‘Who’s Your Neighbor?’

Four heart-transforming challenges from the familiar parable for multiplying churches in urban centers

Troy Evans

You’ve probably taught or heard a sermon or two on The Good Samaritan. Recently while preparing a message on the familiar parable, I began to see this story with fresh eyes.
As humans, we have extremely complex brains, which sometimes work against us. By habit, our brain gathers pieces of information and once it recognizes familiar bits and pieces, attempts to complete the puzzle we already know. The problem with that is sometimes we can subconsciously shut down any possibility of God revealing something new to us because we tend just jump to the end of the story.

Let me share what I’ve learned. In Luke 10, a teacher of the law comes to Jesus asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus asks, “What is written in the law?” If we don’t pay careful attention, this is the place where we allow our minds to fill in the blanks and skip to the end of the story. But the primary message of this story is embedded in the man’s clarifying question to Jesus: “Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29). Our tendency is to use the story of the Good Samaritan as a catalyst for creating a new program or outreach project in our communities or around the globe. However, Jesus wasn’t looking for more programs or projects.

Consider this. The expert in the law would have lived in a community where the majority of his neighbors looked, acted and believed like him. Jesus’ parable would have strategically challenged him to think outside the box about who his neighbor is. To be sure, he would have been challenged to examine his own heart and forced to tweak his neighborhood theology. When we respond to this text with a program without examining the heart, we miss Jesus’ point entirely. For Jesus, the heart of the matter was a matter of the heart.

Time and time again in my ministry in inner-city Grand Rapids, Michigan, and as the urban church-planting catalyst for the Wesleyan denomination, I’m challenged by the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Let me share with you a few statistics about one neighborhood I know all too well:

  • 50 percent of the children  don’t complete high school
  • 40 percent of the children cannot read at grade level by sixth grade
  • six out of 10 households have no fathers
  • 75 percent of the community lives below the poverty line
  • 1 million people in their region do not confess Christ as Lord

In case you hadn’t guessed it, this is my neighborhood. Under normal processes and practices, this community would be ripe for deploying God’s resources to begin a transforming work. Unfortunately, many have already painted a picture of why it is what it is, what should be done, and who should do it. And, typically, it’s always someone else! We often look across the globe to find places where communities are hurting and go there to meet the needs of the local community. Meanwhile,  many of our U.S. churches have hurting communities with mind-blowing statistics within a 30 minute-drive of their locations.

Truth is that the United States has become one of the fastest-growing mission fields in the world. Moreover, our urban centers have become the place where we find high populations of people groups who do not confess Jesus as Lord. As we think about the implications of our neighbors in our own backyard, I’d like to challenge the church at large to think differently in four areas:

It takes a village: Much is to be learned from the African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” The need is too great to think that one source or organization can handle the audacious missional task on their own. I suggest that it will take all kinds of local churches, denominations and church-planting movements to impact our urban communities.

Join in the work God is already doing: I’m not sure where we’ve gotten the absurd idea that we can bring God to communities. God is already there—He’s just waiting for His workers to show up and join the fight with those that are already on ground. Often, there are many God-honoring ministries already well established in urban communities. Leaders looking to make an impact may consider partnering and empowering the indigenous leaders to stay in the mission and multiply their work.

Empower youth and young adults: Without a doubt, lasting community development will take 10 to 20 years to become rooted. With this said, we must re-engage our youth and young adults in ministry. Many denominations are dying simply because youth and young adults are not engaged in meaningful leadership. We must be intentional about increasing our leadership pipeline.

Rethink resourcing the mission: Typically, church-planting organizations will provide support for a new work for two to three years. In light of the 10- to 20-year timeline for community transformation, we must be thinking of creative funding for five to eight years. I’m not talking about providing a sugar daddy system. I am talking about family members doing what family members should do for one another. We must fundamentally change our philosophy of stewardship. As leaders, we’re not guardians of the finances. In fact, we’re agents of change who are responsible for the deployment of God’s resources. The local urban church must consider multiple revenue streams that include internal giving, external individuals, grants, regional churches, denominational support and business/products.

As we think about multiplication and planting the gospel in all contexts, let’s think thoughtfully about not just Band-Aid solutions but true heart transformation. May we prayerfully ask, “Who is my neighbor?” and what is true Good News for them.

Troy Evans (known as PE) and his wife LaDawn have planted three urban churches, including The EDGE “Hip-Hop Church.” A former gang member, PE surrendered his life to Jesus after being indicted in a grand jury investigation. He has become the go-to person and national speaker in the areas of church planting, urban ministry, youth engagement and urban business development. PE also serves as the urban church planting catalyst for the Wesleyan denomination. His book, The EDGE of Redemption, is being used by universities and ministries to equip and challenge individuals to reach the “hard to reach” in the urban context. He is one of 175 speakers at Exponential East and will be leading workshop sessions focusing on best practices for urban church planting and ministry.