apartment complex, dorm, or block. In each box, jot down three items of information about each neighbor: First, their name. Second, a simple fact—e.g., “works at UPS” or “mother of three.” Third, an in-depth fact—e.g., “wants to be a lawyer” or “had a bad experience with religion.” Pathak and Runyon have come to refer to this as the “chart of shame” because so few of us can get past question one.[iv]
You see the challenge, don’t you? It’s hard to have meaningful conversations about anything with your neighbors if you don’t actually know them.
The caution is just as important. We must not to treat our neighbors as projects. They aren’t machines that need their controls adjusted before they overheat. Care about people for who they are (God’s image bearers) and not simply for whom they may become (our brothers and sisters in Christ).[v]
This is a tension I feel when I look at my calendar. Life is full, and I want to be a good steward of my time. I’m not looking for deep friendships with people who don’t know Christ. And yet, if I make no room for unbelieving neighbors, am I really living out the Great Commandment (Matt. 22:37–38), much less the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19–20)? And if I engage them only because they may one day be children of God, don’t I risk seeing them as a battle to be won instead of a neighbor to be served? I think so.
The challenge is to know our neighbors. The caution is to beware of treating them as objects that need to be fixed instead of people who need to be loved.
THE END GOAL
As a Christian, I cannot deny how much I long for my neighbors to know what I know: Jesus Christ is Lord. We’ve been made to know and love God. All of us fall short and deserve eternal punishment. But God, in his love, made a way of escape. The Father sent the Son into the world. Jesus lived a perfect life and, therefore could die as a perfect sacrifice in the place of all who would turn and trust in him. His resurrection proves he really is the King of Kings, and now all are called to follow him. This is the gospel, it’s the heart of my life, and it’s what I want my neighbors to hear and believe. This is not the only goal of good neighboring, but it is the end goal. I appreciate how Willis and Clement make this point:
Clearly the aim of hospitality is more than merely inviting someone into our home, sharing a good meal and a few stories, and calling it a night. We are missionaries, after all. Paul reminded us, “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20). And pastor Charles Spurgeon said, “Every Christian . . . is either a missionary or an imposter.”[vi]
I want to share Christ with my Uber driver, my barista, and anyone that crosses my path. However, I want to be especially faithful with those God has planted in my life. These are my nearest neighbors, and I have a unique responsibility to show them Christ. Furthermore, I don’t want to be a beast in the pulpit but a coward in my neighborhood! I’m sure you don’t either.
How can you (and I) grow in being a gospel neighbor for the glory of God? Here are ten imperatives I pray God uses to move us in the right direction.
1. Name the people God has placed near you. This goes back to the “chart of shame” mentioned in the Art of Neighboring. Give yourself a few weeks or even months, but do all you can to figure out who is around you.
2. Start praying for your neighbors by name. Be like that persistent widow in Luke 18. Plead with God to open doors (Cor. 16:9). He can do this.
3. Strategize ways to welcome them into your life. The book, The Simplest Way to Change the World: Biblical Hospitality as a Way of Life, is full of practical and easy ways you can open up your home to your neighbors. It’s a good read. It’s going to take some work to figure out if you need to spend more time going to block parties or simply open up your home once a quarter for a cookout. You may already have relationships with neighbors you can pursue. Is it time to see who’s interested in reading the Bible with you?
4. Welcome neighbors into your life. At least for me, the hardest part is not strategizing how to have neighbors over, it’s actually doing it. For some of you, this is very easy. But for many of us, it’s hard. This may be due to a lack of time, energy, or courage. You’ll need all three!
5. Love them for who they are. Again, in order to be a gospel neighbor evangelism shouldn’t be your only goal. Enjoy getting to know your neighbors. Ask them questions. Find ways to serve and spend time together. They are magnificent image bearers. You don’t know their future, so try to love them where they are.
6. Be consistent. We want to aim for gospel neighboring until the Lord returns. Let’s commit to neighboring for the long haul. That may require setting fairly modest hospitality goals. Better to a little over a long period of time then overextend yourself for a month.
7. Find accountability. Do you have a Christian brother or sister who challenges you to read your Bible and pray faithfully? Consider asking him or her to encourage you in the discipline of hospitality as well.
8. Share what you love the most. If you are a Christian, you love Christ the most. Period. How you get to the gospel with your neighbors takes wisdom. Again, you don’t want them to feel like a project. But you don’t want to be silent too long, either. Willis and Clements are helpfully honest: “Yes, as you take the bold step of speaking the good news, you may feel nervous and reluctant for fear that you will be rejected, but understand the gospel you have is so attractive to the hurting who live right next door to you.”[vii] So true.
9. Keep first things first. We all know someone who focuses so much on discipleship he neglects evangelism. This is not good. But let’s not forget the full command of Paul in Galatians 6:10, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Paul prioritized the local church. This is surely because he remembered Christ’s words, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Being a faithful next-door neighbor starts with being a faithful church member.
10. Rest. Do you remember Andrew, the young man who opened up his apartment to literally dozens of friends? We aren’t all like Andrew. For him it seemed to come naturally. Thankfully, our hope isn’t in being like Andrew. Our confidence is in God who made each of us just the way he wanted us to be. Our success in gospel neighboring, therefore, doesn’t depend on our charm, ability to throw a party, or even our stick-to-itiveness. It comes from the power of the Spirit of God exalts the Son of God known for the sake of the glory of God. Because of this, even as we work hard at being a gospel neighbor, we can rest.
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[i]Dustin Willis and Brandon Clements, The Simplest Way to Change the World: Biblical Hospitality As a Way of Life (Chicago: Moody, 2017), 143.
[ii]Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership (Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth, 1995), 194.
[iii]“In verse 2 the author teaches that this brotherly love should even extend beyond the church.” R. Albert Mohler Jr., Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary: Exalting Jesus in Hebrews (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2017), 220.
[iv]Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon, The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012), 37–38.
[vi]Simplest Way, 119.