Do you know your neighbors well enough to realize whether something horrible is happening in the house down the street? To call them if you need help? To trust that they’d put themselves at risk to help you?
Author Peter Lovenheim asked these questions in an opinion piece he wrote for The Washington Post following the rescue of several individuals who were held captive for a decade in a Cleveland home. It’s a great article worthy of your time and consideration.
The neighborhood my family lives in is pleasant with well kept homes, lawns, and its fair share of high fences. It is also quiet and you have to be quite forward, and most certainly extroverted, if you want to get to know your neighbors. It is typical of many neighborhoods built in the late 20th century where the privacy of a backyard and interior comfort trumped the desire to create shared communal space.
In contrast to our neighborhood is a different one just down the hill. While backyards and fences still abound, a commons with a playground is central. Most of the homes also have a feature that the ones in our neighborhood don’t; a front porch. When Halloween came around last Fall, this neighborhood was frenetic as the act of trick or treating became an all ages street party. In contrast, our neighborhood remained quiet.
While we might be tempted to overlook the value of a front porch, where one spends their time seems to make all the difference. My wife grew up in an older neighborhood where porches were common and I am regularly amazed at the information one accrues through impromptu encounters while porch-sitting. Years later, and thousands of miles away, she is still more likely to recall the names (and sordid details of the lives) of those neighbors she grew up with than the ones who live around us today.
The same thing is true for churches; each chooses, intentionally or unintentionally, a direction to orient its corporate life. Some churches spend their days lounging about on the front porch, developing a real awareness of, and becoming known by, their neighbors. Others spend their energy, almost exclusively, hosting weekly meals around the dinner table (worship) and the occasional social barbecue in the backyard (potlucks).
In this era where so many churches are struggling to grow and connect with new people, I wonder if it isn’t long overdue that we reevaluate where we spend our time and energy. Some churches already understand the value of connecting with their neighbors, deeply listening, and letting ministry flow from what bubbles up. These churches have done the hard work of shifting their orientation from inward to outward.
Churches that reorient themselves outward tend to develop some unique characteristics that stand in contrast to those experienced in churches that focus inward. Here are 7 reasons your church may want to move toward an outward-oriented ministry on the front porch.
- Front porch churches know their neighbors because they spend time out on the community. Relationships created out in the neighborhood allow front porch churches to find unexpected partners that share common goals even when they don’t share all of the same beliefs. Backyard churches know themselves and those who they are comfortable with. When need arises, they have to rely on their own strength or that of other like-mined churches.
- Front porch churches chance upon social interaction. Because they spend a good deal of their time in the community, front porch churches are advantaged in developing more informal, some might say real, connections with people. In contrast, backyard churches need to invite people they often don’t know to something they increasingly (as non-churched populations grow) may not be all that familiar with or fight other backyard churches for the same initiated few.
- Front porch churches are more ready to offer hospitality because they are familiar with, and unafraid of, their neighborhood’s diversity. Visitors are greeted and welcomed without as many assumptions and judgments because the neighborhood and the church community overlap significantly. In backyard churches, existing relationships are needed to shepherd all but the bravest through the awkward moments preceding, during, and directly after Sunday morning worship. Visitors who are different from the communal norm receive alternating looks of suspicion and desperation.
- Front porch churches welcome interruption. Because they have relationships with, and a legitimate love of, the surrounding community, interruptions are more likely to be welcomed. Backyard churches are more easily annoyed with the neighbors because interruptions from the strangers over the fence derail the intricately planned programs that we depend upon to lead to life.
- Front porch churches offer safe transitional spaces to join. Backyard churches believe that Sunday Morning Worship is their front porch and that all good people share their values and interests. But in a port-Christian context, a time with as many coded, and cryptic, practices as the typical worship service is hardly comfortable to a visitor.
- [pullquote type=”right”]Front porch churches aren’t afraid to declare who they are and what they are about. [tweetthis]Front porch churches aren’t afraid to declare who they are and what they are about.[/tweetthis][/pullquote]Front porch churches aren’t afraid to declare who they are and what they are about. Because the front porch is a space they live in, these communities start to move some of their belongings out with them as they understand the hospitality of a comfortable rocking chair. In practice, this requires church folks to translate their faith for the world. In contrast, our backyards, great as they can be for privacy, also suggest we have something to hide. Our devout practice internally reinforces our tendency to bifurcate our spiritual and secular lives.
- Front porch churches serve more lemonade while backyard churches host more potlucks. There is nothing at all wrong with potlucks, assuming the egg salad has been kept at an adequate temperature, but they aren’t an effective outreach event. Churches that live on their front porch are more likely to plan events with the community in their foremost thoughts. Healthy churches recognize the value of each and find the appropriate balance.
The questions from Lovenheim that we opened with are troubling because in so many cases, the answer each is no. Despite the close proximity of our homes, Americans have never been quite as isolated as we are today.
Where there is a challenge for society, there is also an opportunity for the church to step in and help neighborhoods to build real community. But we don’t get to contribute without doing the hard work of reorienting our ministry outward.
So, does your church know its neighborhood well enough to know its urgent and persistent needs? Has it developed the relationships that lead to collaboration and trust in times of need? Is it known and valued by people in the community who don’t consider themselves members?
If you can say yes to each of these, I suspect you are already doing great ministry on your proverbial front porch. If your answer is no, perhaps it is time to reconsider that upcoming potluck and plan instead what you might do out on the front porch.
Image Credit: “What a front porch should be” by Flickr user Angie Garrett, Creative Commons.