The Neighboring Church:
Getting Better at What Jesus Says Matters Most
Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis
Nothing is more difficult for leaders in late-stage bureaucratic institutions than trying to navigate through a morass of well-intentioned policies and procedures in order to do the simple things needed to accomplish the institution’s mission. Gordon MacKenzie called this leadership challenge Orbiting the Giant Hairball in his 1996 book of the same name [Viking: 1996]. “Orbiting,” MacKenzie said, “is responsible creativity: vigorously exploring and operating beyond the Hairball of the corporate mind set, beyond ‘accepted models, patterns, or standards’ — all the while remaining connected to the spirit of the corporate mission.” (33)
Rick Rusaw & Brian Mavis might seem to be ideally suited to escape the gravity of sclerotic structure as pastors at LifeBridge Christian Church, an independent congregation in Longmont, Colorado that has been re-inventing itself for over a hundred years. But even they have recognized the challenge for the church of resisting the temptation to stay in the safe places and programs that it has known. In 1995, the church moved from an attractional model to a focus on ministry to its mission field, a move that was chronicled in a book Rusow co-authored titled The Externally Focused Church [Group Publishing, 2004]. Staying close to mission and keeping it simple turns out to be a hard thing to do for a church, even a nimble one like LifeBridge.
In their most recent book, The Neighboring Church: Getting Better at What Jesus Said Matters Most, Rusaw & Mavis share learnings from their church’s latest evolution. As the book’s title suggests, the new emphasis looks back to the Great Commandment and particularly Christ’s entreaty to love our neighbors. “Pragmatically, we don’t think the church, as it is institutionally expressed, matches the future,” the authors say. “It seems that loving our neighbors is the best option to what the church should look like in a decade” (11).
The book is a convicting exploration of how churches have subverted this mission through their focus on getting people into church programs rather than into relational ministry in the community. In the process they have decreased the “margins” in members’ lives by keeping them busy on site rather than active at home. Why is this so? “The reason scattering is so hard for church leaders to embrace is because it doesn’t pay.” (13) Pastoral leaders are not generally rewarded for sending people away to be neighbors in ways that may never be seen or measured.
“But who is my neighbor?” the legal expert asked Jesus, prompting the story of The Good Samaritan. We may ask the same. Or perhaps we leap quickly to the conclusion that everyone is my neighbor and so some of them will be easy to serve. “We want to define neighbor in a way that fits into something we are already doing,” Rusaw & Mavis say, but by “making everyone our neighbor, nobody is our neighbor.” (75)
So the staff at LifeBridge made the decision to begin at their own homes. “We as staff asked one another about the eight neighbors living around us:
How many names do you know?
Do you know something about each of them?
Can you tell some hurt or hope or dream they have?” (14)
Faced with the stark realization that they were not the neighbors they wanted to be in their own neighborhood, the leaders reoriented their mission around getting people to know who’s next door.
The authors are well aware that the 21st century American environment doesn’t lend itself to old models of church. Between the “nones” and the “dones,” there are many who find the church strange or even hostile and who have no desire to hear a story told at them. Any outreach must value relational connection over evangelistic efficiency.
Rusaw & Mavis quote sociologist Josh Packard saying, “The people we talked to in our surveys of the dones never pushed back about the fact that church people know things about God. What they dispute is this idea or attitude that ‘I know something about God that you should know, and you need to know because you need it. Your life is a mess, so you have to figure this out too.’ The nones and dones would respond to that with, ‘You don’t know anything about my life, so how could you possibly know any of the ways that God is going to act in my life.” (127)
So the goal of our neighboring should not be anything beyond loving those we are near. “We love our neighbors because we are Christians, not because we’re trying to make them Christians…Those motives turn people to be loved into projects to be directed…People will know when they are a project. Here’s how to keep your motives in check: would you be willing to love your neighbor if you knew they wouldn’t ever give their life to God?”(48)
Church leaders used to programming with lots of moving parts and big price tags may feel the message here is too simplistic to work. After all, Rusaw & Mavis don’t include much of a spiritual formation plan beyond getting people to love their neighbors. “Neighboring,” they say, “is quite possibly the best spiritual formation process the church can initiate.” (77) They also aren’t spending much money. “Neighboring should be cheap,” they say (132). Though they still maintain a major campus for weekend worship, neighboring doesn’t even require special buildings, to which nones and dones likely wouldn’t come anyway. “We want to continually do less and less on campus and more and more in our neighborhoods and homes,” pastor Tyler Jagen says (65). They’ve even eliminated most of the hierarchy that unintentionally placed church leaders between members and their neighbors.
I’ll admit that there are some pieces of the program that feel a little too precious, like the neighborly activities that can be quantified as “Plus Ones.” Random acts of kindness shouldn’t be subjected to enumeration. But using impact on the community as a measure of effectiveness does seem more like a Jesus thing to do.
This is a provocative book that takes the notion of aligning ministry to mission one step further toward simplicity. In so doing, it may help pastors, even in mainline denominations, to orbit their own hairballs.
Alex Joyner is an author and United Methodist pastor on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. He is the author, most recently, of A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel & Palestine [Englewood Review, 2014]. Find him online at AlexJoyner.com.