Build from the outside in

September 27th, 2022

As a child of the 1980s, I  know by heart the tune to the educational program produced by Presbyterian pastor Mr. Rogers.[1] Do you know it or remember it? The lyrics are profound:

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,
a beautiful day for a neighbor.
Could you be mine?
Would you be mine?

It’s a neighborly day in this beautywood,
a neighborly day for a beauty.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.
So let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we’re together, might as well say
would you be my, could you be my, won’t you be my neighbor?

Fred Rogers lived out Thomas Merton’s experience of seeing everyone as “holy” and “shining like the sun.” Mr. Rogers believed his neighborhood was beautiful and his neighbors were beautiful. He told his neighbors that he always wanted a neighbor just like them. For many church leaders this has been true—until your neighbors change!

Single-family home dwellers or even apartment dwellers have the opportunity to move when the neighborhood changes. Some are even forced to move if the neighborhood changes. Churches are different. As a consequence, we get “drive-in” churches, where people who once lived near the church have moved far from the church and now “drive-in” to their church. There are fewer “drive-out” churches. This occurs when members move out far from the church and the church follows them, usually to the suburbs. It’s possible that a denomination might plant a new church in a newly developed area or a stable church might begin a second campus closer to where members have moved, but most churches don’t sell their current property and rebuild in a newly developed area to be closer to their members who have moved.

The consequences of a church staying in its property means that in an ever-changing society, its neighbors will probably change. For some this is a blessing and for others a curse, and for all it is a re- ality that we must embrace. We adapt to #mrrogerslife! For some rural churches, many neighbors have moved away, and they are now neighbor-less. For other rural churches, they have more neighbors than ever before because the pent-urban suburbs are creeping close to their small community. Downtown churches have neighbors who fluctuate between rich and poor, black and white, immigrants and military. Some have even found themselves in parts of town that have been renamed, such as Chinatown, Little Haiti, and Little Havana. In what follow are a story, scripture, and strategies that support us in the efforts to know our neighbor and our neighborhood, to live a #mrrogerslife.

Available from MinistryMatters

Story—Dog Park in the Midwest 

While land is hard to come by in big cities, it is plentiful in rural communities. Some churches not only have a building but also have a lot of land. Some bought the land hoping to expand, and others purchased many acres to one day have a cemetery. Still other churches receive large acres of land in wills and gifts. One church in the rural Midwest had a lot of land. Like other rural communities the town was becoming more of a bedroom community in a local suburb. The church is healthy and of medium size, with a proven desire to bring new people into a relationship with Christ, and with new friends. The pastor of the church is an innovator and entrepreneur and often wondered what could be done with all their land. The answer came through his own wife who told him what she and others needed. 

Most Sundays after Don returned home from morning worship, his wife would head out the door with their dog. One week, he saw her packing up to leave and noticed she had a bunch of cupcakes. He learned the cupcakes were not for him, but for dogs and puppy parents. Each Sunday his wife headed out to a dog park in the next township over, which was about twenty minutes away. That specific day one of the dogs had a birthday, and she signed up to bring cupcakes. Don learned that his wife was part of this interesting dog community. The dog group met weekly, cared for one another, ate with one another, and did a lot of things a church would do. 

Don went to his church leadership with the idea of creating a dog park on its land. The church members had mixed emotions, but it didn’t matter how they felt, because they didn’t have money for it. Don offered to write grant proposals. He made a deal with the church that if he could find the money, it would provide the land. Within one month Don had a large grant from the city to pay for the entire dog park, and the city would maintain the park. The church made good on its part of the deal and allocated the land to the city through a land lease. The dog park is now a gathering place for their community. The church holds services at the park and hosts an annual dog park festival that draws over a hundred and twenty thou- sand people each year. The church “let go” of some land and in turn has earned a lot more money than the land is worth through their festivals, which fund the mission of the church. Learning what its neighbors needed was the key to the property project. In many ways the people guided what happened on the property. What is healthy for our community and our neighbors is healthy for our church. Our health is intertwined with that of the people who live around us.


Scripture is clear on being a good neighbor and defining who that might be. This possibly explains why a pastor formed by scripture created a show focused on the neighborhood. The Shema is one of the central prayers in the Hebrew Bible. It is located in Deuteronomy 6:5 and reads: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” Jesus quotes the Shema in the New Testament when questioned by a lawyer about how to inherit eternal life. Jesus expanded this rule for life with a commandment from Leviticus 19:18, by saying it like this, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind . . . [and] love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39). Our salvation is bound up with our relationship to our neighbor. The salvation of our church community is also bound up with our relationships with our neighbors.

Some churches might ask a clarifying question much like the lawyer did, “Who exactly is my neighbor?” Drive-in churches might ask, “Who is my neighbor? The people who live around me or the people who live around the church?” Jesus responded to the lawyer with a story about the good Samaritan. Martin Luther King Jr. focused on this text in his last address before he was assassinated. In his sermon he ponders why the Levite and the priest passed by without helping. Perhaps the Samaritan was avoided for the sake of cleansing rituals that qualify a worshipper to enter the temple courts. Perhaps the priest was on his way to an important temple meeting. Use your imagination, like the preacher did, as he compared the two possible questions the Levite and the good Samaritan might have asked. He imagined that the Levite’s first question was, “‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” He then imagined that the good Samaritan reversed the question asking, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”[2]

In the questions asked by the three sojourners we understand that our actions produce reactions and are caught up in circumstances of the people around us. In addition, if you take the question of the Levite and the priest and replace it with the question asked by the lawyer directly after Jesus expands the Shema, one might receive an affirming answer, “You will receive eternal life.” The Levite and the priest were not thinking about the kingdom when they passed by; instead, they were thinking of themselves. When practicing the Christian faith, we absolutely must give up thinking only of ourselves. Our salvation is caught up in the salvation of the other. 

A particular king in the New Testament learned this the hard way. In the story of the rich ruler and Lazarus, Luke tells it best: 

There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day. At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. 

The rich man also died and was buried. While being tormented in the place of the dead, he looked up and saw Abraham at a distance with Lazarus at his side. He shouted, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame.” 

But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain. Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us.” 

The rich man said, “Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.” 

Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.” 

The rich man said, “No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives.” 

Abraham said, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:19-31 CEB)

The rich ruler doesn’t have a name. Often in a parable the storyteller implies that we should place our own name in the place of the nameless character. Luke tells us that the rich man has a neighbor and his name is Lazarus. The rich man’s inability to see him as his neighbor was a problem and quite possibly landed him in hell. In heaven the rich man reached out to Lazarus. Instead of asking for a cup of sugar or glass of milk, he desperately asks Father Abraham, who was next to Lazarus, for a drop of cool water for his tongue. The rich man needed Lazarus in the afterlife, but he ignored and did not understand Lazarus’s need for him in earthly life. 

One way to interpret this parable is to presume the theological role reversal in the afterlife, and conclude that Jesus has a preferential option for the poor. This point of view is helpful in some teaching. Consider also that this parable shows how complex our lives and relationships are on earth, because our relationships here and now are bound up with our salvation now and always. Eternity begins before death on earth inasmuch we are able to see heaven on earth by seeing and treating each human being as our neighbor.

Strategy—Go to Your Neighbors 

So how do we get to know our neighbor? How do we move back into our neighborhood? Recently, I moved out of a parsonage and into an apartment building downtown. I lived there for a year while the church parsonage was renovated. Before I moved downtown, I knew a few of my neighbors but not many. As I contemplated moving back into my neighborhood, I wondered how I might get to know more of my neighbors. I imagined hosting a big party for my neighbors, asking them to come to me. I still hope to do this because I love parties, and I intend to promote our contractors and their business. However, I find so far that I get to know my neighbors best by going to them, by walking my dog around my neighborhood. Similarly, in the church, we often hope our neighbors will come to us. We think that if we plan a great party or VBS or rummage sale, that our neighbors will come by and want to be one of us. In some communities this might work, but in our rapidly chang- ing and diversifying culture, people are not coming into churches. People must be met along the road.

A sociology professor from Wofford College spent a year exploring the power of one’s neighborhood. For an entire year he spent all his time in a two-mile radius of his home. He found that his health improved in that year, physically and emotionally. He felt more connected and whole. He felt like he belonged somewhere and to some- body. The same is possible for our churches. As we learned from the stories earlier in this chapter, churches became healthier when they focused on the people directly around them and when they went to them. A strategy to help us live a #mrrogerslife is to go to our neighbor. The neighbors living right around our block, in a two-mile radius. Getting to know our neighbors is one of the keys in learning how to build and rebuild our churches, inside and out.

Strategy—Build from the Outside In

For years, in the practice of architecture, creative designers placed the form of a building over the function of the building. The process began with a pretty picture and then solved the space for how the people would move about it. This philosophy still works for some projects. However, when trying to build a space for everyone, the people and purpose of a building drives what is ultimately created, and the form follows. Millennial lifestyles and values have, in part, led to this shift away from traditional design.

In many ways, the economic movement of millennials can be seen as a venture into virtue. Some blame this venture to virtue on the technological revolution and believe that millennials are so tied to their screens that they need nothing else. The religious right does not believe it is a religiously inspired move, and they might even say the lifestyle is not a venture back to virtue. Economists, by and large, blame the US recession of 2008. I blame the rise of a Swedish furniture store that specializes in small spaces: Ikea!

Economists may be right. The birth of tiny and communal living emerges as much out of necessity as it does from desire. In 2008 and the difficult years following, many millennials watched their parents move or moved with them when they lost their house during the real-estate foreclosures in the United States. This loss created a fear of buying a house for many millennials. One might wonder if the sudden loss of home or dramatic change in lifestyle might cause an entire generation to hold lightly their possessions and rather invest their time and money in experiences and community.[3]

In addition to the risk factor of purchasing a home, many millennials simply cannot afford to do so. In 2013, USA Today reported, “With a median household income of $40,581, millennials earn 20 percent less than boomers did at the same stage of life, despite being better educated, according to a new analysis of Federal Reserve data by the advocacy group Young Invincibles.”[4] Not only are millenni- als earning less, they also have massive tuition debts to pay off, and their overall net worth is less than their parents’ was at their age. “The median net worth of millennials is $10,090, 56 percent less than it was for boomers.”[5] The Progressive Policy Institute reports that even since the year 2000 real earnings for college grads have gone down by 10 percent. Most millennials realize that they will have a lower standard of living than their parents.[6]

Whether the movement toward virtue is caused by technology, religion, or economics, it is one that leaders in the Christian faith can address. The concept of sharing is one remedy leveraged by millennial start-ups. The movement away from home ownership and car ownership (which requires mass transit in walkable cities) sounds consistent with Acts 2 and 4, with earliest Christians holding property in common.

One Miami developer, Ryan Shear, with Property Markets Group listened to his neighbors (the young people living around him) and studied the data of this group. The values of young adults in Miami and elsewhere birthed the micro-unit movement in Miami. The needs and values of the target group and their neighborhood would determine how the building was built and what happened inside. The goal was to give millennials an attainable price point to live downtown. This was the starting point. In further listening to millennials they learned that apartment size was not a large value, but community space was important to them. The building then became built around the philosophy of smaller personal spaces and large public spaces. The communal areas included a pool deck as big as a cruise ship, large grills to cook out, a theater to watch big games or season finales, a large open-to-the-public bar and coffee shop in the lobby, and a gym equipped for personal use and group classes. The function of the desired user determined the form the building would take both inside and out. Due to the large spaces in size and the overall budget for the project, there is no large glass curtain around the building or a noticeable architectural feature that makes it stand out. Instead, choosing to stay within the budget and reflect its users’ value on art, the building has large multistory pieces of art that are printed on vinyl. The art can be seen from blocks away. The developer designed from the outside in by (1) looking first to those in the neighborhood and who would be moving to the neighborhood, (2) listening to who they are and what they value, and (3) building a product that they could both financially and socially “buy into.”

How might the church think about its current space, future space, programs, and mission with this outside-in thinking? What might our neighbors teach us about how to create more inviting and inclusive spaces? What new people might venture into spaces if built just for them? As if the church had been waiting for a neighbor just like them?

Strategy Session

Gather a group of people from your church and answer the following questions:

Think about the neighborhood around your church. On the next pages, draw a picture of your neighborhood, illustrating roughly a two-mile radius around your church.

Compare your diagram or image with others in your group. What is similar and what is different?

On your smartphone, go to your “maps” app and type in the address of your church. Zoom in and then take some time looking at the features around your church. Compare your maps, which were hand-drawn, to the map in your smart-phone app. Whose map includes most of the items found on your map app?

Brainstorm with your group about how you might engage one of the neighbors around your church. What is the name of this person, organization or business?

Excerpted from Fresh Expressions of People Over Property by Audrey Warren and Bishop Ken Carter. Copyright © 2020 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” written by Fred Rogers, © 1967, Fred M. Rogers. Used with permission.

[2] Martin Luther King Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top,” last sermon delivered at Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968.

[3] Anna Bahney, “How the Financial Crisis Affected Millennials, 10 Years Later,” CNN Money, December 4, 2017, /impact-recession-millennials/index.html.

[4] Collin Brennan, “Millennials Earn 20 % Less Than Boomers Did at the Same Stage of Life,” USA TODAY, January 13, 2017, /story/money/2017/01/13/millennials-falling-behind-boomer-parents/96530338/.

[5] “Millennials Earn 20% Less than Boomers Did at the Same Stage of Life.”

[6] J. Maureen Henderson, “Millennials Earn Less Than Their Parents and the Recession Isn’t to Blame,” Forbes, November 30, 2013, -and-the-recession-isnt-to-blame/#773a83f45946.

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