To Love Your Neighbor, You Must Know Your Neighbor

Having recently moved into an anonymous apartment complex so common around the country, my wife and I decided to invite all the people in our building over for Sunday lunch. They didn’t know each other, we didn’t know them, and we had no idea how it would be received. But most of them came. In fact, they stayed for four hours. And before long we were making up a list of our birthdays to exchange with one another, at their suggestion.

When we moved into the complex, we thought a lot about “how hard it is to meet your neighbors.” And when we discussed the idea of a get-together with the few people we knew in our building, they also commented that it is “tough to have community in the suburbs.” But we were all wrong. It is not difficult to get to know your neighbors—it is simply not something most of us value.

The result is a culture of seclusion, and that culture strains our society in a surprising number of ways. Christians stand a better chance of changing the social landscape than anyone else. In fact, this societal problem presents us with the opportunity to confront that most elusive of all evangelical goals: to serve Christ and our neighbors in the surrounding culture at the same time.

A New Social Experience

The current American social predicament has a background, but it is not the one you might expect. In contrast to the emotionally charged way in which the story is often told, at no point in history did someone sit down with the sinister plan of designing a way of living that would make getting to know your neighbors seem difficult. The background of our culture of seclusion is much more mundane and predictable. Humans have always sought their own personal interests and enjoyment to the exclusion of other factors, but that goal has often necessitated community. It has only comparatively recently become possible to enjoy the music from the seclusion of your home. As recently as my grandfather’s adolescence, the best place to get the latest news was on the town square. These technological changes have affected the social experience forever.

Add to such technological changes the privileges of economic development. Though the average American family is shrinking, the average new American house has grown from an average of 1,400 square feet to an average of 2,400 square feet in the last 30 years. Our homes and apartment buildings give us plenty of space in which to hide.

Though our problems have benign beginnings, the last few decades have given us enough data to know that these trends cost us more than might be apparent at first glance.

The Cost to Society

Last year, Californians were shocked when it was discovered that a registered sex offender had held a woman and her two children hostage in his suburban backyard for 19 years undetected. The neighbors, when interviewed, mentioned that it was none of their business why the man had tents and sheds there. In all the years that he had lived there, no one had troubled themselves to have the kind of social interaction that might have ended the tragedy.

Our seclusion also exacerbates the psychological strain on our mobile population. College students, unmarried adults, and any other “single member households” often find no support net for tragedies, depression, or even major life decisions except from their peers. Consider the cost of all the poor choices, days spent in solitude, and lost work hours of that lack of support on the country. In response, it is noteworthy that there has been a shift toward “hyper-locality” in many city centers, a penchant for buying local and having pride in the merits of one’s own borough. But even where such an emphasis and awareness of the neighborhood has slightly altered our consumer patterns, the change doesn’t go much further.

I do not intend to suggest that the status quo was better or more encouraging at any time in the recent past. It is rather to suggest that a tolerably deficient situation has now become categorically intolerable. And whether you are a Christian or not, this societal problem almost certainly touches your life and the lives of the people you love.

Knowing Your Neighbor, Loving Your Neighbor

The weight that this problem puts on those around us itself justifies action. If only to put an end to its depressing and alienating ways, Christians ought to take this on as a project. You cannot love your neighbor if you do not know that neighbor. Time spent with neighbors that does not result in conversions, does not result in spiritual conversation, or does not result in any greater appreciation of the work of Christ, is not a net loss. Let us be resolved to undertake this kind of work confident that it is a legitimate end unto itself, that our culture deserves our attention, and that God will call us to account for the time spent serving neighbors.

At the same time, far from laboring simply to address a social problem, we address some of the roots of the modern day crisis in evangelism at the same time. More than in any other way, churches experience the fallout of the problems described in this article when trying to teach about “friendship evangelism.” That is, if co-workers are tough to reach in a secular work setting, church friends are already believers, and you do not know your neighbors, it is unlikely that anyone will have the opportunity to observe your life in a context that would make spiritual conversation natural.

So in taking a stand on this issue, and teaching our people to do the same, we are fighting not one but two problems at the same time.

Radical Suggestion

Given those realities, I would like to make a radical suggestion. The suggestion is not that knowing the neighbors should be important to Christians. The radical thesis I would like to present is: actually get it on your calendar for next month, and make that a habit.

To help you do that, let us conclude with a few tried and tested practical suggestions.

1.) Invite everyone. That is, invite a large group of people, either your whole apartment building or your whole block. This will avoid the impression that you want to build a clique. It gives you a much higher chance for success. And it usually just makes the evening much more enjoyable.

2.) Spend money on nice flyers or invitations. For our first get-together, I spent a few hours with InDesign and made full-color flyers that had a picture of a tasteful dinner scene and the words, “We think it’s too bad we’ve never met all our neighbors.” People want to know your intentions, and they like to be invited to nice events. Do them the honor. It makes a difference.

3.) Plan the get together for a Sunday. This is not an absolute, but few people have major commitments on a Sunday at 1:30 p.m., which means more can come and fewer have to rush off. Try to plan ahead by at least three weeks.


4.) Learn how to actively listen before you invite friends and neighbors over. Not only will you not have to prepare “entertainment” for these people, but if you are truly interested in who they are and don’t squash conversation as it happens, the entertainment will take care of itself.


5.) Involve any of the other neighbors you can (potluck, progressive dinner). This helps ensure that they show up, and it also means they will feel more invested. Hopefully it will keep them from thinking you are trying to be some kind of social control freak.


6.) Be transparent about your faith. When we first met with our neighbors, many were excited that we’d taken such a bold step. In that moment, I simply said: “This is something Christians value.” And in that one sentence, I had made my faith known and given all credit for something which the people openly liked about us to Christianity. Plain-spoken honesty is the best, and most effective, way to live with your neighbors.

You cannot love your neighbors if you don’t know them.  Get it on the calendar and have fun.

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  • Holly

    Thanks for this! It has been so discouraging in our neighborhood at times. We are a military family currently living off post and it is so different! On post you are somewhat forced to get to know your neighbors (at least who they are, which kids belong to whom and when they are home/gone,etc) and there are even communal events mandated by post (fall and spring clean up, block parties, etc) , it’s common for wives to swap cooking duty when the guys are gone, see each other daily in the common areas. Community is just a given, even the bad parts.

    Here we barely speak to our neighbors, and it isn’t necessarily for lack of trying, just that everyone has lived here for quite awhile (many their whole lives) and are comfortable with who they know, or are busy and don’t want to take the time. What happened to the days of Sunday afternoon or evening walks when it was a given that the front porches still found on many of the houses in town were used for visiting? When taking the time to say hello and be interested in one another were the norm? Thanks for the encouragement to try again!

  • Don Sartain

    Thanks for this encouraging, and challenging message. I’m a single guy who lives in an area predominantly filled with married couples who have kids, and I’ve let that hold me back from being missional where I live. Thanks for the kick in the pants, and the suggestions to make this a bit easier to manage.

    • Bethany

      Just a little extra encouragement for you, Don. As a wife and a mother of very young children, one of the most welcome invitations to get is one to a dinner I don’t have to spend the day preparing. :) If one of our neighbors, whether single or married, invited our family to a meal with them, I would be thrilled!

  • Kyle Sprecher

    Good stuff Ben. Glad to see your writing shared with others!

  • Scott Smith

    Great post Ben. Love the ideas.
    Thanks for the reminder!

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  • andrew

    fantastic blog post. this really was interesting and refreshing for me to read. i appreciate all the work that went into this.

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  • Owen

    This is terrific! Convicting and edifying.

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  • Nathan

    My wife and I just recently began a ministry in an apartment complex. It wasn’t necessarily something I was interested in until the person heading up the ministry asked, “What percentage of people in multi-housing units are churched?” I had no idea. They responded, “Four percent.”

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  • Kara

    I love this article and am printing to keep a copy. This is excellent (and convicting)! Thank you.

    This is the reason that I try to always go to the same bank, market, gas station, check out line….slowly over time, even though we don’t likve in a small town…it feels like a community. I’m often shocked at how people will open up pretty quickly.

  • Paul Nevergall

    How did you distribute the invitations? Personally? Mailboxes? Door hangers? All of the above? I’m thinking personal invites were more successful – but did you notice if the other ways were met with similar success?

    • Ben Stevens

      Hey Paul,

      Well, for the first couple times I just taped a full color invite on their door. Because we had only seen a few of our neighbors at that point, I was worried that knocking on everyone’s doors might scare them / put them on the spot too much to give me an answer right then, face to face.

      Now that we’ve done a few, we’ve just started using email with each other. We’re building up to the door to door thing, but I have to say, it takes time to make that kind of thing seem truly normal in a big apartment building, especially when people have been accustomed to years of almost complete “privacy.”

      As followup to this article, it should be said that neighbors aren’t all alike, esp. in apartment buildings. So we’ve kind of evolved to just trying to hang out in ways that fit each of them. A couple of big get togethers basically got everyone introduced, and we’ll try to keep doing those, but more often two or three of them are interested in some sport, for example, two or three are interested in a certain activity, and we try to hang out with different groups around different common interests. (But I’d say we know half the building pretty well.)

      At least as far as my experimentation is concerned, I think that’s the best way to really develop long-lasting friendships when the allure of a “meet everyone for the very first time” thing has worn off.

      My experience has been: it will probably be first received by neighbors as inCREDibly cool, and then as a bit of a nuisance (“haven’t we already done that”). But then when folks finally see that you are genuinely interested in community, and in them, and that you’re in it for the long haul (i.e. “it’s okay if you miss one of these get togethers; there’ll be another one”), they’ll value it a lot (That’s the other thing which we lack, right? Long-term commitment. So we’ve tried to model that.)

      It’s trial and error. But as long as you don’t look at it as a one shot experiment, but rather an effort you want to really work to make happen over the long haul, you’ll be surprised by all that develops. :) Just try to make something happen every other month or so and watch it take off.

      • Paul Nevergall

        Thank you for the response. Your family is in our prayers as you continue the joyful duty of building eternal relationships.

  • Bethany

    Excellent article! Thank you! I’ve been wrestling with this as of late, and find myself very nervous about intruding on other peoples’ lives. But, I need to just step out and initiate, instead of waiting for someone else to. Because they won’t. I’ve moved 6 times in the last 5 years, and only in one place, at one church, did anyone else reach out first. They are probably just as nervous as I am to risk rejection and break the silence. :) Be brave!

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  • Sharon

    Good Morning all with all due respect i wish that i can do that sometimes but of course everyone is not a like i fear that in doing that you never know who you are entertaining as i would be scare of whom i’m being around some will come and be friend but some will come to see what they can get and some come to see what is in your home that could be of vaule to them and then come back when you are not home i trust god not a lot of people as they can be sometimes very decieveing and i do have trust issue. But however i would love to do something like that to see who is who. But i feel that it comes with a price. I do interact and help people in my community that god lead me to do something nice for god said also so watch as well as pray so i ask god for directions so that i will not encounter the wrong people along the way pray my strenght in the lord.

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    • Diane

      Jesus teaches on how to throw a party & the parable of the Great Banquet from Luke 14:12-24 is a great example of how to address that.

  • Josh

    This article REALLY challenged me. My only problem is the apartment my fiance and I are moving in seems to be filled with many different kinds of people. A lot of them are mexicans etc. I’m honestly just afraid of inviting in people who are “foreign.” This may seem selfish, but inviting “strange” people into my apartment, where my fragile and small wife is, seems risky and rather frightening. I feel like a coward but I also feel compelled to do this…help?

    • Josh

      btw, we are getting married before we move in. just to clear that up. lol

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Been living in my neighborhood for 10 years now.

    If we did something like this now… our neighbors would probably be suspicious.

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  • Diane

    Ben thank you for your post. Our church in Raleigh is going over a “Gracious Hospitality” series and it has been very inspiring to my husband and I as we love to host and meet new people in our neighborhood. But sometimes our neighborhood seems like a tough cookie to crack people seem to have their own people and are private. We’ve gotten to know some of them and they’re nice (small talk though). We made an attempt to invite as many people in the townhouse area over for an Ice Cream party and games but only 3 neighbors showed but no one who was new who we invited. Door-to-door inviting seemed kinda invasive and many people don’t like to answer their doors; our neighborhood often gets outside solicitors. We’ve put up fliers for Kickball by the mailbox area (to start ‘community’ kickball Sundays) but so far no newcomers over the past month (granted it’s been up to 103 degrees). I guess we need to understand the demographics of our neighborhood so we easier meet people. But it’s not like we haven’t been trying. What are we missing?