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FIRST-PERSON: 3 truths about your non-religious neighbor

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After you go to a restaurant, you go out to the car with your group and discuss whether you want to go back. Was the food good? Was the service good? Overall, is this an experience we want to repeat?

People have the same conversations about relationships. Was that a good experience? Should we go back? Should we be friends with them?

One of the greatest dangers in relationships is you never know how you’re coming across. We don’t often understand or even think about how unchurched people perceive us. In fact, according to the Greatest Needs of Pastors study from Lifeway Research, 76 percent of pastors say their churches are struggling to connect with unchurched people.

Three out of four pastors are saying, “I’m not sure my people have a clue how to build relationships with those who don’t go to our church.” We must simplify what it means to be a good neighbor and to build relationships with the people whom God has placed around us.

Several years ago, when my family and I found ourselves planting a church in Colorado, we took a crash course in neighboring and engaging the unchurched. Here are a few things we learned about our neighbors – things we’ll never forget.

1. They’re discerning

Sometimes (not every time!) people want to have coffee with me because they want me to do something for them. In the same way, people can sniff out when a Christian wants to get together simply for the purpose of getting buy-in on their beliefs.

They know when they’re being manipulated into a situation. One of the mantras that began to play out in the life of our family is: “We invite people into our lives, not a location.” Have them over to your house and be intentional with conversation around the table. We began to do this all the time. We had a conversation cube. You’ve seen these at stores. It’s very simple.

That made our neighbors feel special because it wasn’t like, “Hey, come over to our house so we can tell you all about us and our journey and what we’re doing at the church.” We had them over because we had a genuine interest in them as individuals.

2. They have things to teach us

Ask for advice on or help with a project. I’m not handy. My former neighbors Neil and Kristy are both super handy and amazing with tools. I would call Neil and ask how to deal with a pipe issue or get help with my sprinkler system. Admitting that you need help endears you to people. Christians can have this idea that we don’t need help because we have the Lord. While that’s true, on earth, we also do need help with some practical things.

One of my favorite moments in my life and ministry was the first time our neighbor Neil heard me preach. He came over and knocked on the door. I opened the door, and he said, “Hey, I really liked your presentation.”

Other times he would make statements like, “Hey, when I listen to you speak, it makes me want to be a better person.” It always meant so much to me that I was communicating in such a way that he could not only understand but also appreciate the Christian faith. It gave us a lot of room for discussion. Neil went through a hard time when he lost his job, and we were able to have some in-depth conversations about calling and why God puts us on the planet. That relationship began to grow.

3. They notice when we honor what’s important to them

In one way, the connection with Neil and Kristy was natural because we have kids who are similar in age. But even if that wasn’t the case, it’s important to show them they matter to you by demonstrating interest in their kids and the things that matter to them.

Soon after we began to know Neil and Kristy, their son was seriously injured in a playground accident. Our whole family went over that afternoon. We didn’t know them well at that point, but we showed up with a bag of treats for him to enjoy while he recuperated. We could tell this gesture meant a lot to them. And it created another on-ramp to have a piece of real estate in their life.

A note to the church leader

Neil told me he wanted to know me as a person before I was a pastor. That deeply impacted me because sometimes as pastors, we forget that we’re human beings – that we were a person before we were ever called to pastor. There are things about us that people want to know apart from what we do. Neil reminds me of the importance of building trust that comes through building memories together.

Most pastors are readers, but I was an avid reader before I was in ministry. It turns out my neighbors liked sitting around a fire pit, so I suggested to a few of the guys that we read a book together – their choice. They picked a war book, which naturally led to conversations about survival and faith. And through those discussions over time, deeper things naturally came up without me having to force the issue.

Those guys taught me so much about allowing myself to be human in their presence. The tendency for all of us – especially in ministry leadership – is to guard the image, to craft the perception we have it all together. But people will identify with authentic humanity over feigned perfection (which translates as inaccessibility).

It’s been said people won’t always remember what you said or what you did, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel. And just like the restaurant analogy I shared earlier, they’ll remember their experience with you and decide whether they want to come back for more.

    About the Author

  • Ben Mandrell