There’s one question that defines any church’s effectiveness and ultimate survival. Oddly, this question is rarely asked—by leaders, members or even outside church consultants. But the unspoken answer to the question drives everything from mission to budget to schedule to architecture.

Here’s the question: For whom do we exist?

Ministries have basically two answers: 1) For US (current members and others just like us). 2) For THEM (the wider community and us).

I was reminded of the importance of this question this past week. Leaders from two different churches, in two different parts of the country, indicated their different implied answers to the question.

The first leader came away from a preview showing of Lifetree Café films. After watching a playful film segment of a man who believes in extra-terrestrials, he said, “We could never host anything like that at our church. It would really bring in the whackos!” He indicated his members would not be comfortable being around people who didn’t believe like they do.

His church, if ever asked, would need to honestly answer the big question with “US.”

The other leader I heard this week currently operates a Lifetree Café. He described his excitement over a Lifetree program on Muslims. A Muslim woman on the terrorist watch list showed up and participated. She stuck around for 45 minutes after the program, talking with Christians about the contrast of Islam and Christianity.

His church, if ever asked, would honestly answer the big question with “THEM.”

At your church, what’s the answer? The question needs to be asked. Literally. Everyone needs to know the honest answer. It will simplify and speed up your decision-making. It will ultimately determine your effectiveness as a ministry. It will provide gut-check realism for how your people truly view the mission of the church.

Jesus himself faced the question. His answer:

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”