Building Community with Christ’s Love

While spending time in Portland, OR with a friend earlier this month, I was surprised when three separate strangers approached me out of the blue to start a conversation. They didn’t want anything, they simply planned to say hello and share a brief moment of friendliness.

This was, or course, heresy to my East Coast sensibilities. I am used to keeping my head down while I walk, only talking to passing pedestrians if absolutely necessary. We don’t mean anything negative by it; that’s just one of our cultural quirks.

Still, I was struck by how I felt after the encounters: Full. Encouraged. Though our conversations were cursory, they added a spark to my day.

My reaction, undoubtedly a common one, has inspired fascinating research in recent years. Numerous studies indicate that face-to-face interactions (as well as the deeper relationships they often coincide with) can increase lifespans, lower risks for diseases like dementia, and even control the efficacy of immune system genes that fight cancer.[1]

This shouldn’t be too surprising. We all know and have experienced the impacts that community (and loneliness) can have on our spiritual and emotional lives. That’s partly why the writer ofHebrews warns us not to give up “meeting together” but instead to continue “encouraging one another” (10:25). “Two are better than one,” Ecclesiastes says, and “a cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (4:9, 12b).

Being friendly, then, is foundational to human existence. It is a simple yet critical part of Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But how often do we think of it in terms of ministry?

I asked myself this while helping with last week’s Open Door ESL program, led by GRC and the youth ministry. The primary purpose of such a trip seems obvious initially: Help neighboring immigrant communities improve their command of the English language. But there is more at work.

Each night, classes were filled with students and volunteers sharing laughter, life stories, and one-on-one conversations. The end of the week was marked with declarations of “We will miss you, teacher,” and entreaties to visit sometimes. Though their English had likely only improved marginally (it was one week, after all), they had received the time and attention of strangers. And why? Not because of any material gain for the volunteers. It can only have been sincere neighborliness.

Our willingness to connect with the people around us – loving them, even in small ways, as ourselves – is essential to evangelism. And it requires so little from us! The opportunities are limitless.

Postscript: If you’re thinking, “I wish I could have been part of that Open Door ministry,” don’t worry – you still can! The fall program is still looking for ESL, Computer, GED or children’s ministry teachers. And the GRC youth ministry is looking forward to another summer partnership with Open Door next July – keep an eye out for an announcement about official 2018 dates.

[1] Many of these studies, including the ones I reference here, are described in Susan Pinker’s 2014 book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter

Phil Kline has worked with GRC’s youth ministry each ofthe last three summers. He loves books, the piano, and Italian food. He’s also a recovering Mets fan.