“I just don’t know any lost people.” “I find it so hard to meet people that don’t know Jesus.” “Sharing my life and faith with unbeliever is so difficult. Apart from going to a bar I don’t know where they are at.” These are all excuses I’ve made for my failure to know, bless, and share Jesus with unbelievers. I hear these statements regularly among other Christians as well. It’s as if unbelievers are actually physically lost, and finding them is like finding a unicorn or a white elephant--exceptionally rare. Underneath these excuses is a common reality: I haven’t really been present in the locations where I've lived. Recently, it occurred to me that I’m not really thinking about the whole concept of mission and evangelism in a clear light. A friend asked me a pointed question once that brought me to repentance and helped me rediscover an important tool in living a life “on mission.” The question was this: how could I live in the same house for over three years and not know the stories and situations of the people that lived within 100 yards of me? Several answers were apparent (lack of love, disobedience, etc.) but the real answer that stood out was that I wasn’t really present in my neighborhood.
Oh sure, I was physically there. I ate, drank, slept, played, worked, laughed, cried, and did everything a physically present person would do. However, none of my neighbors would have known it or cared about it. To them I didn’t exist. And they didn’t exist for me either. So when I said, “I don’t know any lost people,” I was technically right. I had failed to live my life in their life. And this was the beginning of the awakening for me. How did I come to know God? He actually came and lived in my life. How can I find lost people? Live my life, where I am at, in their life.
I’m willing to bet that if you are reading this, you have a similar situation. Most of the world lives in highly dense, urban areas, surrounded on all sides by neighbors. Over eighty percent of Americans live in what is classified as an urban area. All of that to say the lost are out there; you probably live next to them. But do you really live in their lives? Would they be able to affirm your existence?
God is Everywhere---God is Here
As a parent my kids often ask me questions that have stumped philosophers for centuries. One of the questions my kids would ask early on is, “Where is God?” This always gives me an opportunity to talk about the character and attributes of God. One of the things I share with them is the “omnipresence” of God; God is present fully everywhere at all times. For creatures that are limited to seeing only the physical, trying to comprehend a being who is everywhere all the time and fully, is a recipe for making your brain explode. Most Christians would affirm that God is everywhere just the same as they would affirm that the lost are everywhere. The only problem is “everywhere” often means “no where.” We can’t see God, so we really wonder if he is here. We don’t know the lost, so we really wonder if they exist.
But the Bible gives us a greater perspective regarding the presence of God. Not only is he everywhere and present at all times, but he has uniquely and clearly disclosed his presence with his people all through history. The story of God’s presence with his people begins in the garden. God made a good place for his people and dwelt with them (Genesis 2). The Scriptures tell us that God lived in the presence of our first parents. As sin entered the picture the relationship broke. No longer was humanity in the presence of God. Instead, distance and separation from the place of God was the consequence of rebellion against him (Genesis 3:23-24). Though God evicted Adam and Eve from the temple of his presence, he continued to be present with his people as the story of redemption unfolds. Through burning bushes, the ark of the covenant, pillars of cloud and fire, tabernacle tents, and temple buildings, God effectively, but not fully, displayed his presence with his people. Until, that is, he lived in our lives.
Jesus, fully present
John’s introduction to his Gospel brings this aspect of the presence of God fully into view. Jesus, as John writes, became flesh and dwelt with us (John 1:14). God with us. Jesus is the one who fixed the break between God and man. He is the presence every shadow-symbol of the Old Testament points toward. As John put it, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he [Jesus] has made known” (John 1:18). God became a man and lived among us. He lived in our lives. God with us.
Not only is God with us, but he is God for us. Jesus came not just to hang out in our ghettos (as compared to heavenly realms, that is); he came to live the life of righteousness we failed over and over again to live. He came to die the wrath-deserving death we were entitled to because of our rebellion (Galatians 3:13). He came to live again so that the reality of rebirth would be ours and his power would be shown to encompass all things.
Now push-back is natural here. Where is this Jesus? How is “God with us” because I don’t see him in my living room or across the street? These are honest questions. The reality, however, is not that God has once again left our lives. No, the reality is that he has doubly reinforced his presence in our lives. He has given us two ways of seeing his glory and knowing him on a daily basis:
- We’ve been given the promised Holy Spirit. The fullness of God dwelling within us daily. By virtue of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, he has sent his very presence and nature to be our Helper, Comforter, and Advocate (John 13:15-17). He has given every believer everywhere his life to live in ours. Paul confessed this by saying, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives within me” (Galatians 2:20). Christ lives in our lives through the indwelling Holy Spirit.
- He’s also given us the church. Jesus has given us community in himself. As believers, we have been indwelt by the Holy Spirit in order to live the life of Jesus in the lives of others. We are the tangible, physical demonstration of the invisible God (John 13:24-25). We are the reflection of his glory to the lost world. The story is being written right now. To the lost, God’s existence is debatable unless they’ve seen the life of a person inhabited by the Holy Spirit lived in front of them. As the church lives its life, it must live in the life of the world (1 Peter 2:12). This is how the presence of God is made real and manifest to the world.
Living In the Lives of Others
My neighbor, Herb, walks his dog up and down our street daily. Usually in the early evening right before dusk, I see Herb plodding along with his dog. Does Herb know I exist? Would he care?
If we see that God has not abandoned us, and has not withdrawn his presence from us, but actually has done the exact opposite and inhabited our world, then we can begin to see how to live among our neighbors. Herb knows I exist, but that’s because I’ve gone out to Herb. I’ve lived in his life. I’ve invited Herb into my life. When Herb walks his dog, he stops and talks and tells me his story. As I learned how God has always placed his presence in the midst of His people, I began to see how I can meet and befriend and know lost people. I must live in their lives.
This might sound daunting. It certainly is, mainly because we don’t want to give up our comfort. Going outside and walking with Herb while he walks the dog and talks doesn't always feel normal. But it happens. Inviting my neighbors into my home can be risky. Letting my children meet people that probably don’t share the same values as we do is dangerous. Yet this is exactly what our Savior has done. He has lived in our lives.
So how do we live in the lives of our neighbors? How do we inhabit their world so that we can show them a God who has inhabited our lives?
- Be present in your neighborhood. For so many, especially in the suburbs, it’s easy to come home after work, pull into the garage, and disappear into our homes. We must be intentional to be outside our homes. Use every opportunity to leave the garage door open, be in the front yard, out in the open amongst your neighbors. Talk with them, learn their names, invite them into your space, go to their space.
- Bless your neighborhood. It used to be that when a new person moved into a neighborhood, a few neighbors would go visit the new neighbor and bless them with some cookies or pie or something as a way to meet and get to know the new folks. I’ve moved into three different houses in the last seven years and have yet to see a plate of cookies. I use this as a small example to challenge us to live in a neighborhood intentionally to bless and give. You don’t have to take cookies to the new neighbor, but do something to bless a neighbor. Walk over and give in some way, bless and be kind to them.
- Bring in your neighbors. When was the last time you invited a neighbor over for dinner or barbecue? We can live in the lives of our neighbors by inviting them into our homes, into our spaces, and letting them see our lives up close. How will our neighbors know what the love of Jesus is like if they don’t see the love of Jesus lived in our homes and families. What would happen on your block or in your apartment complex if you invited a neighbor over for a meal on a frequent basis?
Being, blessing, bringing are three simple strategies toward living in the lives of our neighbors. As we pursue Christ and bear the image of a God who has lived in our lives by living in the lives of the lost we will find the lost.
Try It---It works
Not too long ago we hosted a block party for our neighbors. We did it with our missional community because we want to reach the neighborhood of Wichita where I live. Several neighbors we didn’t know stopped by, had a hot dog, and did something I thought was unexpected. They stayed in my front yard and talked. For hours. As they talked, I began to learn their stories, hear some of their griefs, laugh at their jokes, live in their lives. As my wife and I were cleaning up, she looked at me and said, “I finally feel like I know lost people in my neighborhood. I finally feel like I know my neighbors.” We rejoiced and praised God that for once “the lost” were real people that we could put names and faces to. And they’ve now put a name and a face with “Christians.” We’re praying that they become the disciples of Jesus we are seeking to be.
Jeremy Writebol is the husband of Stephanie, daddy of Allison and Ethan, and lives and works in Wichita, KS as the Community Pastor at Journey the Way. He is the director of Porterbrook Kansas and writes at jwritebol.net.
To go deeper into living a gospel centered life in your neighborhood, read Unbelievable Gospel by Jonathan Dodson.