A year after settling into our new home, we had the idea to have a little, informal block party and invite the neighbors around us that we knew – about 15 or 20 people.
At the time, I had no grandiose visions of what God could do with that small step; I just thought it would be fun to get some neighbors together.
Four years later, I’m amazed at the community that has grown in our little village of about 200 homes. We now have a Facebook group, a neighborhood watch, running groups, and tons of fun annual events: an Easter egg hunt, 4th of July bike parade, a Christmas Party with Santa (along with Christmas lights competition).
This year, we did a huge Halloween extravaganza where kids picked up treasure maps and followed them around to 12 different stations including: hot chocolate, s’mores, cider, a haunted garage, hayrides, movies and popcorn. We encouraged neighbors to stay outside and organized people as station teams. Not only was the night exceedingly fun for all the kids and adults, it was a huge community builder!
What’s made planning a lot of these events so rewarding are moments like sitting at a Ladies Night Out and a newly divorced woman who just moved to the neighborhood sharing that this is her first time being on her own and literally turning to look each woman in the eyes to thank them for being an open, welcoming community for her.
It’s watching someone’s kid for the day if needed. It’s having someone to get your mail while you’re gone or knowing you can ask for sugar and flour when you’ve run out. It’s watching your kids run around with 10 other kids behind your house and hearing them all laugh and yell from your kitchen window. It’s knowing that help is right next door literally when, not if, you need it.
Along the way, we’ve adapted a few principles that have shaped how we’ve gone about things:
- Ask, “What’s in my hand?” Everyone has unique giftings as well as limitations. Meeting neighbors can feel overwhelming and intimidating. I have 4 small children, so ongoing weekly commitments aren’t realistic, but I can plan a few parties for the year.
- Try a Block Party. In our experience, the Block Party was a crucial entry point. Some friends of ours wanted to try a version, but a little simpler, so they set up a few folding tables and chairs and invited the few houses around them for ice cream. See my simplified but thorough notes on everything you’d ever want to know about how to throw a block party.
- Remember people and their names. I keep a note on my phone for neighborhood stuff so that when I meet someone at the pool, I have a quick way to jot down names. Listen when they’re talking and remember them. It communicates that you see and value them.
- Put yourself out there. There’s a vulnerability in taking the first step because no one wants to be that person who is large and in charge, especially when you have no idea what you’re doing. But often, people are just waiting for someone else to take initiative.
- Be generous. When we were first starting, we didn’t have a budget. We used to buy all the food for the Easter Egg hunt as well as the eggs and candy. Other neighbors would pitch in and help cover costs and bring utensils, tablecloths, etc. We saw all of it as an investment in the neighborhood and it really helped in the initial stages to build momentum.
- Be available and say "Yes". Try being outside more – take walks, make a fire, wave and say “hi” to people. All these things say, I’m available, I’m here. And when your neighbor asks for help (it takes time and trust to get here), say yes if you can.
- Get others involved! This is a big deal. People will feel more connected to the neighborhood if they’re personally invested and have served even in a small way.
- Be resourceful. One night I Googled “Block Party City of Columbia grant.” Within 10 minutes, I had filled out a simple few questions and applied for $250 for a popcorn machine – all from my iPhone. A few weeks later, we were approved! We also make use of the Century 21 Bounce House, which they offer free as an advertisement.
- Have ultimate motives, not ulterior motives.* I’m talking about hosting the neighborhood Easter Egg Hunt without feeling the need to surprise them with hidden Bible verses in the eggs. Ultimate motives are the larger hopes, dreams and desires you have that shape who you are. My husband and I have talked about our ultimate desire to see an umbrella of God’s common grace extend over our neighborhood along with our desire for our neighbors to know Jesus Christ as their friend and savior. We care about their gardens and jobs and kids and the bachelors programs they’re finishing and their aged parents. When you’re freed up to value the ordinary parts of people’s lives without feeling like you’ve got to somehow make the conversation “get to church stuff,” small talk takes on new meaning.
- Practice the “Art of Receiving.”* “If we don’t allow people to meet any of our needs, we limit what God wants to do in our neighborhood and in our life. Our tendency is to put ourselves in positions of power – in this case, always being the one to give. When giving is two-sided, everyone feels a sense of worth. Receiving takes humility.”
If reading this has piqued your interest, go ahead and do it – set a date for that Block Party. Knowing our neighbors has enriched our lives in more ways than I can express. And if God can use this tired, busy mama with 4 little ones to build community in our neighborhood, He can use you!
What ways have you connected with your neighbors for the sake of the gospel?
For more ideas, go to Cru.org and search for “neighbors.”
*From The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door by: Dave Runyon and Jay Pathak. Baker Books. 2012.
A longer version of this article originally appeared on the website Every Square Inch. It is used here with permission.