When a lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” the Lord told him to be a neighbor. And He still does!
Over two decades ago, Robert Putnam’s ground-breaking book “Bowling Alone” warned us of the alarming trend of Americans becoming isolated from one another, and how time-honored social institutions in our communities, such as the PTA, political parties, and even the church, have been devastated. Chuck Colson said this trend was “in part a result of our relentless pursuit of what political scientist Michael Sandel calls ‘the unencumbered self.’” Mind you, this was even before we all retreated to our cell phones and computer screens.
So how are we doing today? The latest statistics say: not so hot. According to the General Social Survey, only about 20 percent of Americans spend time regularly with their neighbors, while a third say they’ve never interacted with them. Just four decades ago, however, one-third of Americans hung out with neighbors at least two times a week. Only a fourth reported having no interaction. The Pew Research Center in 2010, meanwhile, found that while 43 percent of Americans know most or all of their neighbors, nearly a third say they know none of them by name.
For whatever reason, it appears that fewer of us are able to answer the old question, “And who is my neighbor?” How do we Christians overcome this growing cultural tide of isolation and obey our calling to be witnesses to Jesus Christ?
Ed Stetzer, who, among many other things, is co-host with John Stonestreet of “BreakPoint This Week,” provides an amazingly simple way that we can be a neighbor to our neighbors. In an article posted for Christianity Today, Ed tells about how he moved from Nashville to Wheaton, Illinois—often called the “evangelical mecca”—and received a four-page letter from some longtime Wheaton residents who live across the street.
The letter, titled “In Our Humble Opinion,” starts off by saying, “I know you are going to find it to be a wonderful community to live in BUT it can be a little daunting at first. I moved into the brick house across the street from you when I was 12. Now we have lived in the cream house next door to that house for 23 years. I guess we like it here … .”
Then the neighbor starts sharing tips for living in Wheaton—the best places for pizza—three of them, it turns out; the best chocolate, the best popcorn—found in “a covered alley between two stores on Front Street” under a “red and white striped awning”; the best movie theater; the best grocery store; and the best doughnuts, “apple cider sugared,” which are available at the downtown French Market between April and October.
The neighbor then closes the list, tongue in cheek, with the “best church” and tells Ed and his family that they are most welcome. Ed says, as a new Wheaton resident, he consulted this four-page letter regularly and saw the invitation each time. “Their list made us know,” Ed says: “1. They were glad we were here. 2. They took time to welcome us and care (and we just had dinner with them). 3. They invited us to church.”
What a great idea! Now, we don’t each of us have to type a four-page letter to our neighbors in order to establish a friendship and invite them to church. We all have different strengths, different gifts. But the point is, we need to actually be a neighbor, to step away from our natural tendency to isolate ourselves or just hang out with people we know, and maybe extend a hand of help and friendship to those around us.
God designed humans to live in community. All of us, believers and non-believers, desire some kind of fellowship and connection. Maybe the first step is simply learning our neighbors’ names—and using them!
Eric Metaxas is the host of the “Eric Metaxas Show,” a co-host of “BreakPoint” radio and a New York Times #1 best-selling author whose works have been translated into more than twenty languages.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.