On our street, the most unneighborly residents are those most involved in their churches. This strikes me as being rather odd. The May's* are a good example. They are a solid African American family with much to offer a neighborhood. Jim is a hard worker and natural born leader. Betty is a teacher and is great with kids. Their three children are well behaved, neatly groomed and bright. Their leadership, spiritual values and strength of character are much needed influences for struggling families and youth our urban community. But there is a conflict: the May's are heavily involved in their church. The same talents that are needed in our neighborhood are also needed in their church. And there doesn't seem to be enough time to do both. Jim and Betty never come to a community meeting or work on the playground or support a neighborhood youth activity. About the only time we see them is when they are pulling in and out of their driveway. And the May's are just one example. There are a number of others in our neighborhood too involved in church to be involved in community life.
I'm not saying that these are bad neighbors. They're more like un-neighbors - people who live on our street but contribute nothing to the well-being of our street. With the church as the centre around which their busy lives revolve, they become isolated from their neighborhood. Prayer meetings, choir rehearsal, visitation, Bible studies, committees, retreats and two services on Sunday pretty well consume their non-working hours. But how can you fault them? These are honorable, upright people who take their faith very seriously. They're good Christians, just not good neighbors, that's all.
With our nation's cities rapidly unravelling while church attendance climbs to record highs, I cannot help but wonder if something has gone wrong with the way we are doing church. I am beginning to suspect that a model of church that competes with, rather than promotes, being a good neighbor may be fundamentally flawed. My understanding is that God placed a rather high value on being a good neighbor, elevating it to a level of importance equal to that of loving God. One would have to wonder, then, just how acceptable to Him is the substitution of being a good church member in place of being a good neighbor.
Our urbanizing society is coming apart in large measure because of the disintegration of our communities. To oversimplify, healthy families produce healthy communities and healthy communities produce healthy families - these are the fundamental building blocks of society. Families are as vulnerable without stable communities as communities are without stable families. Without interconnected neighbors functioning as living ligatures to hold neighborhoods together, disintegration occurs. We see the results in living color each night in our living rooms on the evening news. If our contemporary model of church encourages - implicitly or explicitly, by its demands or its theology - the withdrawal from active, redemptive community participation, it may unwittingly be promoting this disintegration.
Is there an unavoidable conflict between our community of faith and our community of residence? Do strong loyalties to church necessitate disengagement from those who live next door? If so, I have a misconception of the role of the Christian in this world. I have understood the historic mission of the Church to be a pro-active force, armed with vulnerable love, infiltrating every strata of society, transforming fallen people and systems through the power of the Spirit. While it is tempting to allow the local church body to become our enclave of like-minded friends that provides a protective haven from the daily bombardment of destructive values, engagement - not withdrawal - has always been the operative word of the Church militant. And love of one's neighbor remains its fundamental tactic.
I wonder what a church would look like that measured its success by the quality of its members' neighborly love. What impact would such a church have on a troubled society if it undertook intentional training in loving God by loving neighbor? How different - how needed - would be the model that commissioned its most gifted to the strategic office of neighbor!
* I changed their names and some of the particulars, of course.