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Loving Our Neighbors: Evangelism in an Age of Isolation

By Marj Funk-Pihl, DEM

 “We are racist.”

Courtney uttered these words as both realization and confession.  She was part of a conversation about her congregation’s outreach to the neighborhood. The congregation was predominately white, but the neighborhood was mostly African descent and Hispanic.  Their main outreach was a weekly hot meal served by members and hosted in the church’s social hall. They decorated the tables nicely and treated their guests well. 

The group wondered why “those people” did not join them for worship. They were stumped. Cliff comforted them with this thought: “Well, it’s probably a good thing. I mean if they came, we’d have to change…add Spanish language and stuff.” Someone else agreed and added, “Besides, they are poor; we can’t afford a congregation full of them.”

Then Courtney made her confession – and declaration. She was the youngest person in the room and would not let them back away from what had been said.     

This congregation is far from unique. In the Southwest California Synod, many of our congregations are isolated from their neighbors.   

Jesus taught that to “love your neighbor” is just as important as loving God (Matthew 22:37-40).  Most of our congregations are involved in some form of food distribution program through which they serve their neighborhood, but rarely do they know their neighbors well enough to love them.   

As we are beginning to understand, serving our neighbors is not the same as loving them.  To serve someone keeps us in a position of power. We have something they need. We are the patron they are they client.  This is not love.  Love may motivate service – that would be great – but it can also be motivated by pride a sense of being more fortunate than others – or God forbid- more blessed.   

Jesus does not equate serving the neighbor with love of God, but loving the neighbor. Love is powerful.  Luther finds this love in the Sacrament of the Altar: “For the sacrament contains no blessing or significance unless love grows daily and so changes a person that he is made one with all others (LW 1989, 251).”  

Love has the power to make us one with all others. Service doesn’t. 

Our people do not intend to insult their neighbors. We have used the word “serve” to describe our actions toward our neighbors for years.  We need to expand our vocabulary and our behaviors.    

We live in an age of isolation. Even alienation. Globalization increased mobility which increased immigration and migration throughout the USA. This provided an opportunity for Christians to express love to a greater diversity of neighbors. However, our human needs for safety, belonging and esteem pulled us into homogenous communities that isolated us from those who were not like us.  Racism and other “isms” that alienate neighbor from neighbor show that we have been unsuccessful in living into God’s commands.  

Maslow and his successors agree that humans need safety, belonging and esteem. They rank them differently – but they agree that these are the core psychological needs of human beings. Safety is security, stability, and protection, but also freedom from fear, anxiety and chaos.  Belonging overlaps with safety because being part of a group helps ensure physiological needs are met as well as providing the comfort of affiliation with other people. Esteem is a need to be valued by others for what we add to the community. This need makes meaning and purpose essential for healthy living.  Maintaining pride is an attempt to maintain esteem.  

Safety and belonging pull us to create homogeneous communities of shared values and beliefs, sometimes to the exclusion of othersEsteem is what makes us proud of our team, but also keeps us from admitting when we just might be wrong.  

We can see this tendency played out in the recent history of the church in the US.  The Church Growth Movement – initiated by the work of Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner – borrowed the Homogeneous Unit Principle from the behavioral sciences to show that people like to be around their own kindThey taught Evangelical pastors to target a specific demographic and design congregational programing to attract that market.  It worked and their congregations grew in numbers, though not in diversity.  

We can point a finger of blame at Evangelicals – but the proverbial three fingers are pointing back at usPrior to the 1970’s active immigration routes from Scandinavian and Germanic countries kept Lutheran churches full. Member recruitment consisted of putting a sign in front of the church. In Los Angeles, Lutherans migrated from the Midwest following an advertising campaign that called Long Beach “Iowa on the Pacific.”  The congregation I last served was founded by two women who called everyone in the local phone book with a last name that ended with “sen” or “son.”  About the time people stopped migrating, new members were added by increasing birth rates.  These were all our kind of people.   

Evangelicals and Lutherans alike were caught up in “The Big Sort,” a term coined by sociologist Bill Bishop to describe a trend brought on by globalizations increase in mobility and communication. The “Big Sort” was seen most clearly in the 1990’s when over 100 million people moved across a county line. The drive for safety and belonging encouraged people to settle in places that looked and felt comfortable to them.  Most did not recognize that the reason they felt comfortable was because they lived, worked and worshiped surrounded by people of the same race and socio-economic status.  

We did this subconsciously. A study out of Harvard shows we have a bias against diversity. When shown a picture of a group of people who are all one color, and another picture of  a group with a combination of black and white people, study participants felt the all black or all white groups to be more harmonious than those with a combination of blacks and whites.    

We think that well-being can be found among like-minded people. The Vision of the Kingdom of God in Revelation claims otherwise.  The truth is that groups of likeminded people have a strong tendency to squelch dissent among their members. They grow more extreme in their thinking and ignore evidence that their positions are wrongMembers of these groups become more and more afraid to verbalize a contradictory opinion. They are lonely in a crowded room. Luther understood that “When Christians do not act in love toward their neighbors, it is because they “fear the world.” (Luther 1989, 250).  Sociologist Brene Brown adds that in our “bunkers we are lonely and scared. So damn scared.”  

God is right. We need diversity. 

The overindulgence of our need for safety, belonging and esteem has left us afraid and lonely. Safety is not created by groups of like-minded people alienated from the rest of the world. Groups of like-minded people cannot solve their own problems because everyone thinks along the same lines!  It is the movement of ideas between diverse peoples that generates solutions. Isolated communities do not have relationships with people from other groups that bring in new ideas  

Jesus’ insight that loving God is the same as loving neighbor is the key to human flourishing.  Paul reminds us that diversity is a gift we need to unwrap:To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Cor 12.7). 

In my experience working with congregations, the problem is not that they lack purpose. The problem is that they have a limited sense of purpose. They do not know how to live into the fullness of purpose promised by God. Our people understand that God’s love for them should motivate them to love God and serve their neighbor, and most of them do exactly that. They haven’t had the opportunity to see the difference between love and serve.  When they realize the difference, they often comment that they do not know how to begin to develop a mutual relationship with their neighbors. They are scared to death that I’m going to tell them to knock on doors.  I quickly assure them that nobody wants that.  Their neighbors don’t want them to knock on doors any more than they want to do it 

As the DEM of the SWCA Synod, I developed, implemented and evaluated a congregational vitality process that motivates people to love their neighbors. Living the Resurrection is a step by step process that leads our members to meet their neighbors and learn to work with them for the sake of their shared neighborhood. It is an Evangelism strategy that expands a congregation’s love for God and one another to include their neighbors. 

The research study involved sixteen fragile congregations who did not qualify for CWO partnership support funding (two were funded under “extraordinary circumstances). Each had an AWA under sixty and most did not have full time permanent clergy. Still twelve of the congregations completed the eighteenmonth Living the Resurrection process and eigh significantly improved their relationships with their neighbors. Two of those who did not improve have recently shown themselves to be open to possibilities they would never have considered before: one is beginning a parallel Latinx ministry, and the other is welcoming an established ELCA Chinese ministry into its facility.   

It is my hope that congregations like Courtney’s will lean to love their neighbors. Then the conversation among their leadership team might sound something like this: “Courtney, remember that meeting we had – years ago – you called us racists! We got so mad. But you were kind of right.”  Cliff brought this memory up at another meeting of leaders in the congregation. This time Courtney was not the youngest one around the table. Not just because it had been years ago, but because the average age of a congregation member was now much younger.  Courtney responded, “It would be hard to call this group racist,” and they all chuckled.  The table included people of every tribe and race.