Navigators Neighbors: Restoring Fragmented Communities

Watch a short film about this article on the “Videos” page of this website.

By David Lyons

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How does increasing social isolation in communities around the world create an open door for the Gospel?

About 50 years ago, a University of Oklahoma doctor discovered something remarkable in Roseto, Pennsylvania, a small town founded by Italian immigrants in the late 1800s. The people had extremely low rates of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, alcoholism, and strokes. The crime rate was zero.

A team of doctors and sociologists set out to discover what was happening. They quickly ruled out diet, geographical influences, and genetic factors. The researchers finally concluded that the people in Roseto were so healthy because they had formed such a tightknit community.

One doctor described a "magical" scene in the town. Neighbors constantly visited one another in their homes. They cooked for each other. They sat on front porches and held long conversations. They developed numerous civic organizations and they had a strong church presence. All of this provided, according to the researchers, a "calming effect."

As author Malcolm Gladwell described it, the townspeople in Roseto had built a “powerful protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world."

Unfortunately, more and more people around the world today live in communities where they don’t know their neighbors. A World Bank report confirms that in rural and urban areas, people are experiencing “weakened bonds of kinship and community,” which increases “corruption, crime and lawlessness.” Other studies show the same trends. As documented in the Harvard Business Review, forty percent of all Americans feel lonely.

Numerous factors have led to the rise of isolation and loneliness around the world, but one is the decades-long trend of spending extensive time watching TV and, more recently, “relating” over the Internet on social media platforms—a global phenomenon.

“We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s,” writes former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.

An Open Door for the Gospel

A growing network of Navigators—called Navigators Neighbors—is working to counter the trend toward neighborhood isolation.

“We need to focus on communities and neighborhoods,” says Al Engler, who leads Navigators Neighbors. “Perhaps the most radical missions effort today is simply engaging with people where we live and raise our kids. If we’re going to see fruitfulness, we need to rethink community—biblical community—in our neighborhoods.”

Two vibrant Navigator families in Oregon are discovering how to do that. John and Steff Winder in Corvallis, and James and Sheryl Helms in Portland, are restoring strong neighborhood bonds by organizing barbeques, community gardens, soup nights, and street paintings. They are building relationships in natural ways at local farmers’ markets, a coffee roasting center, a swimming pool, and even a roller derby league.

The impact has been remarkable, as you can see by watching a short film about their lives on the “Videos” page of this website. We encourage you to watch the film. You’ll see how simple it is to start rebuilding a strong community in your own neighborhood.

In addition to the work in Portland and Corvallis, Al says similar efforts are underway in Seattle, San Francisco, Detroit, Washington, D.C. and many other locations. In January, more than 200 neighborhood ministry leaders gathered in Denver to encourage one another and think about ways to advance the Gospel within local communities. Navigators Neighbors convened again in June and another large gathering is set for September.

“God told the exiled Israelites in Babylon to plant gardens, build houses, and to seek the peace and prosperity of the city in which they lived,” says Al, citing Jeremiah 29. “As Navigators, we have a vision to be ‘next door to everywhere,’ so that means connecting deeply in the neighborhoods where we live.”

David Lyons has been an International Vice President of The Navigators since 2010. He serves our staff around the world by coaching leaders and leading change. David is author of Don’t Waste the Pain.