Why can’t you be my neighbor? If that brings back childhood memories of a man in a zipper sweater changing his shoes, then you are among friends. Mr. Rodgers famously used the persona of a local neighbor to invite himself into the homes of millions of children for nearly 33 years on public television. Over the course of these three decades, the show never changed, but our understanding of a local neighbor certainly has changed.
Neighbors are no longer those “living together in community,” but those “living next to each other in a community.” We live next to each other in communities with names, but we really don’t experience life together as people who are in it together. We may know our neighbor’s name, their profession and their children, but rarely do we interact with our neighbors beyond greeting them when they move in (maybe) and waving to them (maybe) as we drive into the garage and close the door.
According to a study by City Observatory, one third of Americans have no interaction with their neighbors. Only 20% of people actually interact on a regular basis with their neighbors and even recreation such as community swimming has been increasingly replaced with privately-owned pools; 5.2 million to be exact, which is up from only 2,500 in 1950. It is difficult to imagine how people who live in such close proximity to each other have so little interaction with one another. It is likely that farmers living on vast tracts of land in the 1800s enjoyed more frequent interaction with each other then those who live in suburban homes or inner city condos.
Statistics aside, simply consider your own neighborhood, street block or community to determine for yourself whether the communities of today resemble those of even 20 years ago.
Our neighborhood in Northern Virginia rarely sees children outside playing, block parties among neighbors are rare and even the occasional BBQ invitation is almost non-existent. Most of us no longer know the name of the person delivering the mail or the person who packages our groceries and barber shops have become quieter than a funeral parlor as men turn to smartphones and television programming instead of conversations with each other. Our interaction with the community extends to the point of “following” the social media site for our town or community, but interaction with the people who make it even a place on the map has diminished. Even community events seems more like a place for people to be served instead of interact with one another.
While it would be easy to merely reminisce about “the good old days” of community and hope for it’s eventual return, we should not overlook the advantage this provides to us as Christians. If interaction with our neighbors and community is rare, we are easily able to stand out as those who do interact and engage. Sometimes our neighborhood is frequently visited by Mormons and often I attempt to spend a significant amount of time with them only so they have less time to try convincing my neighbors of their beliefs. Unfortunately, they probably interact more often with my neighbors than me, but the sad truth is that their interaction requires a special trip across town.
The metaphors of salt and light used by Jesus in Matthew 5:13 can only be rightly applied when we realize that neither can be effective unless they interact with something else. Salt is incapable of doing anything unless it is physically (or chemically) interacting with other elements. Placing a salt shaker filled with salt next to a stick of butter does not produce salted butter, it is merely salt residing next to butter. In order to be effective as salt we must interact with our neighbors, not just reside near them.
The holiday season is an ideal time to transition from not just living next to your neighbors, but living with your neighbors. No one needs an excuse to deliver cookies to their neighbors during the Christmas season, neither do many people find the message of Christ’s birth an offensive topic. Both provide us with a launching point to share the gospel message, which we know will offend, but also know is necessary for eternal life. Acceptance of the gospel will likely not occur in one visit, but it will plant the seed for what will hopefully be multiple instances of salt interacting and engaging with our closest mission field.