Book Review: Dave Runyon and Jay Pathak’s The Art of Neighboring

The only way I can think of to introduce this book is this:

It is a great book.

It was not a great book for me.

And I write that specifically because I don’t want to dissuade you from reading it.  This is not one of those flag-waving “avoid at all costs” reviews.  Rather, I think this book is perfect…for the right person.  And I hope that this review will help you figure out whether you are that right person or not.

The crux of the book, which is an easy read, is that most of us ought to be taking the precept “love your neighbor as yourself” a lot more literally than we are.  Pointing out that most believers don’t even know the names of the people living right next door to them, Pathak and Runyon point out that ministry starts at home…sometimes right next door.  The book then becomes a guide to how to do that: it gives you a running start in the art of neighboring.

I think the premise of the book is brilliant, not least because – as Pathak and Runyon point out – it gives believers a way to become established parts of their community and to use that as a basis for ministry.  Having come to the “neighboring” concept as a result of local government encouraging the involvement of churches within the community, they realized that starting with their neighbors was the easy and most efficient way to go about such involvement.  Additionally, there are social benefits: when neighbors know each other and trust each other and have the ability to communicate well, neighborhoods often grow safer, more welcoming, and more willing to care for their own members.

The part of the book that tripped me up was the move from theory to practice, as Runyon and Pathak offer instructions on how to get about “neighboring.”  Their ideas are actually quite good: they encourage you to start where you are, which means anything from learning your neighbor’s names and numbers if you don’t know them to starting up conversations and establishing trust to organizing block parties with the families on your street.  It was the “block parties” concept that cinched my realization that the book wasn’t right for me, however – even when I read the authors’ steps on how to move from point A to point B(lock party) with my neighbors, I realized it wasn’t possible.

It isn’t possible because my neighborhood just isn’t like that.

See, Pathak and Runyon’s concept of “neighborhood” feels a little optimistic, to me.  For them, a neighborhood is a place where you can, yes, eventually meet everyone – even if you have to make a little extra effort or be a little insistent with those who might be skeptical.  It is a place where people are always running into each other and are predisposed to take an interest in other people’s business.  It is a place where everyone is interested in working for the common good and where people, when push comes to shove, are welcoming of intrusions into their daily life.

That is not where I live.  Where I live, half my neighbors (nurses, doctors, and police) work night shifts and so I pretty much never see them.  I’ve run into plenty of joggers and walkers from other neighborhoods, but my neighbors have different hours than I do or they simply don’t get out much.  And frankly?  I live in a neighborhood that doesn’t welcome random knocks on the door and  intrusions into daily life because daily life is already rife with them in the form of fundraising schoolchildren, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, security system salespeople, and lawn service companies.

I suspect Pathak and Runyon understand this; they note the difficulties of dealing with wary and solicitor-wary neighbors, and of winning people’s trust over time, but the prevailing attitude of the book seems to be just keeping working at it and you’ll find a way!  That’s a fine response, but not one within the grasp of an introvert like me.  I’m willing to make friends and “neighbor” as much as I can as I meet people out and about in the day-to-day, and I’m happy to drop Christmas cookies and notecards in mailboxes or even off at the front door face-to-face, but banging on a neighbor’s door just to chat and say hi – even and especially if they’re openly wanting to get back to their day – is beyond me.

Moreover, sometimes “neighboring” can cause difficulties, too.  It’s to Pathak and Runyon’s credit that they try to address those difficulties: what happens when you have a legitimate conflict with a neighbor you’re trying to minister to?  What happens when a neighbor starts violating boundaries?  But the fact that those difficulties are innate to the process of “neighboring” also serves as a hint, to me, that it isn’t as easy, optimistic, and natural as the book would have it seem.

So here is what I would say to you: if you have a burning desire to know your neighbors, or if you have had opportunities to minister to your neighbors and simply don’t know how, grab this book.  It will be enormously helpful to you.  If you’re moving soon and you want to introduce yourself to the people in your new community, grab this book.  And if you’d like to read up on how to minister to a small local community, then by all means, grab this book – the principles here can apply to more than just neighborhoods.

But if you’re like me, and if you live in a neighborhood where moving from “hi, I’m ___” to exchanging phone numbers to get-togethers to eventual block parties isn’t really fathomable, then don’t feel guilty.  Save the money on this book and use it to buy a card for your neighbor instead – then slip it into the mailbox.

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4 responses to “Book Review: Dave Runyon and Jay Pathak’s The Art of Neighboring

  1. Very good review and good points! I read it, loved it but am not now any closer to my neighbors than I was before… however, I think just the principle of loving and being kind to everyone is important. I actually haven’t seen my closest neighbors in months and have no idea if they moved out without taking their stuff or what. It’s really odd.

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    • Oh wow. I had some neighbors down the street who did that. They just sort of disappeared without a trace, but no evidence of moving or anything like that. Nobody knew why or how or what happened. Wild.

      Yes, I really like the principles of this book and think they’re good to use in other practical ways if they don’t work for the neighborly stuff. It’s good just to get to know the people where you are, wherever that happens to be!

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  2. Thanks for the review. I do disagree that it is a good book, however. It had great intentions and it seems to want to restore a time period that has passed, but I could not get over how poorly these pastors handled the bible. Many of their points are found in scripture, just not the places they looked and I do not give much praise for pastors who need to twist the bible to get their point across.

    Certainly give it a read, but be a good Berian and check out the scriptures for yourself. As I said, their intentions are good, but that is about it. I found the read itself full if fanciful and idealistic anecdotes that really pulled away from general principles that would help out a neighbor looking for advice.

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