In order to love your neighbors, of course you’ve got to get to know them first. But let’s be honest. This process can be a bit awkward; especially if you live in a neighborhood where the general practice is that people keep to themselves and like their peace and quiet.
You can’t force people into spaces
Since developing relationships always consists of “feeling out” periods where parties decide what type of space they are going to move each other into in their lives, it can be challenging to discern how to do this without imposing to the point where neighbors feel uncomfortable. I think it’s hard as an American because we typically don’t have the patience to let things develop naturally. We’ve been programmed to reach for the goal instead of enjoy the process, which many times leads us to forcing things unnaturally.
But, the true goal IS the process. Loving your neighbor is the process of connecting with them in ways that Jesus is expressed. Therefore, our job is simply to create an environment in which we can express Jesus and allow those experiences to take the relationships wherever they might go.
Initiation can be awkward
But as I said, getting this ball rolling can definitely feel a bit awkward depending on the type and frequency of spontaneous interactions that occur where you live. If people are active, friendly and outside a lot, these spontaneous interactions can make it easier to start a relationship by using very “surface” topics as springboards. You know – the weather, how their lawn or garden looks, what they think about recent community events and other observations you can make about their lives from a distance.
But if you’re hoping to build community and the neighborhood or particular neighbors aren’t as active and visible, how do you carry out the call to love your neighbor right next door? Again, this can feel a bit awkward because you have to find ways to initiate that involve taking risks. You take the risk of being rejected and you carry the fear that comes along with it. Not only that, your neighbors are also carrying fear of the unknown with them. This fear changes not only our image of others, but also what we assume they think about us.
Your mind is dealing with judgment
This reminds me of the classic movie Home Alone. Kevin had a neighbor named “Old Man Marley” who had become known as “the South Bend Shovel Slayer.” He was said to have murdered his family back in 1958 by Kevin’s older brother Buzz. He was also said to have kept his victims in his garbage can full of salt, and that the salt was supposed to have turned the dead bodies into mummies. When Kevin meets Marley outside his house, he turns and runs back inside his house, afraid.
But later when Kevin goes to church, he meets up with Marley again and learns that he’s actually a nice guy and that he didn’t murder his family like Buzz claimed.
Just remember that your mind is a very mold-able thing influenced by others forces that can concoct thoughts that may or may not hold any weight. If you’re going to love your neighbor, you simply can’t exercise judgment about them and the condition and motives of their hearts without first-hand experience. It will ultimately thwart any chance of kingdom community developing.
Weigh the risk vs. reward
What will help carry you through the challenge of initiating with those around you is weighing the risk against the consequences of doing nothing at all. In my experience, most people are going to be appreciative, maybe a bit skeptical, and possibly a little embarrassed that they hadn’t made the effort to reach out to you first. Yes, you’ll probably run into neighbors that won’t be trusting of you (you can thank the media for that!). You’ll also run into neighbors that feel some comfort in their isolation because they are used to it.
These types of situations will be a bit tougher, but just give it time and wait for opportunities that make sense (holidays, extreme weather. excess food and other natural occurrences provide great “excuses” to interact). It will take some people a bit longer to warm up to you, but don’t give up. Remember, there’s a whole host of issues and perspectives that people carry with them. But sooner than you probably think, you’ll find yourself watching football games, playing cards and doing other personal things with them.
Use your results as a barometer
If you don’t have the motivation to love your neighbors, or you feel like bailing on them as soon as the first signs of tension and awkwardness arrive, this is one of those barometers for where you are in your maturity in Christ. Authentic community is messy because people are a mess. It’s part of living in the here-and-now Kingdom, if that’s the type of thing you’re into :).