John describes Jesus’ life and ministry this way, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message). Where did Jesus live and do his work? In the neighborhood. He met the neighbors, learned their names, listened to their needs, ate with them, and ministered to individual people. Jesus was a friend to sinners (Matthew 11:19, NIV). He went into Peter’s house and healed his mother-in-law (8:14, 15). He had dinner at Levi’s house and met many tax-collectors and sinners (9:10). He went into a synagogue leader’s house and raised his daughter from the dead (vv. 23-25).
Getting to Know the Neighbors
As Jesus went through towns and villages, he got to know the neighbors, healing their sicknesses and proclaiming the good news of his kingdom (v. 35). Living in the neighborhood, Jesus could see and hear people’s brokenness. They were like sheep without a shepherd. They were “harassed and helpless” (v. 36). The Greek words are revealing. Harassed carries the idea of filleting a fish. Life had sliced and diced the people’s hearts, dreams, and families. The word for helpless shows a people defeated, laying prostrate on the ground with life pressing their face into the dirt. That’s when Jesus turned to his disciples and proclaimed, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (vv. 37, 38).
Do you see what Jesus called kingdom work? It’s loving our neighbors strategically in order to win them to Christ. Notice how Jesus defined the neighborhood. First, he called it his harvest field. Jesus owns the neighborhood. He has the right to dwell there. He’s not afraid or repulsed by its condition. As a matter of fact, he loves his neighborhood so much that he willingly died to fix it (John 3:16). Second, it’s his harvest field. The neighborhood is where his church scatters the seed, cultivates the soil, waters the crops, pulls the weeds, and harvests good fruit (see Matthew 13). Jesus called the neighborhood “ripe” (John 4:35). Ripe means the fruit is ready to pick and if not harvested will rot.
Working in the neighborhood, we examine the growth of our strategic interactions. We watch and pray for our neighbors’ hearts to open as God uses our cultivating efforts of love and truth telling. Then it happens! Through careful monitoring, we see our neighbor’s heart turn “ripe.” Then we asked the question, “Are you ready to accept Christ and be baptized?” (Acts 2:38).
Corporate vs. Personal
Most efforts toward disciple making today fall into two basic categories: corporate evangelism and personal evangelism. I’ve done both. By corporate, I mean we shape the Sunday morning worship service to bring our neighbors to “church.” In the attractional model, church can be defined as a place, event, program, or experience. We start with the neighborhood profile and then shape the setting, music, video, and message to fit that person. We go to church. Our goal is to attract our neighbors to an event. Personal evangelism involves training believers to be the church. Then, obedient to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19, 20), we go into the neighborhood as the living, physical, body of Christ.
The “wow” is not the Sunday morning “show.” It’s the miracle of the believer’s changed life. So, 2,000 years later, Christ still dwells in the neighborhood through us. Christ personally loves, cares, serves, and proclaims his truth through his body, the church. Believers are the hands, feet, voice, and ears of Christ. He is our head. We are his body (see Ephesians 4:12-16).
I’m not against the attractional model. When coupled with an aggressive discipling process, lives can change. But many churches have not figured out how to turn the consumer into the committed. The church building can be a good thing too. But while Jesus was on earth, his evangelistic strategy was never to erect a building and expect broken, spiritually blind people, people who are like sheep without a shepherd, who do not know their right from their left (Jonah 4:11), to know enough to come to church and find salvation. That’s why Jesus walked more than 3,000 miles in 3 ½ years. “I have come to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). That is why Jesus “went into all the towns and villages” (Matthew 9:35). Going into the neighborhood is the strategy Jesus taught his disciples (10:7; Luke 10:1). “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the outer parts of the world” (Acts 1:8). It is the only church strategy we see in the book of Acts.
Clarifying the Gospel
Scripture says it’s up to every Christian to clarify the true gospel, laying out for our families, friends, and neighbors the conditions God requires for receiving it. God also promises power to make us bold in persuading others (2 Corinthians 3:12). The Greek word for bold means “to go public.” It carries the idea of being free, open to share in public. The apostle Paul said God commissions us to go public with the gospel. So, “who is up to the task” (2:16)? Paul said we are. It is God who makes us competent for this ministry of reconciliation (3:6).
How does God make us competent to do personal evangelism? Did he write a training manual to help us reach our neighborhood for Christ? Does he help us identify barriers that keep our neighbors from salvation? Absolutely! Our manual is the book of Acts. Luke, the author, is actually introducing us to his neighborhood. Every type of person in Luke’s neighborhood can be found in your neighborhood today. Each one has his or her own spiritual profile. Every spiritual profile has some unique question, distortion, or incorrect view of God. That question/distortion creates a barrier that leads to distrust, fear, or dislike of our heavenly Father. Until the distortion is addressed by us, Christ’s ambassadors, our neighbors will struggle to make Christ Lord and Savior. This was Satan’s strategy with Adam and Eve. Satan portrayed God as stingy, fearful, and selfish. Believing the distortion, Adam and Eve walked away from their creator.
Building Spiritual Profiles
In the book of Acts, Luke identified at least 11 different spiritual profiles: the religious (the Jews gathered for Pentecost, chapter 2); the hurting (the lame beggar, chapter 3); the spiritualist (Simon the sorcerer, chapter 8); the seeker (the Ethiopian, chapter 8); the fanatic (Saul of Tarsus, chapter 9); the good person (Cornelius, chapter 10); the successful (Lydia, chapter 16); the abuser (the Philippian jailer, chapter 16); the skeptic (the citizens of Athens, chapter 17); the misinformed (the disciples at Ephesus, chapter 19); and the pleasure seeker (Felix the governor, chapter 24).
Luke’s neighbors are in your neighborhood too. Each spiritual profile has its own unique questions or distortions about God that need to be addressed. For example, before the hurting are ready to accept Christ, they may need you to answer their questions about pain and suffering. “Why is God punishing me with this sickness? Why doesn’t God stop people from dying?” The skeptic needs you to answer questions like, “How do you know there is a God? If there is a God, what is he like? Why does he allow war and injustice?” The good person believes that salvation can be earned by being good. Judgment Day is like a teeter-totter. God will take all our good deeds and place them on one side. Then he will place all our bad deeds on the other. If we have more good deeds than bad, we’ve made it. The distortion is God’s justice and love. The successful believe their wealth or position is proof that God validates their lifestyle. Not necessarily true.
Here’s how it works. First, build relationships in your neighborhood. Cultivate friendships. Next, love your neighbors. Look for ways to express God’s kindness. Then begin to have spiritual conversations. Ask questions like, “What was it like to grow up in your family?” “Can you tell me about your religious life?” One question will usually lead to another. From there, try to discern their spiritual profile. Determine their general beliefs and the questions or distortions of God they have that need to be addressed. Finally, do your homework. Get some answers. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).
Allow your neighbors to see God through you. Provide biblical answers to their questions. Pray that in time, they will become open to hearing the Good News. You’ll find that presentation in Acts 2!
Tim Wallingford is director of the Center for Church Leadership in Cincinnati, Ohio and author of Transforming Neighborhoods a Life at a Time and 100 Answers to Questions from the Neighborhood.