I recently spoke at a large, vibrant, multisite church. While speaking about reaching the younger generation, I asked a couple of questions. First, I asked those in each service to raise their hand if they grew up in a Christian home. Without fail, 80-90% raised their hands, most with understandable joy and enthusiasm for their heritage.
Then I asked the second question: “How many of you recall a time in your childhood when your Christian family talked about reaching out to your neighbors with the gospel?” About 10-20% reticently raised their hands.
Too many of us raise our children in our neighborhoods as if we were atheists. I have asked these two questions in seminary classes, on college campuses, in youth meetings and in large conferences. The response has been the same without exception. For too long many of us have affirmed a practicing atheism, thinking we can magnify Christ among other Christians while virtually ignoring him when among non-Christians.
Too many of us raise our children in our neighborhoods as if we were atheists.
Can we truly say the gospel lies at the center of our lives and our families, if we raise children from birth to adulthood and they can’t recall a conversation about the spiritual need of their neighbors?
Why Do We Neglect Our Neighbors?
The reasons for neglecting our neighbors is multifaceted. One reason is tied up with institutional Christianity, which discourages believers from taking initiative apart from a church building. A second reason, and perhaps the most crucial is this: we have lost wonder over the story and glory of God. Failure to worship God leads to a failed desire to bring our neighbors to worship him with us.
Failure to worship God leads to a failure to bring our neighbors to worship him with us.
We need to recover the gospel in a way that sets God’s glory in the center of all of life. The Bible is unambiguous at this point: the center Scripture is not us, but God, who alone deserves our greatest wonder and all glory. Genesis begins not with us, or even with creation, but with a Creator God who creates for his own glory. John’s Gospel does the same, focusing our attention on Christ. Romans does the same. While creation reflects God’s glory, he finally and most clearly reveals himself to us in his Son, Jesus. Thus, the central character of the biblical story is the Redeemer who works a story of redemption.
The Bible is taught, even in conservative, Bible-believing churches, in a way that ironically encourages believers to do little that requires sacrifice for the gospel (if you can call investing in your neighbors for Christ a “sacrifice”). We turn the Bible into a collection of moralistic stories (David beat Goliath, so you can beat the giants in your life) in which we are the center and the story is designed to help us. Such an approach gives us many heroes, from Joseph the victimized who overcame abuse, to Ruth and Boaz who offer a great encouragement to those seeking romance. In this approach, Jesus matters, but he becomes just a little bigger hero than all the rest. Of course the Bible does offer help with overcoming abuse and in relationships. That help is called the gospel.
No, there is one hero in Scripture. But it’s okay I suppose if we slip up on that at times, because after all, Peter did. At the Transfiguration when Peter saw Jesus with Elijah and Moses, Peter suggested building tents for all three (Luke 9:33). The Father quickly made it clear that Jesus alone was to be revered: “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). Not even Moses or Elijah compare to Jesus.
We remove Jesus from the central place he deserves when we give lip service to his lordship in church services while neglecting his lordship in our neighborhoods. We need a revolution in our understanding of Jesus. He is the One who initiates, sustains, and will consummate all things. He alone sits on the throne.
For Us and Our Neighbors
What does this have to do with reaching our neighbors? When we consistently hear that the gospel and the Bible as a whole have to do with us, we have no motivation to go to our neighbors, let alone the nations.
But the gospel compels us to reach out locally and globally, from our front porch step to the ends of the earth. The gospel stands at the center, not only of our church life, but the entirety of life. This is why Paul places the gospel at the center of discussions on giving (2 Cor 8), fleeing sexual temptation (1 Cor 6., see especially verse 20), in marriage (Eph. 5:25), and as the basis for humility (Phil. 2). In other words, the gospel is for us, for our every sin and every success.
Jesus is the center of history. He is the center of the Bible (Luke 24:44-48). He is to be the center of our lives. We need his gospel as much as anyone else. We should preach the gospel to ourselves daily, reminding ourselves that life is not about us but about Christ, situating our great depravity under his marvelous grace.
We should preach the gospel to ourselves daily, reminding ourselves that life is not about us but about Christ, situating our great depravity under his marvelous grace.
Why should we care about our neighbors and the nations? We were made as worshippers to glorify God. We are also sent as God’s ambassadors to others. Awe of God will lead to witness about God. If the gospel really is good news, then we can’t help but share it. Wonder over at God’s love for us in Christ compels us to love others enough to tell them about our great Savior.
In Your Neighborhood
This is why my family moved into a neighborhood filled with unchurched friends. It’s why you’ve been placed in your neighborhood. Gospel work in our neighborhood has been slow, but we have seen some fruit. Along the way, we’re learning to involve our children in care for our neighbors. We’ve also had the opportunity to take our children all over the world, so they can see the work of the gospel in other places. Although most of us wont have the opportunity to travel the world, we can lead our families in traveling the neighborhood right away! Get out and meet your neighbors. Invite them over for dessert. Make some play dates. Think of ways to serve the neighborhood, and look for opportunities to bring neighbors along towards the wonder of Christ.
The gospel is simply too big, too amazing, too life-changing for us to take it, shut it up in our homes and our church buildings, and live as if we were atheists. The gospel propels us to spread a wonder over God’s grace and glory among neighbors and the nations.
What are you waiting for?
Alvin L. Reid is husband to Michelle and father to Josh and Hannah. He is a professor of evangelism and student ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as a popular speaker and author. He has written numerous books on student ministry, evangelism, missional Christianity, and spiritual awakenings. Follow him on Twitter: @AlvinReid.
*Check out Dr. Reid's new book from GCD Books, Gospel Advance: Leading a Movement That Changes the World.