Last month, as part of a local missions experience, my youth group went to serve at a local para-church organization.
In the midst of personal, family, and community brokeness, this ministry was an incredible witness to the love and restoration of Jesus.
In the space of six years, God had used one family to start a movement that was transforming a section of their city. The ministry - with two ministry centers, on-campus staff, a neighborhood garden, a clothes closet, and dozens of regular volunteers from local churches and groups - obviously would not have happened without the direct blessing of God.
This para-church group served hundreds of drug-addicted and broken people in the neighborhood, reaching out in very tangible ways to help those in need. Lives had been transformed, families had been brought back together, and the love of Jesus was being spread.
The staff members who were working with us, attributed the success of the ministry to prayer. And it was hard not to notice that everything - from the buildings to the neighbors - were constantly being prayed for.
During our lunch break that day, one of the volunteers who was a regular with the ministry, shared how she had become involved with that para-church organization.
The volunteer talked about how she had attended one of the largest churches in the area for years, and was involved by serving on committees and leading a small group. But through it all, she felt like something was missing. So, at the encouragement of the church's outreach coordinator, she began to volunteer at different local ministries, and eventually became involved with the organization we were working with that day.
She told us how she could never go back to being a "church person" and that being at the ministry where she currently was just felt right.
Part of her testimony struck me wrong - something about how she talked about her church experience in the past tense and how she seemed to mention "church people" with a sort of veiled derision. So I decided to check it out with her later.
lunch, as we were working together, I asked the volunteer who had shared her testimony, whether or not she still goes to the church she had talked about.
She admitted that she didn't. Then, as if defending her decision leave the church, she explained how she considered the para-church organization that she volunteered with as her church home now. She quickly added that they do have a service once a week.
Since I was probably 40 years her younger, I didn't say anything in response. But what she had said troubled me.
At the end of our day, our youth group had a debriefing of sorts to talk about our day of work and the ministry we had partnered with. Most of the youth talked about how they had a renewed appreciation for the power of prayer which was completely understandable after seeing how God had literally created a ministry of restoration out of nothing.
I had a completely different take on the day, though. I had been reminded about the importance of the local church.
The fact was, the ministry where we were working was funded by and largely run by church people. Without the local church, para-church organizations wouldn't exist.
There is no doubt that para-church groups are very important, and can sometimes fill needs that the church can't. But no group, organization, or movement can, or ever will, be as important as the Church universal, especially the Church's manifestation at the local level.
The local church isn't always the most exciting thing. Often, after years of involvement, it's not something we want to devote ourselves to with zeal. But the Church is what para-church organizations can never be; the Church is the bride of Christ, a community of believers redeemed by the blood of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and commissioned by God to make disciples and be a culture-changing force for justice and righteousness.
Has the Church always lived up to that calling throughout history? No.
But it remains the bride of Christ. And we should treat it as such. If you brazenly ignore someone's wife, don't expect to have much of a relationship with the husband, who, in this case, is Jesus.
Society doesn't respect the Church like it used to. But as Christians we should love and respect the institution of the Church and prioritize it over any other group or organization.