“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
What does it mean for the church to obey the “greatest commandment” as we read it in Matthew 22:35-40?
At one level — the level of the individual — it seems almost too obvious to be worth the time it will take to read this reflection. For, what else is a Christian than the one who seeks to occupy the crux of this cruciform commandment, where its two fundamental axes meet: the vertical axis that calls us to love the God who is “above” us and the horizontal axis which calls us to love the one(s) near us — our neighbours?
But if we think about this at another level — the collective level — things become a little bit more complicated. While it is true that most congregations are pretty good at collectively loving God (in worship), it is less obvious if these congregations collectively love their neighbours as well.
A Problem for the Church
This has become a problem for the church – a serious problem at that. In some cases the survival of a congregation will depend upon the development of a new competency; or, more precisely, the reactivation of an older virtue: something we might call collective neighbourliness. There was a time, not too long ago, when the people we lived near were the same people we went to church with. But two things have changed: many of our neighbours have stopped going to church, and many of us have stopped living in the neighbourhoods where our churches are. Many congregations now find themselves disconnected from their local communities. The way for churches to reconnect with their neighbourhoods is to reactivate their commitment to the second clause of the great commandment and to consider ways of doing so collectively, as congregations.
Three principles to support this reactivation:
- If the church is to carry out the great commission (Matt 28:19-20), it must obey the great(est) commandment.
The first principle is implicit in what I have already been saying. The church will be in no position to “make disciples” (at least not disciples of Jesus Christ), if it is not wholeheartedly loving God and loving its neighbours.
- For the church to love its neighbours well, it needs to learn to love its neighbourhood.
The second principle attunes us to the collective nature of neighbourliness in the church. This principle identifies the neighbourhood, or what some traditions call the parish, as the inevitable context of congregational ministry. The desire for a flourishing congregation is inseparable from the pursuit of a flourishing neighbourhood. To paraphrase the prophet Jeremiah: “in the neighbourhood’s welfare the church will find its welfare.”
Urban planners recognize neighbourhoods to be the basic unit of urban life. Their scale is large enough to support a vibrant and whole social existence, but small enough that changes or qualitative enhancements can still be generated from neighbours themselves. It is worth considering whether neighbourhoods might also be seen as the basic unit of parish ministry — and not something peripheral to it. If this is the case, then learning to love our neighbourhoods might require us to expand our inherited ministry tool kits. Neighbourhood well-being would no longer fall under the ministry category of “outreach,” but become a core (and resourced!) practice of the church. Loving our neighbourhoods might require us to learn to become lay urban planners, amateur policy analysts, or part-time affordable housing advocates, depending upon our contexts.
Some of these capacities may already be present in our congregations and it will be a matter of recognizing and empowering those who offer them. But often times we will have to look beyond the church walls — to the neighbourhood. However, if we begin to see the neighbourhood as the basic unit of parish ministry, then we will also begin to see that neighbourhoods are more than just the sum of their needs. We will also see the tremendous assets that exist there. Accessing these assets, however, will require yet another capacity: partnership building.
- Collective neighbourliness requires partnership.
The third and final principle of collective neighbourliness assumes the second principle. For, neighbourhoods are made up not just of individual neighbours, but of schools, businesses, community groups, service agencies, and other faith communities, many of which are also seeking the welfare of the neighbourhood. In some cases, they are doing so more effectively than that church!
One such framework, adapted from The New Parish, sees neighbourhood partnership building on a continuum of neighbourliness. At one end we have the personal practice of being a good neighbour in our everyday lives. At the other end of the continuum are the significant, strategic, and sustainable institutional partnerships which impact neighbourhood well being over the long term. This might be a food security initiative, an affordable housing project, or any number of contextually relevant joint initiatives. In between the personal practice and the institutional partnerships, however, lie a whole range of connections that the church can cultivate. These include intentional practices of neighbourliness within congregations, joint projects with other churches, interfaith partnerships within a geographical area, and neighbourhood collaborations that serve the common good.
A well-known prayer by the late Archbishop Oscar Romero reminds us of the “sense of liberation” that accompanies the realization that “we cannot do everything.” Letting go of the illusion that we can do it all, furthermore, opens up a space for God’s grace to intervene. To this important piece of wisdom I would only add that such grace can sometimes arrive in the form of a neighbourhood partner and that we should learn to see and appreciate such partnerships as grace. In order to have the eyes to see this grace, I suggest, we will need to cultivate the collective virtue of neighbourliness within our congregations and understand the neighbourhood as the fundamental context of ministry.