Won’t You be My Neighbour?

Thank you to Paul Hanaoka and unsplash.com for this image

Happy Mr. Roger’s Day!

It is not only a beautiful day in the neighbourhood, it is a beautiful day to go out and meet our neighbours.

Mr. Rogers was above all else a good neighbour; more important than being a teacher and entertainer of children (and even their parents), Fred Rogers sought to show us how to be the very best kind of neighbour we can be in the communities in which we live, work and worship. 

In his television show he would tell his audience when he was feeding his fish because a young, visually impaired girl wrote to him concerned that the fish were hungry.

He invited Officer Clemmons, the neighbourhood police officer, to cool his feet in a pool, providing rest and comfort but more significantly breaking a significant colour barrier at a time when many community pools were not integrated.

By listening, asking questions, and observing, Fred Rogers sought to understand his neighbourhood well so that he might respond to the needs of his community with compassion and justice.

In the church, we typically have one of three responses to our neighbourhood communities:

  1. We believe our communities have changed in ways that we fear or don’t understand, and so believe our church is and/or should become a haven from the community.
  2. We want the community to do something for us; supporting the congregation with bums in pews and dollars in plates.
  3. We decide that we know what the community needs and so proceed to implement ministries without any kind of consultation with the community. 

Clearly these are three bleak and somewhat cynical options. Fortunately, they are not our only choices. With Fred Rogers in mind, we can reengage with our communities by looking, listening and entering into the work that God is already doing around us.

In the book, the Message, Eugene Patterson paraphrases John 1:14 by saying:

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.

God is already active in our communities. God is already busy in our neighbourhood. We should not to assume that God was doing nothing till we got there, rather we are called to discover what is already happening and to become a part of it. We can do this by exegeting our neighbourhoods to learn anew about these communities that surround us. Walk our neighbourhoods with new eyes and ears; researching and learning about the place in which you live and worship. At the end of this article is a more lengthy resource for exegeting your neighbourhood. However, at this point our first step is to:

  1. Discover the makeup of the community around you; age, education, marital status and ethnicity.
  2. Discover the key meeting points; pubs, schools or coffee shops.
  3. Connect with the other churches. What are they seeing? Are they reaching the area effectively?
  4. See if you can discover the networks in the community. Are there important organizations? Are there clubs? Are there social media associations? How do people know each other and how do they connect?

There are many questions to be asked at this stage. Don’t assume you know the answers. Test your assumptions.

As you do all these things you will be developing a rich picture and understanding of the neighbourhood. 

Next, find a way to listen to your neighbours; listen to their joy and their pain. Listen to their needs and their frustrations. Listen also to what they bring. Jesus, in his travels, relied on the hospitality of others. A part of our journey will be learning to accept the hospitality of our neighbours, learning to accept gifts from them rather than assuming that the only gifts and ministry will come from us.

As you go through these exercises, pray. Pray for wisdom, pray for discernment and pray especially for a vision of how your church might reconnect with the community in a meaningful and holy way.

As you reflect on all you have learned, hopefully you will also begin to recognize ways and means in which you might be helpful. This is no place for arrogance or superiority. Rather, like Mr. Rogers and indeed Jesus, in humility understand that you are partners in ministry, love and service together. Understand also that there is every likelihood that this new ministry could involve those who aren’t of your denomination or faith working together.

In Church of England these new initiatives are called ‘Fresh Expressions of the Gospel’. They come from an understanding that being the church in our age is not about just getting people to come to our churches and that Fresh Expressions of the Gospel might not look like traditional church at all. Likewise, this new understanding of community and the church’s role in it comes from a Missional understanding of the work of the church where we are not called to get people to church, we are called to get the church to people in the fulfilling of God’s divine mission to the world.

In Mr. Rogers neighbourhood it was a simple lyric:

I have always wanted to have a neighbour just like you,

I’ve always wanted to live in a neighbourhood with you.

Won’t you be my neighbour?

All of them are an invitation; an invitation into God’s work and ministry and an invitation into a new type of community. Mr. Rogers neighbourhood was a place of wonder, justice and delight. May yours be as well.

Click HERE for the resource ‘Exegeting Your Neighbourhood’

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