“How is your faith working for everyone around you?”
I had just finished a teaching on evangelism at Southeastern University when I posed this question to a group of students gathered around a simple metal table at Portico Coffeehouse. We explored Mark 12:28-34 and the concept of neighborliness earlier in the evening. In this passage, Jesus declares that the thing we should focus on in our life of faith is our holistic love for God—all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength—which then flows instinctively into our love for our neighbors.
Bryan spoke up first. “I think I do ok loving my neighbors from my neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri,” he said. “But I have a hard time figuring out how to connect with people from the parts of town that include high-poverty communities and people from different racial backgrounds as me.”
Bryan grew up going downtown to see events and hang with friends in the city. His route would take him east from his upper-middle-class community in West St. Louis. “I always noticed that the homes to the left looked smaller and weathered as opposed to the homes to the right when we would stop at the intersection of Delmar and North Taylor.” He paused for a moment, watching the sun set over Lake Bonny across the street from the campus. “I never really gave it much more thought, though.”
The intersection of Delmar Boulevard and North Taylor Avenue in St. Louis may as well be the intersection of Downtown, Anywhere. Decisions made by financial institutions and city planners lead to the creation of visceral and visible dividing lines in communities across the world. Take a left on North Taylor Avenue, and a home can be purchased for less than $20,000. Turn right on the same road, and homes are currently selling for over $700,000. Neighbors are divided by a four-lane road called Delmar Boulevard and a world of opportunity.
Bryan’s gaze turned toward the empty ceramic mug he was fiddling with in his hands. “Honestly,” he said, “I’ve never really thought about what my faith means for my neighbors north of Delmar.”
Jesus made a habit of defining and emphasizing love for neighbors. Immediately after telling a group of curious listeners in Luke 10 that the greatest commandment was to love God and neighbors, he shared with them the story of the Good Samaritan. The protagonist of this story crosses dividing lines of race, religion, politics, and convenience to help a man in need.
In Matthew 25, Jesus highlights the importance of showing love to the hungry, thirsty, foreigner, naked, sick, and prisoners in our communities. The passion he displayed for the overlooked and marginalized is found when he said, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus modeled this neighborly love by spending time with people who the world shunned—tax collectors, sex workers, people with leprosy, etc. Jesus crossed cultural dividing lines and invited others, and invites us, to do the same.
The gospel of Jesus is a physical gospel that engages across dividing lines of race and economics and shows love to anyone who fills our community. Neighborliness is the behavior of Christians who embody the love, kindness, care, and curiosity of Jesus. They inhabit the world with love for others that is motivated and empowered by their faith. Love is expressed by their willingness to enter into the experiences of others and patiently learn and grow.
Bryan was learning that relational evangelism was one of the most effective forms of sharing his faith. However, he was experiencing tension about his ability to share his faith across dividing lines. These feelings are present in churches, small groups, college campuses, and in groups of friends who gather across the world.
The message of Jesus is the most meaningful part of Bryan’s life, yet his eyes were opening to the fact that he struggled to move past surface-level conversations with friends depending on their cultural backgrounds. He knew that if he wanted to connect relationally with people from different backgrounds, he needed to allow his perspectives to be challenged and his understanding of cultural issues to deepen.
Bryan began asking a fellow student, Damon, about his experiences growing up on the east side of Winston Salem, North Carolina. Damon responded by saying, “I’m too tired today to be your teacher. I know you’re genuinely curious, but if you want to talk about my lived experiences, find a good book on the history of race and economics in our country.”
“I don’t mean to offend you.” Bryan was picking up on the tension level that was now present at the table. “I just want to be able to connect with people from different backgrounds and I don’t know where to start.”
“It’s all good,” Damon replied. “I just don’t want to be your educator; I want to be your friend. If you dig into the book, I’ll dig into this conversation with you.”
Damon gave Bryan a gift. He expressed his desire to continue to deepen their friendship, but he created a boundary that clearly stated that if Bryan wanted to access his story, he was going to have to learn and grow privately. Damon was willing to open up if he knew Bryan was committed to learning and growing.
Bryan was beginning to understand that he needed to enter into a season of independently learning about cultural issues to connect on a real level with people from different backgrounds. Loving Damon at that moment meant not pushing him to share his experiences with him before he was ready.
Relational evangelism includes starting friendships built on trust, mutual understanding, and love with people across dividing lines. Crossing what often feels like chasms of division becomes a lot easier when we seek resources that offer a bridge to better understand our neighbors’ experiences and remind us of our shared humanity.
Dr. David Docusen is the founder and director of The Neighborliness Center. He has spent twenty years investing into the kingdom of God as an author, speaker, pastor, church planter, and professor. His new book, Neighborliness: Love Like Jesus. Cross Dividing Lines. Transform Your Community (Thomas Nelson Publishing) is available at all major retailers. Free resources for churches, groups, and organizations are available at www.neighborliness.com.