“Jesus didn’t tell us to become acquaintances with our neighbors; he called us to love them, and that means we need to have an actual relationship with them.” These words, from The Art of Neighboring, by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon capture well what was for me the most significant take-away from the Fresh Expressions MSM intensive.
On May 12th-16th our entire staff of full time Baptist Collegiate Ministers and other ministers serving with young adults from throughout Virginia gathered together for a weeklong intensive Fresh Expressions training. The goal for our Kairos Collegiate/Young Adult Ministers was to better understand the principles and practices of birthing fresh expressions of church in their campus and community contexts. The MSM experience met and far exceeded my expectations. What I hoped would be a week of practical and applicable ministry resourcing turned out to be a time of inspiration, exploration and motivation for holistic, incarnational forms of ministry.
The heart of the Fresh Expressions movement is the conviction that the church is called in all places and at all times to be good neighbors. Good neighboring begins with knowing and listening to your neighbors. So much of the daily work of our ministries comes through acts of service, worship and teaching in the context of a faith community. The Fresh Expressions intensive helped our ministers understand that to serve our communities in ways that are contextually responsive—we have to begin by listening to our neighbors. In order to listen to our neighbors, we might need to meet a few of them.
As I began to ask “who is my neighbor” in the context of campus ministry at Virginia Commonwealth University, the greater Richmond area and our network of Virginia Baptist Churches, I soon realized I don’t even know who my neighbor is in my own neighborhood, on my own street. I wondered – how can I neighbor well anywhere else if I am not even able to neighbor well on Persimmon Trek?
As groups were formed during the MSM intensive to discuss our action plans for our own ministry contexts, it was very clear what I needed to do: My family needed to throw a block party.
I shared my neighborly revelation with the group. By speaking it out loud, I was then accountable to the idea and would have to follow through. The timing was perfect. It was two weeks before Memorial Day, which gave me both a good reason to throw a party and a firm deadline to work towards. When I returned home I printed simple invitations and invited everyone within a 4 house radius on our street. We picked up some patriotic décor, grilled a few pounds of chicken and hotdogs, mixed some pasta salad and viola – it was party time.
Without going into details, I can say that my family has lived in this home for three years, and our Memorial Day cookout was the most meaningful time we have spent with our neighbors since we moved in. It was a wonderful evening. One of our neighbors has already volunteered to host the next gathering. Most of my neighbors do not attend church on a regular basis or at all, but they know that I am a minister. Fresh Expressions has helped me to understand that loving my neighbor isn’t about me moving them to where I think God wants them to be; It’s about me loving them where they are and letting the Spirit of God do the moving. When I trust the Spirit’s work in that, I am relieved of the anxiety and preoccupation with “sharing my faith.” Offering a hospitable home, generously sharing a meal, through a messy, real and loving family with friendly authentic conversation are all opportunities for me to “share my faith” by loving my neighbor.
Each of our ministers who attended the Fresh Expressions MSM intensive came away with many helpful tools, questions, practices and ideas for discovering our neighbor in our ministry context, and prayerfully listening and watching for how God might be moving us to go and meet them. Maybe it’s a block party, maybe it’s a morning jog, maybe it’s conversation about books or records old and new, maybe it’s a collection of green thumbs or a gathering of local business owners. Good neighboring will look different for every ministry context and setting. What we do is up to us in response to the movement of the Spirit and the needs of our neighbors. I am thankful for the work of Fresh Expressions and the many ways they invested so heavily in our team of collegiate and young adult ministers to help each of us explore what Fresh Expressions of church could look like through our local communities of faith.
Welford Orrock coordinates the Kairos Initiative of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. Kairos exists to facilitate a culture of permission-giving in churches and ministries who relate to college students and young adults.