I was talking with a retired couple from Denver. They have lived in the same home in the same neighborhood for thirty years. Back in the day, several families moved in around the same time and raised their kids together. They said “neighboring” was easy then.
Those neighbors have all moved on. The kids grew up and started lives of their own. Now, the parents have moved on, as well. Some retired. Some downsized. Some moved to be closer to their kids who are having kids. No mater the cause, the result is the same. My friends find themselves on the same block but nothing is the same at all. They are the only ones left. The neighborhood has completely turned over. New young families move in almost monthly. They know almost no one.
Their question: what should we do?
Sound familiar? Many people in the congregations we work with have similar stories. “Back in the day, neighboring was easy.” Kids played. Parents talked. “We really lived the way you are describing. We really loved each other.” Life and love and laughter and conversation flowed. It seemed so natural.
It can be again.
Many mourn the loss of community in their neighborhoods. “It didn’t used to be this way.” But, frankly, it didn’t used to be this way because we used to do things differently. We didn’t think about it then, we didn’t plan it out, but it was happening: we were with our neighbors so we got to know our neighbors. And, over time, as we got to know our neighbors, we started to love our neighbors.
The good news? What used to happen naturally can happen again intentionally.
Think about it. Your neighborhood still has several common denominators that are in play from “back in the day.” 1) new young families are moving in and living near each other (you may not be new to the neighborhood, but you are new to your new neighbors); 2) everyone has a need for community (they may not expect to fill that need with neighbors, but everyone still has that need); 3) the children in the neighborhood (you are not the parents, but you can thoroughly empathize with parents who are parenting); 4) Jesus is on the loose in your neighborhood (and He still wants families to have the peace and joy of living in His grace and truth).
The only thing missing? Someone being intentional about neighboring… like you.
Back in the day, it used to happen naturally. But Susan and I have found over and over again, from coast to coast, from urban settings to rural, that if someone becomes intentional about neighboring, neighborhoods come alive and neighbors start to love each other again. And the “Neighborhood Grandparents” can lead the way.
Are you the only “old” people left in the neighborhood? Perfect! You can become every family’s surrogate grandpa or grandma!
And that brings us back to my friends’ question, “What should we do.”
Be intentional about “neighboring.”
Bake some cookies and head out to start welcoming new families to the neighborhood. (Everyone loves fresh baked goodies. Even if families can’t accept them for dietary reasons, they will love that you offered.)
Start a closed Facebook page for the neighborhood and invite new neighbors to join it. This helps everyone stay in touch and can increase safety in the neighborhood.
Halloween is a great time to start connecting with neighbors. Instead of hiding behind closed doors with the lights off, be out on the front lawn with the best candy on the block. (Don’t go cheap! Now is not the time to be stingy.) Some have asked about putting “Jesus-stickers” on bags or handing out pamphlets. I would advise against this. The information you want to share is awesome, but the context for the sharing is not. Work on building friendship over time so you eventually have a natural context for sharing values and beliefs back and forth. If you really believe now is the time for Jesus-stickers, etc., then be sure to give the absolute BEST candy.
The Thanksgiving season offers a unique opportunity to interact with new neighbors and their kids. Right after Halloween, go door to door, re-introduce yourself and say something like, “Thanksgiving is such a wonderful time to show our thanks and share with others. Wouldn’t it be cool to find someone in our own neighborhood who could use a little help or a little hope? Do you know of anyone we can love-on and bless over the upcoming holiday season?” Maybe it’s a single parent, or a widow(er), or someone who is battling an illness… you get the idea. Invite neighbors to help figure it out. Then work together to organize how everyone can be a part of whatever is decided.
Advent, believe it or not, is a prime time for getting to know young families better. Invite families over to make Advent Wreaths together. (We have found this to be very popular with young families longing to find more substance for their Christmas celebrations.) Invite families into your home for this. Ask parents ahead of time if there are any dietary restrictions. (Hot chocolate and cookies are favorites if they are permissible.) Provide foam rings from the craft store, four thinner candles, one thicker candle that can stand on its own, and some artificial greenery. Let them decorate their own wreath. You can share with them where Christmas came from, “Christians believe that God loves each of us so much that He sent His Son Jesus into our world to save us from our sin. They believe Jesus was born on Christmas. That’s why we have all the Christmas fun! To celebrate His birth! The Advent Wreath helps people remember this and count down the days to Jesus’ birthday!”
In connection with the Advent Wreath, or as a Christmas gift later, you can give each family the gift of a children’s Christmas book. We have found Arch Books from Concordia Publishing House to be really, really good for this. Right now Arch Books are on sale for only $1.99 each. Here’s a link https://www.cph.org/c-246-arch-books.aspx?REName=Books%20%26%20Bibles&plk=240.
What not to do:
Don’t be weird and clingy. Don’t be presumptuous and don’t make this about you. Instead, be friendly. Be yourself. Be helpful. Be welcoming. Read the signals they are sending you.
Don’t have an agenda. And don’t make this simply about “getting them to church.” If you are offering friendship as bait for church membership, they will see right through your deception. And be disappointed. What they need, especially in the beginning, is not your congregation but you. In other words, before you invite them to church, BE the church. Be the person they are glad to see. Be the person with a smile and a word of encouragement. Be the person who always seems to have a little love, joy and peace to spare. Be the person they want to invite to their kid’s birthday party. Simply love them and see what Jesus does from there.