Once you have learned and remembered someone’s name, your relationship has moved from stranger to acquaintance. That’s a crucial first step. However, Jesus didn’t tell us to become acquaintances with our neighbors; he called us to love them, and that means we need to have an actual relationship with them.
But moving from acquaintance to relationship is not as clean or as easily defined as the first step. There isn’t a simple tool that can move you into relationship, because it is impossible to program relationships. All of us can, however, create environments where relationships might develop and grow into something significant.
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!
Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon, The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 78–81.