John and Tammy volunteered to start a new ministry to reach out to the community. It worked. Every week they drew 20 to 30 people who experienced the love of Christ. But their church leaders shut them down.

The problem? John and Tammy could not prove that any of these people from the community were migrating to the church’s regular worship services.

At this church, Sunday morning attendance had become the single qualifying factor for church activity or investment. “Since this church is not growing, we can’t afford to spend money or effort on anything that doesn’t strengthen our base,” a leader told John and Tammy.

I’ve run into this line of thinking throughout my work with the church. My first youth ministry tended to attract lots of kids from the community–kids whose appearance and behavior sometimes ruffled our church board. An elder asked me, “Don’t you understand we support this youth ministry for the kids in our congregation? That’s who you’re here for–not these kids from the community. Besides, those kids’ families will never support this church.”

It comes down to a matter of mission. What–really–is the mission of the local church?

Can the modern church, in its present form, afford to spread the love of Christ even if it gets nothing in return?

Jesus calls us to love our neighbor. But what if our neighbor never enters our house of worship? It’s a question that needles most churches–even if never discussed aloud.

Kids Hope USA, a Christian organization that pairs churches with local public schools, provides a path for churches to love their neighbors. The program organizes adult mentors from congregations to spend an hour a week with at-risk children at local elementary schools. It’s wildly successful in affecting the lives of vulnerable kids. But there are many more schools that want the program than churches willing to become involved. Churches struggle to see any worthwhile connection between classroom desks and church pews.

“Is our collective heartbeat for children strong enough to beat for kids who will not ever attend this church?” asks Kids Hope president David Staal. “Do we love all children, or do we only love the kids of the families who attend this church?”

An expert in the law wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)

Hear a refreshing conversation with Kids Hope’s David Staal in today’s Holy Soup Podcast here: