Vicky Reier, assistant city manager in Arvada, Colorado, has taught our network of churches a lot when it comes to neighboring. At one of our pastors’ gatherings, Vicky challenged us to encourage and equip the people in our churches to throw block parties. She said that it may not sound like a big deal, but a block party movement could have an incredible, long-term impact in our community. We have taken Vicky’s words to heart and have been amazed to see how effective parties can be in fostering neighbor relations. Now, we are not talking about an annual HOA (homeowners association) block party that only 10 percent of the subdivision attends. When we use the term block party, we are talking about a party that is thrown by and attended by people who live on a specific block or group of blocks.
Block parties are natural environments in which neighbors will often take steps from being acquaintances to actually being friends. Parties create space for us to talk to others we already know and to meet people we don’t. Maybe this is the reason Jesus spent so much time at parties—he knew the power of a party. He understood they were an important means for people to share their lives with one another in very real and practical ways.
In the book of Luke we read the account of Jesus calling Levi to be one of his disciples and then Levi responding by throwing a party. The story is in 5:27–32.
After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
There’s a lot that happens in this short account. When Levi throws this party, Jesus is more than happy to attend. After all, Levi is creating an environment where the people he knows well can interact with Jesus and his new friends. From all indications, Jesus doesn’t even think twice about showing up to this event, although he knows it’s likely he is going to be criticized by some of the religious leaders for attending.
Let’s be honest. The fact that the Pharisees question Jesus’s attendance indicates that this party was likely not a “Mountain Dew and pizza” kind of party. This, for sure, wasn’t a Sunday afternoon church potluck. This was a party where people were having a lot of fun.
So when the Pharisees question him, Jesus has every opportunity to apologize for spending time with “sinners.” Yet Jesus actually does the opposite. He defends his right to be there and doesn’t back down because he is using the opportunity to hang out and party with a group of people who don’t have any religious framework and whom he might not see otherwise.
When is the last time you were accused of doing something like this? Has your character ever been questioned because you ate or drank with sketchy people? Not everyone in the neighborhood is cleaned up and easy to be around. We need to be willing to follow Jesus and choose to be with others in uncomfortable situations, because we can’t always expect people to come onto our turf; we must also be willing to enter their world.
Let’s make this personal. When we participate in block parties, we are being like Jesus. We are making it a priority to understand the people God has placed around us, regardless of what they believe or how they act.
You may wonder, Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Jesus to throw the party to celebrate Levi’s decision to follow him? But that’s not how the story goes. Levi is so excited about what is happening in his life that he gathers his circle of friends and invites Jesus and the disciples to join them in celebrating.
With this in mind, when we consider gathering our neighbors together, there may be others who are better suited to host the party. If so, look to partner with them rather than trying to plan and host a party on your own. If not, then maybe God wants you to be the one who initiates the gathering. Either way, as Christians, we should be playing a part in throwing the best parties in our neighborhoods—not sitting on the sidelines being irritated because the music is too loud!
There’s Gold Next Door
Diane attends a church that a couple of years ago presented a sermon series on the art of neighboring. As she listened one Sunday morning, she found herself thinking about how different the neighborhood of her childhood was compared to the one she had been living in for more than a decade. She had always wished that she knew her neighbors better, and now she sensed that God was calling her to do something about it.
After hearing about the value of learning her neighbors’ names, Diane went home and did something radical. She acted on what was discussed in church earlier that day. She decided to start taking walks and looking for opportunities to learn some of the names of the people she encountered.
While she was on one of her walks, she ran into an older lady that she had waved to numerous times in the past. This time Diane stopped and began talking to the woman. They both mentioned the fact that everyone in the neighborhood seems very busy these days. Then Diane’s neighbor, a widow, mentioned that she had been having some health issues. When Diane showed concern, her neighbor shared with her that she had just finished treatments for cancer and that it looked like it was in remission. Diane is a cancer survivor as well, and immediately the two had a bond that most of us cannot understand.
Soon after that conversation, Diane ran into her new friend again. This time her neighbor began to share some of her story with Diane. She said she was born in Germany and had spent her childhood there. And then she shared that she was actually a Holocaust survivor. They talked for a while that day, and Diane walked back to her house with her mind spinning. It dawned on her that they had been living near each other for ten-plus years, and she was just now learning that her neighbor had an amazing life story.
When Diane shared this story with us, she made a statement that we have not forgotten. She said, “I am learning that there are people right around me that have incredible things to share with me and others. It’s like I have been living next to a gold mine, but I was too busy to know there was gold right next door.”
Diane’s story didn’t end there. As she began to fill in her block map, she felt an urge to gather her neighbors together. She printed up a simple flyer that outlined a plan for a block party the following month. Distributing the flyers personally gave Diane a chance to learn a bunch of new names, and she carried a small notepad to write them in as she went door-to-door. Diane’s block map was quickly becoming a block directory.
Once they realized that her block party invite wasn’t a flyer for a roofing company, most of the neighbors she met were very friendly. Many of them even expressed interest in contributing and helping out with the party.
A month later, Diane stood in front of her driveway and watched more than forty of her neighbors hang out together for the first time. For Diane the most rewarding part of the party occurred when a guy who had been known only as “the grumpy neighbor” came to the party. Not only was he not grumpy but he also brought over two canopies and set them up to provide shade for those who wanted it.
One of the longtime residents thanked Diane and mentioned that the neighborhood used to do this kind of stuff all the time. She said that, for some reason, the parties and gatherings stopped happening and this was the first block party anyone had organized in more than fifteen years.
Diane’s story reminds us that there are amazing people and stories all around us. Often all we have to do is take a walk and be willing to engage the people we see along the way. By doing so, Diane moved from stranger to acquaintance with a number of her neighbors. And by initiating a block party, Diane helped to create an environment where many were able to get to know each other better. Diane and many others have embodied the neighboring framework that we believe works.
Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon, The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 78–83.