Bruce Zachary of Calvary Nexus, Camarillo, California
A case study of geographic saturation of a community with neighborhood groups [NG]:
How I rediscovered the Great Commandments:
I remember meeting with Lynn Cory of “The Neighborhood Initiative” to discuss a city-wide initiative to reach our community for Christ through “neighboring.” It’s always interesting and perplexing when a noun becomes a verb. And I really had no idea what the idea of “neighboring” really meant. I discovered that it was the simple idea of loving your actual neighbors. We talked at lunch about the likelihood of a city-wide multi-church effort in our community. I like Lynn (he’s essentially impossible not to like) and respect him as a pioneer leader and godly man, but I know that it is challenging to coordinate multiple churches to a single initiative. At the time, I was beginning a two-year term to lead the Camarillo Ministerial Association [CMA] a group of about twenty evangelical churches. Even in our community, where we enjoy a great unity among evangelical churches, it would take time and energy to communicate and implement a multi-church vision for neighboring. At that time, our local church was about to engage in a process to seek a long-range vision and I didn’t feel able to commit to a multi-church neighboring initiative.
As we enjoyed our barbeque lunch, Lynn invited me to attend a “Neighborhood Collective” gathering that was being hosted at Valley Vineyard Church, where Lynn served, in Reseda, Ca. a community of Los Angeles about thirty-five miles from my home. I agreed to attend, primarily to support Lynn, and not really feeling any call from God to neighboring. At the “Neighborhood Collective” conference there were speakers from various parts of the country and many attendees who were curious about neighboring. It was a nice event, and I discovered some of the history of the neighboring movement. Yet, I didn’t feel a call to neighboring as an individual nor as a church-wide initiative at our local church during the event. Nevertheless, within hours or days of the Neighborhood Collective I had the epiphany moment.
I came to discover, that I was rebelling against God, and I had been completely ignorant of my condition. That realization of my rebellion cut right to my heart. I’d been a pastor for over twenty-five years and have been successful in that calling as the world measures success. The local church where I served had a reputation for solid Bible teaching, knowing good doctrine, and loving one another and serving others. As I considered my ministry, and some of the characteristics that I associated with being Jesus’ disciples I generally referred to: Bible learning, prayer, serving, sharing your faith, reflection, giving, and loving others. The list isn’t heretical, but here’s the problem – it neglects the Great Commandments.
The Great Commandments (Matt. 22:37-39) require us to love God supremely and to love our neighbor as we love self. Jesus declared that these commandments are the essence of all that God has declared to man. Any reasonable interpretation of the commandment to love my neighbor should include those in geographic proximity (i.e. my actual neighbors). Yet, somehow despite extensive theological training and ministry experience I had missed it. Therefore, I was in unwitting rebellion against God. I realized that not only was I in rebellion against God, but essentially every pastor that I know was in the same condition.
Jesus came to bring forth a revolution to turn our world right-side up. The essence of the revolution is distilled to the revolutionary idea: love God supremely and love your neighbor as you love yourself. I presume therefore that if we were to actually do what He required us to do in the Great Commandments that we would advance the gospel, His kingdom, and the revolution. Unfortunately, in our effort to advance and support the revolution, we have created a plethora of ministry infrastructure at the local church. For example, the Tuesday night men’s group, Wednesday night mid-week study, Thursday ladies study, Saturday event (e.g. breakfast, service project, conference, youth fundraiser, etc.), and Sunday worship gatherings. This is a relatively typical model of local church life. Add to that schedule the activities the children are involved in such as music lessons, sports, or clubs and you can easily see why a Christian caught up in this dynamic has no margin to love their actual neighbors. The ministry at the local church that was intended to support Christ’s revolution actually obscured the simple essence of the revolution.
Somehow, I was unaware of my rebellion. Our local church was impacting so many lives for Christ and influencing our community for the gospel so I presumed we were doing good. We loved one another and loved others too. But, I was so busy doing ministry and supporting ministries at our local church that I didn’t even know my neighbors let alone love them. I could rationalize, justify, and deny my rebellion against God’s commandments or admit my rebellion and repent. That’s how I rediscovered the Great Commandments, and how I began a journey to live them.
How we sought to approach living the Great Commandments: The vision to saturate our community with gospel-centered neighborhood groups [NG].
At that time, our local church had just celebrated our twentieth anniversary. We had a strong foundation of making disciples and developing leaders. I was the founding and lead pastor, there had been considerable success, and there was a high degree of trust between the church and leadership. Our core pastor team was collectively seeking to discern God’s direction for Calvary Nexus for the next ten years. We started to sense that we were called to saturate our community with gospel-centered small groups where people would become disciples and leaders would be developed. Since our church was approximately one and a half to two percent [1.5%-2%] of the entire City of Camarillo (a suburb in Southern California between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara) it appeared to be a God-sized vision and yet feasible as a ten-year vision.
I began to share with our core pastor team the idea of neighboring, and suggested the possibility of incorporating the neighboring concept into our vision. Our five core pastors each had ten to twenty or more years of pastoral ministry experience, but none of them was familiar with the concept of neighboring. Yet, all of us were interested in the idea. Our next step was to purchase every book that we could find on the subject (please see the Appendix: Recommended Readings for a list of suggested books). Each of us read multiple books and prepared summaries that we shared with one another. After a few months of prayer, research, and discussion we collectively felt called to neighboring.
We sensed Calvary Nexus’ ten-year vision is to saturate our community with gospel-centered Neighborhood Groups [NG]. A neighborhood group is a place where we learn to love God and neighbors better.
Our Neighborhood Groups are the primary place where we learn to be Christ’s disciples. The goal is to make Jesus king in every realm of our lives: personal, marriage, family, community, career, and calling. Bible learning will develop Christ-like character. People are encouraged to befriend and build relationships with their neighbors where they live, work, study, and play. We discover how to share Christ’s love in tangible ways.
Approximately four to five months prior to launching the vision, we began to prepare a vision brochure to help the church to begin to understand the Neighborhood Groups and neighboring concepts [http://calvarynexus.org/neighborhood-groups-vision]. We began to develop a list of the frequently asked questions that we anticipated (and later received) [http://calvarynexus.org/neighborhood-groups-faq]. And we began to prepare training resources for NG leaders and participants [http://calvarynexus.org/neighborhood-group-resources].
We created a Neighborhood Group Study Guide template based on the Sunday Bible study (sermon) as a tool for groups. The study guide is distributed each Friday via email to a distribution list of about 2,000 people and is also available to download on the NG Resources tab. We want all our groups to adopt the Scripture (Sermon) based study guide especially the sections regarding loving neighbors outside and inside their group.
Love your neighbor outside the group better:
1. Who would like to share how they sought to befriend or build relationship with their neighbors where they live, work, study, or play this past week?
2. Are there some needs that can provide us an opportunity to love our neighbor outside the group?
3. Here is a neighboring idea(s) for us to consider for the week(s) ahead:
As the weather is getting warmer your neighbors are likely to spend more time outdoors. Plan to spend more time outdoors in your neighborhood too. Consider walks in the neighborhood, playing at a local park, or simply spending time in front of your residence.
Love your neighbor inside the group better:
1. Are there some needs in our group that can provide us an opportunity to love our neighbor within the group?
2. What might we do about that need to help?
By including the questions related to loving neighbors during each group gathering it reinforces, encourages and creates accountability to develop the core value of loving neighbors.
At that time, we also began to explore how we could begin to simplify church life (ministry, programs, etc.), and life generally, to create margin to invest in relationships with neighbors where we live, work, study and play. We understood that we had to make the transition slowly in our context because we were a twenty-plus year old church with many established ministries. The transitions would likely take a couple of years. Nevertheless, we began to minimize the number of events on the church calendar starting in the second year of the vision. And approximately three months prior to launch, we discontinued our mid-week study and encouraged all of the attendees to participate in beta groups to test the NG study guides.
In starting test groups, we considered the concepts of geographic proximity and affinity. Traditionally, most small group ministry is based on affinity (common life interests or development). These might include: singles, young married with no children, young married with toddlers, married empty nesters, senior adults, cycling, musicians, etc. An advantage of this approach is that the commonality of interests or life-stage often make it easier for people to connect with one another. On the other hand, neighboring flourishes in a context of geographic proximity. If people from a local church who live within a few blocks of one another gather together they have a common connection to the neighbors they are building relationships with. For example, my neighbor Phyllis shared with me that she wanted to visit the widow who lives a few blocks away, but wanted someone to go with her. It was only natural for me to offer to go, because Phyllis’ neighbor is my neighbor too.
We adopted a hybrid model of geographic proximity and affinity in an effort to leverage the best of both models. In this hybrid model, the foundation of the group is based on people living in geographic proximity with one another. And then participants are free to invite people to participate based on affinity regardless of geographic proximity. This model is intended to leverage the enhanced ease of connection created by affinity, and the synergy of people living in geographic proximity connecting with common neighbors.
Finally, we communicated the vision to staff and leaders (elders, deacons, ministry leaders, and existing small group leaders) approximately six-months pre-launch. We encouraged each to begin to prepare margin in their lives to allow them to not only participate in a NG, but margin to befriend and build relationships with neighbors where they live, work, study, and play. We believe that for any church-wide initiative to be effective that all key leaders need to be committed (especially lead/senior pastors).
Some of the blessings we experienced when we lived the Great Commandments:
Once I rediscovered the Great Commandments, I began to live the value of loving my neighbors. The first change that I noticed was I began to go out of my way to talk with neighbors in our condominium (condo) parking lot. In the past, if I had seen my neighbors talking in the parking lot I would wave and pull into my garage and close the door. Now I was parking my car and going out of the garage, and go over to my neighbors to talk.
As I became aware of different struggles that my neighbors were experiencing, I would offer to help, or listen, or pray with (or for) them. I soon discovered that I was much more comfortable offering to help than asking for help. One day, I offered to help my neighbor with a handyman project even though I may be the least handy guy around. I was sincere in the offer, but God impressed upon me that I had to humble myself and learn to ask for help. I discovered that Christians can be perceived as proud in generally offering to help, but rarely asking for help. My willingness to ask for help was actually making me a better neighbor. And there was a wonderful sense that I was pleasing Jesus.
On another occasion, I had been on an epic bicycle ride. After the ride, I went to a local noodle house for a bowl of Ramen. The guy sitting next to me was a ramen guru. He knew enough about ramen to write a blog. As we started talking about ramen, I explained that for the last twenty miles of my bike ride I’d been thinking about ramen. I soon discovered that he also rode a bike. So, we started chatting about cycling. Then I asked him about his work, and he politely reciprocated and asked what I did for work. That’s when I got to tell him that I was a pastor, and I served at a church a few blocks from the noodle house.
I grabbed one of my business cards and handed it to him and invited him to be my guest at church. He looked at my card and said, “I’ll probably never go to church, but I’ll give you a call and we can go for a ride sometime.” For the first time, I actually had to wrestle with the idea: would I would be willing to invest hours of my time knowing that it was extremely unlikely that he would receive the gospel just to show the love of God? When I concluded that I would, there was an overwhelming feeling that I was actually being transformed.
There were also experiences that revealed how much I needed to grow. One morning, I was headed out to a meeting when I saw my neighbor in our condo parking lot. I asked, “How are you doing?” And my neighbor began to tell me. And tell me more, and continue to tell me all about it. I realized that I was going to be late and I was becoming impatient (although trying my best not to appear impatient). Then I sensed the Lord whisper, “Loving your neighbor is not going to always be convenient.” And I realized that I needed the Lord to change my heart to be more like His.
When one of our neighbors had become ill, my wife and I reached out to see if there were any needs that we could help with. Later, I sensed God urging me to invite my neighbor to lunch. I must confess that in my past I don’t ever recall inviting a neighbor who I had nothing in common with except geographic proximity to lunch. Yet, in a desire to please Jesus I found myself typing an email, “I’d love to take you to lunch and hear your story.” I paused before hitting send, and recall thinking that the invitation would likely be declined or fall through the cracks, and in part that comforted me. Nevertheless, my invite was accepted and soon thereafter we were at lunch. And I’m able to report that it was a good experience, and I’m confident the Lord was pleased.
I was blessed to discover how rapid the transformation could be when we purpose to live the Great Commandments. Our condo-complex has an annual Christmas Party. For years I neglected to attend, because there was always something going on at church that was a bigger priority, or I simply felt too tired to deal with people at a party. About six months after seeking to love my neighbors, I purposed to attend our neighborhood Christmas party. During the course of the evening, one of our neighbors said, “Bruce you’re a really good neighbor.” Six months earlier, I don’t believe I was a good neighbor. I didn’t play loud music all night, have crazy parties, or leave trash in front of my condo, but I didn’t really care, let alone love my neighbors. By the grace of God, I had been transformed in six months. And I reflected that it had been one of the most satisfying times of my life and ministry. There weren’t any monumental huge projects or initiatives, but there was the uniquely satisfying glory of simply living the Great Commandments.
I was blessed to see the rapid transformation of others in our Neighborhood Group too. Here is one of countless stories. One night we closed our group gathering with a time of prayer for our neighbors. As we concluded, one of our friends had a tear rolling down her cheek, and I asked her what was wrong. She explained, “All of you are praying for neighbors by name and I’ve lived in the same place for years and don’t even know my neighbors.” Within a few weeks, she started to share with our group that she had noticed that her neighbors would retrieve their mail around the same time. So, she started to meet neighbors and build relationships by being purposeful to wait at mail time.
Some of the obstacles we encountered, and some lessons we learned as we sought to overcome those challenges:
The first challenge was, “What is neighboring?” The concept was unfamiliar, and unfortunately people were afraid. There was a perceived fear that people would be expected to “immediately” share the gospel with neighbors, or open their homes to them. We anticipated the fear and addressed it by encouraging people to begin by simply befriending and building relationships with neighbors where they live, work, study, and play. We sought to help people to understand that over a course of time, sharing the gospel or opening their home would be great, but not to worry about it and allow God to direct the process. We found it helpful to create a list of FAQs to help people discover neighboring.
A second obstacle is busyness. There was simply too much going on in people’s lives for them to build relationships with neighbors. Much of the busyness relates to church life, and people are used to and comfortable with that culture. People are resistant to change. We realized that changing culture or values generally takes at least two to three years. We committed to the process, and sought to adopt a BBQ approach – “low and slow.” The pressure to make changes would be low and the process slow (by the way, that approach is generally very uncharacteristic for me). We encouraged people to seek to create margin in their lives that would allow them time to love God and neighbors better. The pressure to join a NG was especially low during the first year of launching the vision. Nevertheless, we want people to consider their next step(s):
1. Belong: Participate in a Neighborhood Group,
2. Become: Grow as a disciple and/or leader prepared to lead a Neighborhood Group,
3. Befriend: Befriend and build relationships, and share Christ’s love where you live, work, study and play.
A third challenge is to keep loving God the priority when you are spending an increased amount of time talking about loving neighbors. We try to be very intentional to remember to communicate that love for neighbors is a natural (supernatural) byproduct of love for God; and that real love for neighbors cannot be produced independently.
A fourth hurdle is to distinguish loving God and neighbors as values rather than another program or project of the church. When we share God’s love with neighbors it is a demonstration of our love for God, and not a program to then share the gospel and make our unsaved neighbor a project. Nevertheless, the gospel is the greatest demonstration of love. So ultimately, we want to share the gospel, as the Sprit leads, and not reduce love to random acts of kindness.
The fifth challenge related to our existing small groups. These were groups that had formed under a different paradigm, and may have been resistant to adopting the Neighborhood Group model and the values of loving God and neighbors better. We approached the issue by sharing the vision with existing group leaders about four months pre-launch. We wanted the existing leaders to have time to process and ask questions. We chose not to mandate adoption. Instead, we looked to develop a coalition of the willing to that would influence the hesitant, and ultimately the resistant. Within six months of launch over eighty percent (80%) of the groups were aligned.
The sixth challenge was to keep neighboring in focus. Along with reducing competing ministry at the church, we use stories to keep us focused. Starting approximately five to six months post-launch, we created space in our weekend gatherings for people to share their stories of neighboring. This includes live and simple videos from leaders and people in the congregation that are shared prior to the Bible teaching (message) most weekends. The stories from people in the congregation can be messy, but are perceived as having greater weight than church leaders’ stories, because they tend to empower the typical congregant.
Conclusion: We are new to neighboring, and our approach is certainly not the only way to engage in a church-wide initiative to live the Great Commandments. We hope that by sharing our experience it will encourage you and those that you influence to discover the satisfaction of advancing God’s kingdom in your community, and the personal fulfillment that uniquely flows from living the Great Commandments.