by Brian Mavis, co-author of The Neighboring Church, by Rick Rusaw & Brian Mavis
When I felt called to ministry as a twenty-year-old, what I was signing up for was following Jesus, loving people, and leading others to follow Jesus and love people. Over the past couple of decades, it seems my major role as a pastor has been program management. I haven’t been a minister; I’ve been an administrator. I know that’s one of the equipping gifts, but the way we do it in twenty-first-century America is not what I signed up for. I have no passion for it, and I’m not good at it. But focusing on the Great Commandment is changing things, and it started for me some time back.
Fifteen years ago I moved our family to San Diego County to help create and manage a website called SermonCentral.com. I had been on staff at a large church the prior seven years. Now we were looking to be part of a church, not as paid staff, but as regular folk. After trying to plug into a half dozen different churches over the next year, it became clear that we did not like what we were experiencing. In fact, we far preferred the Sundays when we didn’t attend a church service. To be honest, I came to resent the church as it was commonly expressed. It got to the point that after we attended an event, I turned to my wife and said, “I don’t want to come back for at least a month—or ever.”
A few years earlier I had read former US Senate chaplain Richard Halverson’s assessment of church history and America’s place in it, and it gnawed at me: “The church began as a fellowship of men and women centered on Jesus Christ. It went to Greece and became a philosophy. It went to Rome and became an institution. It went to Europe and became a culture. It came to America and became an enterprise.”¹ I was deeply bothered by the Americanization of the church. My wife and I concluded our faith was better off without the church than with it. The term had not yet been coined, but we had become dones. We were done with church but not with our faith.
After a year of being done with church, my wife asked, “How are we any different than our neighbors now that we don’t go to church?” Outwardly, we all looked the same. Sure, we returned their trash containers when they were out of town, but they did the same for us. We gave them cookies at Christmas, but they made even better cookies for us. We picked up our dog’s poop when he went in their yards, but they did the same when their dogs pooped in our yard (except for one mysterious neighbor). How were we any different?
After I got over being annoyed with my wife’s question, we decided to focus on being the best neighbors we could be. A couple of years later, God helped me get over some of my issues with the church (not that they weren’t legitimate). I had gotten to a place where I believed that not being part of a local church wasn’t a solution to the problem. So we started attending a new church a few blocks from where we lived. We chose it because it was the nearest church, but it was also the cool church—and the fastest-growing church in town. After attending for a few months, we asked some of our neighbors if they would ever want to attend the church with us. We explained it had contemporary music, relevant messages, and was geared toward people who didn’t normally feel comfortable with church. Our neighbors said: “Thanks but no thanks. We don’t care how current the music is or how applicable the message is; we don’t want to be a part of an institutional church. But we do want to know more about God, and we’d be happy to meet with you to learn more.” A few weeks later some neighbors started coming to our home on Sunday mornings to learn about God. It was incredible to see the simple power of loving our neighbors; it had more power than the best professionally produced Sunday show in town.
It just so happened, though, we had listed our house to sell because we were moving back to Colorado. (I still wonder what would have happened if we had stayed.) When we moved to Colorado, I tried to make a living by my wits. After a year, I learned I needed either more wits or a job. A job was easier, so I joined the staff at LifeBridge because of their emphasis on being an externally focused church, and I became pastor of community transformation. We created programs that made a real difference. It was a pretty good fit, but I somehow started losing the lessons of loving my neighbors.
It’s not just that I’m coming closer to what God called me to do when I said yes to vocational ministry; it’s that I’m coming closer to the way God wants me to do it. Recently a friend and coworker asked me what I was excited about. I said, “Honestly, I’m excited about learning to live a better expression of my faith. I hope loving my neighbors is good for them; I know it’s good for me.”
Jesus said we need new wineskins, not no wineskins (Mark 2:22). What does this new wineskin look like? We would simply call this neighboring.
Neighboring is about teaching, encouraging, equipping, and releasing people to love their neighbors: the guy, gal, or family next door or across the street. We believe neighboring is a value to be taught and caught rather than a new program to start. Programs have a start date and an end. But there is no time frame for this directive from Jesus.
Lest we think this is easy or unstructured, consider the wineskin again. The new wineskin is a vessel providing structure. Structure can lead to results. Structure is not a creator, but it can be an accelerant. I like how our teaching pastor, Ramin Razavi, articulated this recently: “It is a false dichotomy to see organizational leadership and relational leadership as two opposing ways to build the church. We believe that by creating thoughtful and enabling structures, we will foster environments where natural relationships grow and flourish.”
I am compelled to be part of this movement because it is life giving. It’s the most creative way I know to follow Jesus (and he commanded us to do it; that’s sort of motivational too).
Neighboring is . . .
• more about engagement than organization (but engagement will help us get organized).
• comprehensive. Everyone has a neighbor—the rich, poor, old, and young.
• a humanizing movement.
• a big deal to God. He loves your neighbors.
• a privilege.
• knowing your neighbors’ names, hopes, hurts, and histories.
• an application of the power of the gospel.
• discipleship because it grows your heart and sometimes your neighbor’s heart.
• essential and elementary.
• being flexible, available, and present.
• as important as internal and external ministries.
• about choosing to see.
• allowing God to interrupt your day.
• being yourself and being a better you.
• seeing people as God sees them.
• about going home and being the Christian you profess to be.
• a way of life, not a program.
• the way to life. Jesus said, “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28).
We are not the first people to talk about this, nor will we be the last. At least we hope we won’t be the last. Our reason for writing about neighboring is to spark the ongoing conversation of living out the Great Commandment.
1. Quoted in Marshall Shelley, “Heart & Soul,” Leadership Journal, September 18, 1996, (accessed July 17, 2015).
The Neighboring Church is available now – click the image below to order your copy today.
Brian Mavis is the President of America’s Kids Belong and former Pastor of Community Transformation at LifeBridge Christian Church. Brian was the first General Manager of SermonCentral.com from 2000-2005. He has written curriculum for campaigns including Bono’s One Sabbath Campaign; Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ; World Vision’s Faith in Action and The Hole in Our Gospel. Brian and his wife, Julie, have two daughters and reside in Windsor, CO.