June 27, 2020

Front Yard Church

If you’re like my family, you’re spending a lot of time on screens. Zoom calls, emails, phone calls, and more. And if you’re like us, you’re probably looking for ways to get outside. And if your neighborhood is like ours, there are more kids riding bikes (bike shops and big box stores are reporting shortages), more families walking dogs (shelters are seeing a boom in adoptions), and just more people outside generally.

What if we viewed our time outside as something God can use? What if we viewed our time outside as missional? Our family has tried to start doing that, beginning with our front yard.

“Front yard people” is a term I first ran across when reading The Turqouise Table by Kristin Schell, a book on Christian hospitality and welcome. In the book, she encourages folks to hang out in the front yard, making themselves available for impromptu encounters and conversations with neighbors.

It’s taken us a while, but we’ve slowly shifted our outdoor living space from our shaded, quiet backyard. We put a picnic table out front (more on that in the future…), and now we work, relax, and live more as front yard people.

Within minutes of being present in the front yard, a neighbor walking by stopped for a (socially-distanced) chat. In the first few days, conversations with neighbors have included talks of job loss, school struggles, kids learning to ride bikes, and dreams of what it will be like to once again go “places”. (I remember “places”. They were fun.)

As my family has started to think through what this will look like going forward (both during and after the pandemic), here are a couple of things we’ve found helpful:

1. Have a place to sit
We started with Adirondack chairs. Now we have a table, and we’ve noticed a few houses down has added a fire pit. The goal is to have a place that you can sit that also invites others to sit with you. Even if no one ever sits with you, have a place where you're comfortable being out so people get familiar with seeing you, is a starting point.

2. Invite play
Our cul-de-sac has become a neighborhood whiffle ball field and bike ramp park. Kids (and their parents) know that our yard is open for fun, and that snacks and drinks are usually ready. We plan to start front yard movie nights when social distancing lessens.

3. Be friendly (and consistent)
Wave at everyone that drives by and say hello to everyone that walks or runs by. People are creatures of habit, and if you're outside every Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m. and your neighbor runs by every Saturday morning at 9:15 a.m., your consistency can lead to relationship. I prayed with my newspaper delivery man the day before a heart surgery, just because I see him every morning as I’m walking my dog.

Now, being front yard people is not without cost. My yard has dirt patches from dogs and ruts from bikes. But as I write this it also has laughter from my boys and the twin girls next door.

Learning to let go of perfection and embrace mess and chaos is hard for me, but it’s necessary when we want to participate in God’s mission, even in our front yards.

I’ve been talking mostly about how we all can be front yard people in our own neighborhoods. Having a front yard is a privilege, of course, but the same ideas can apply to public green spaces or other gathering spots. Set up a routine of walking the same route of your apartment, and you’ll likely start seeing the same people. Find a bench and make it a regular spot to sit, work, read, or just be. The idea is to develop habits and routines that get us out into our neighborhoods.

In addition to our personal lives, what would it mean for our congregations to become Front Yard Churches?

What if we let go of the need to have everything “just right,” and instead focused on what was needed for this time and this place?

What if we looked for new ways that our church properties (buildings and grounds) could be used to welcome and connect with our neighbors?

Taking time to slow down (as families and as communities), while consistently making yourself available to your neighbors, leads to the kind of relationships that open us up to each other and to where God is working in, through, and around us.

How can you and your family work to open yourself up to your neighbors? How can your congregation work to open itself up to its neighbors?