Love Your Neighborhood as Yourself

At the turn of each new year, our whole church gathers together for Sunday School for several weeks. It’s a chance to touch special topics that the pastoral staff and elders want everyone to hear about. One of those is the set of outreach ministries we have to the neighborhoods surrounding our church. I was asked to provide a bird’s-eye view of our evangelism ministries by telling the story of my own personal history with them. Others’ names and details have been changed or removed.

I came Mount Calvary Baptist Church during my freshman year—in Romans 16 in 1997, and I joined not too long afterwards. I had never heard expository preaching in my life, but it immediately arrested me and I had to hear more. I started doing Awanas here my sophomore year, but I didn’t take part in any of our evangelism ministries until January of 2001 when the Church Internship Program required me to go out street witnessing in downtown Greenville.

It was God’s way of moving me along in many areas. I began to really enjoy reaching out and just talking with people. I made it a goal to have real conversations if at all possible, though I also handed out tracts to those who wouldn’t speak with me. I kept a list of everyone I spoke to in order to pray for them and try to remember the lessons I learned from our conversations. I always came away invigorated spiritually. I especially remember one man whose words were a real encouragement from the Lord: He said, "If someone is going to speak to me about stuff like this, I like the way you are doing it." The love God gave us as a church for these lost people had shined through to this man. Very few people were hostile.

After getting a taste of reaching out along with my fellow church members, I wanted to continue, and in 2001 one of my friends invited me to a new church Bible Club, held right over there in Century Oaks apartment complex. This is where I first really got to know people from our church’s mission field.

Among many other kids I got to know, there was our little drama queen, Milly, and Stephana, and Lauren. In fact, a picture I have of those girls (and one more whose name I can’t remember who wasn’t a regular attender) became the basis of our current Bible Club logo. Milly and Stephana would not like it, but they had to be boys in the picture for things to be fair (two boys and two girls). That logo is now on our club T-shirts, and, interestingly, my job of printing the T-shirts is how I met some of my and my wif’e’s best friends in the world—a couple who are now members at our church (the husband was a screen printer at the time).

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Focus on the one little girl in the front of the group. Her name is Lauren, she was 4, and her dad’s name is Allen. One Saturday morning no other leaders could make it and it was raining, so I took some cookies made by a church teen around to some of our regulars. I had one left, and I stopped by Lauren’s house at 208 Martel St. No one came to the door, but I looked across the street to 209 and I saw a Mexican boy playing a GameBoy on the porch.

That’s how I met Angel and his family, who pulled up in the driveway in a few minutes. I invited them out to Bible club, and they came, but it was clear they were too old for a kids Bible club!

Providentially, that’s just when our church’s Teen Club was starting up on Friday nights in 2002, so I took them there. That began what is now an eight-year relationship with this family. Some of them even attend our Released Time ministry now.

And this is the focus of my testimony. The Lord used my relationship with these boys to open my eyes to a number of things. For the first time in my life, I had an ongoing ministry to lost people that I could really talk to. And we talked a lot, especially Mateo and me. He asked great questions. We had a lot of fun and a lot of good chats. I really loved these boys, and to tell you the truth, that love came pretty unexpectedly. I hadn’t felt it at all like that before in ministry.

But the sobering truth is that none of these boys seem to have come to Christ. They all heard the gospel dozens if not hundreds of times. I explained and urged over and over. And they listened. Pedro even came to church here and was impressed by the ushers because they looked like soldiers… The boys came to special events with me, visited my dorm room, and hiked Paris Mountain with me. One of my good friends became close to Angel and he had similar experiences. I learned that I must faithfully sow the message and water it, despite seeing no fruit, and that real ministry usually takes time. I learned that kids will improve their behavior radically out of love for a male authority figure but not out of love for God—and that I had to make that fact clear to them so they wouldn’t think they were fine with God because they pleased me.

Fast forward a few years. The boys have been too old for teen club for a while, but because of all the time we as a church invested in them, we still have an open door with their whole family. They know us. I stop in every once in a while to their house on and they welcome me with very open arms. Some of them have gotten in some trouble, but because they know I love them, they let me rebuke them lovingly but openly and tell them what the Bible says about their sin. I wish to God that the purpose of our relationship will be their eventual salvation and not just my Christian growth. But I wouldn’t trade that growth in love and ministry experience for anything.

I loved teen club. (At least the Green Team, if not perhaps some people on the Orange Team. =) I really looked forward to it every week. God gave me, again unexpectedly, a real love for teens who are very different from me. And He built up a very solid team of others to love our neighborhood as ourselves together. I never had a week where I didn’t have at least one good conversation with a teen, and I usually had more. Love always bridged our huge cultural gap. We didn’t have to have driving music and video game consoles. Love does it for a lot less money.

Teen Club was an intro to many years of Cola Wars and my annual duty to pretend I like a particular soda—just another way to spend time with people, to love my neighborhood with my meager time investments.

Love is even a bridge to the biggest and scariest boys. They need love, and they usually eat it up. Usually.

Teen club was also an intro for me to Neighborhood Bible Class, a ministry also founded in 2002 to reach out on Sunday mornings. I’ve been in the teen class there for about five years, I think. I see a lot of the same kids from teen club. It’s another way our church is loving our neighborhood.

Getting married then opened up a new frontier of having people over. (My dorm room was generally inappropriate for hospitality.)

Teen club was one of the greatest experiences of my whole life. I hated to leave it after six years, but wives and dissertations need attention too, and I was allowed to move to Sunday ministries where I get to do a lot of the same things. Door-to-door visitation is a way of making initial contacts to form relationships, and I’ve been helping lead that and doing some evangelism training there since 2008.

God has given us a specific mission field, and it requires patient continuance in sowing the seed. The time our church has invested over at least nine years in some of the kids from that Bible club, one of whom I still see every week, seems to me to be the most likely way that God will bring people in our mission field to faith in Christ.

I have heard many people say there’s not much to do in a big church because so many people are already doing it. It’s true that you may never stand on the platform if that’s what you mean by being involved. But when it comes to evangelism there is no limit to how much time you could spend in our ministries. We’re looking for those willing to take personal ownership of their ministry, and we are looking for giftedness—which mostly means the gift God gives you to love your neighborhood as yourself.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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