Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Book Review: The Art of Neighboring (Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon)

Some books make me feel very uncomfortable. Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon have written one of those. The first paragraph wrecked me and it went on from there.

“When Jesus was asked to reduce everything in the Bible into one command he said: Love God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself.  What if he meant that we should love our actual neighbors? You know, the people that live right next door?” (15)

That is the essential premise of this book, and the authors make a compelling case that we have lost sight of this most simple of duties.  Without getting preachy or condescending, they carefully move along a course of argument that argues that at the heart of it, we have stopped loving the people who live nearest us.

When I got the book, I assumed it was something akin to a social Gospel manifesto and was ready to critique away. But this was not the case. What you basically get is the story of two guys who decided to relationally engage the people who lived around them.

The crisis moment for me in this book came in chapter 7:

“We want to be clear about something when it comes to the art of neighboring. This is not an evangelism strategy. And if evangelism is your only motive, then you won’t be a very good neighbor.” (99)

That statement set off all my alarm bells, but I think they convinced me of their point. You really need to read the book to get the full argument, but what the authors suggest is a careful distinction between ulterior and ultimate motives. If the only reason I am befriending people on my block is to “bait-and-switch” to the Gospel, I am not really loving them. If love is my great motive to the relationship, the Gospel opportunities will come, be real when they do, and the relationship will not hinge on my neighbour’s response. I can keep loving the guy who is, so far, rejecting the free offer of God’s grace.

This was very liberating to me. And it resonated with so much of what I have been thinking about lately. Sometimes my mouth is closed with the Gospel with my neighbors for the very reason that I don’t want to be another salesman in their world. It cheapens the Gospel! What Pathak and Runyon did for me was remind me of the higher motive: love. I need to re-boot my love for my neighbors.

The book contains other chapters on the how-to’s of this kind of neighborhood love. Mostly they deal in the realm of motive and were very helpful. The book is not about starting new programs (thankfully!) but about getting out of your house and meeting people that live 30 feet from you. They also tackle some of the obstacles to this kind of relational investment that are likely more evident in the West: busyness, fear, etc.

Are you ready for this kind of read? Let me whet your appetite by suggesting you complete one simple task. On a piece of paper, write down the first and last names of the 8 houses/apartments/farmhouses closest to yours. If you can’t do that, buy the book.

(This book was provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications and BakerBooks in exchange for an honest review.)