Scripture Text: Matthew 5:13-20 & Isaiah 58:1-12
About a year ago, Rev. Landon Whitsitt, Executive Presbyter of the Synod of Mid-America, released a YouTube video about successful churches (see video below). In the video he references a business article about what most business people believe makes for a great business startup. The article describes what is known as “The Startup Trifecta”: 1) Doing your homework about your target marketplace, 2) Gaining the right investors, and 3) Hiring great talent to work for you.
And Rev. Whitsitt points out that we think the same way in the church. We believe that if we have “The Ministry Trifecta” then we will have a “successful” church. And, like a business start up, that trifecta includes: 1) Researching the demographics around the church to find out who’s in your community and what ministry opportunities there are – which no church actually uses when developing ministries, 2) Attracting the “Right Group” of people – which typically means upper-middle class young families who are believed will in cash, and 3) Hiring the “Perfect Pastor” – which typically means someone young which the church believes will attract these young families and save the church – an idea that has never proven to be true in the last 30 years.
However, both the article’s conclusions and Whitsitt’s own experience with hundreds of churches across the Midwest finds that any business or church can have all three parts of the trifecta in place and still fail. Having the trifecta is not an indicator of whether the business or church will be successful. In fact, both the article and Rev. Whitsett finds that the only thing successful businesses and “successful” churches had in common is: “they simply want it more.” They want it so much more, they don’t let little problems get in the way. The churches that “simply want it more” don’t let a less than ideal location, a weak giving base, or lack of rock-star staff and volunteers keep them from making an impact in their community. These are churches that are known in their communities. They are known as the light and salt of their communities. And as the expression goes, “anything worth its salt has a parking problem.”
The prophet Isaiah is confronted by people lamenting over why they are not growing as they believe they should. After all, they’ve been doing everything right – they practice their worship and fasting the right way; they humble themselves before God the right way – yet they are still struggling. God seems to be ignoring them. “What’s the right thing to do?” they ask Isaiah. And God’s response through the prophet is a hard pill to swallow. “The bottom line of your worship is profit…you worship, but at the same time you bicker and fight…The kind of worship you do won’t get your prayers off the ground!...the kind of worship I’m after [is] to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, [and] cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, [and] being available to your own families.”
God does not hold any punches in addressing the people’s deeper issues and hypocrisy. They worship a God of love, mercy, and grace yet do not attempt to do the same in their daily lives with those around them or even with those among them. They have compartmentalized their faith – reserved it only for certain aspects of their lives instead of integrating it throughout their whole lives. Their worship has become nothing more than a public expression of social piety. And as a result, they have no integrity before God. They are light under a basket. Salt that is diluted and degraded.
And then Jesus comes along and reminds the people – both then, and us now – why we are here. Why God created us. What we are called to be. Who we are. “You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth…You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.” Jesus is NOT saying that these are ideals to try and achieve. Jesus is saying that this is already WHO you are! You are already salt and light. Just as the Beatitudes tell you that you are already blessed to be a blessing, Jesus is saying that you are already salt meant to bring out and enhance the God-flavors of life that are already there. Jesus says you are already light meant to illuminate the beauty within others. That’s just the way it is. The way it will be. Period. To say that you are not talented enough, not smart enough, don’t know enough, or not experienced enough to follow the call to God’s mission in the world is to deny that you are a Disciple of Christ. To deny that you are a Christian. It is to hide your light under a basket. To dilute your saltiness with water. You’re not going to be denied access to the future Kingdom because of this, but you will miss the opportunity to experience the Kingdom in the here and now. And why would you want to wait for that?
Like the Israelites that Isaiah addresses, those who hide their light or dilute their saltiness are more focused on personal religion than living out their faith with others. They want their religious life to be about attending the right church, with the right form of worship, at the right time, with the right sort of people, giving the right amount of money, and paying the right type of pastor, to do things the right way. And often, the “right sort of people” and the “right pastor” means – the sort that they are comfortable being around, that don’t challenge them, or at least they can politely ignore as long as they do things the right way, provide the right amount of money, and their religion stays personal to them.
Yet when things stop being done the “right way”. When worship takes new forms. When the “wrong sort” of people start attending and don’t give the right amount of money. When the pastor doesn’t seem quite right and does things all the wrong way. When the church makes religion about fully living out your faith in community with others – complete with the ugliness, awkwardness, and discomfort that comes with authentic community – instead of religion being only about your comfort – we start to lament. We start to cry out that God must be ignoring us. We try and rationalize all the reasons why these things can’t happen: All these new people make me feel disconnected. We don’t have enough money in the budget to feed the children in the community. We’ve got to make sure that no one is taking advantage of our charity. We’re too old to do that. We don’t have anyone with the knowledge or skills to do that mission. We don’t know enough about the bible to teach that. We have to take care of our members first. We are not comfortable going to that side of town. etc., etc., etc. And we do this because we refuse to admit that we simply do not want it. We hide our light. Dilute our saltiness. So much that we forget not only who we are, but whose we are. We get so caught up in playing “Church”, we forget that we are called to be Disciples of Christ, claimed by God, empowered by the Holy Spirit to be a shiny, salty presence in the community where God has placed us.
Meanwhile, the churches that make an impact in their community – the churches who know they are light to illuminate their neighbors and salt to bring out the God-flavors of their communities – those are churches who – according to Rev. Whitsett’s research – simply care more about their communities than themselves. They do not fight over the “way we’ve always done things.” They have no need even to try and preserve themselves because, like Christ, they have a strong sense of sacrificial action. They have people eager to be leaders because they understand that the only requirement to be a leader in the Church is to love like Jesus loves. You don’t have to be a great theologian, biblical scholar, or have a certain skill set. You don’t even have to get it right all the time. You just have to be willing to try to love like Jesus.
Author Isak Denisen – known for the books Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast – once wrote: “The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.” And the cure for the “failing church” – at least in the biblical sense – is salt and light as well. As the Prophet Isaiah points out, a “successful” church is prophetic church – one that shines a light within the dark places of injustice, poverty, and suffering that surrounds it – and then takes salty action to heal it and make it healthier. A prophetic church puts salt in the wounds of its community – which hurts at first – but eventually, the salt brings about healing and better health to both itself and the community around it. A prophetic church causes salty tears to flow as we recognize our own inner flaws, failings, and infighting – which is upsetting when we first confront it – but eventually the salt of our tears brings about healing and better health both within ourselves and our relationships with others. A prophetic church is formed by the sweat of our brow – hard work that causes a lot of aches and pains at first – but eventually we become stronger and healthier, and the hard work feels easier. A prophetic church also knows the importance of selfcare for its leaders – because they can’t care for the community if they are not caring for themselves. And nothing soothes tired, achy muscles like a nice soak in a warm salt water bath – such as the ocean.
A prophetic church is a healthy church. And, having been a biology teacher, I know that one of the basics of life is that healthy things always grow, though the growth is often slow and unsteady – with both peaks and valleys along the way. And in order to grow, you must first prepare the environment for healthy growth, which includes removing things that interfere with the organism’s health. The only thing that grows fast and uncontrolled is cancer – and left to its own devices, cancer will eventually kill the organism.
A healthy church also has biblical integrity. And something that has integrity is stable – all the parts supporting the whole mission of God to be salt and light in the world. All the various ministries and members of the church working together to support the church’s single, unified mission – “To welcome ALL people to experience God’s grace by worshiping, sharing, and serving together.” And having biblical integrity, means that we engage all three aspects of that mission. And while we’re always concerned about that first aspect – worshiping – what about sharing and serving? Because sharing and serving are what God views as worship with integrity.
My concern is that most of the congregation’s concern and most of the Seasonal Teams’ planning, is primarily focused on worship. The majority of this congregation’s attention is upon one hour each week. So much so that sharing and serving – our Christian Education programs, children’s ministry, small groups, and missional outreach – are often an afterthought. And yet, those are the aspects of our mission that will get us to better health and greater growth. Those are the aspects of our mission where we live into our identity of being “salt and light” for the community. Those are the aspects of our mission where we learn discipleship and engage in evangelism – both of which are necessary for church growth. Worship is to us to them. Otherwise, we end up like the Israelites complaining to Isaiah about how our worship isn’t giving us what we want. And if all we are doing for our religion is attending worship, then we are diluting the saltiness of our souls, dimming-down the light of our faith, and making our religion all about the perception of social piety.
And so I wonder. I wonder what will happen when we reclaim our Christ-given identity as salt and light again? I wonder what will happen when we take the words of Isaiah to heart? I wonder what will happen when we stop practicing the worship we desire and start engaging in worship that God desires – “to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, [and] cancel debts.” I wonder what will happen when we all agree to stop lamenting the church that was, and start embracing the church that is becoming? A church that is a light to ALL people in the community. I wonder what will happen when we stop playing it safe and start doing something salty, risky, even sacrificial, for the sake of our community – for the sake of God’s mission in our community? I wonder what will happen when we stop worrying about the “right way” of doing things and start doing things “Christ’s way?” For example: I wonder what will happen if we start having weekly dinners where we invite the whole community to eat a free meal, share conversation, and make new friendships? I wonder what will happen if we build a community garden in our park and donate the fresh produce to local food pantries? I wonder what will happen if we put out a little free food pantry in our park where people who need food can take what they need? I wonder what will happen if we hosted a community-wide arts festival to welcome artists from across the county to show off their talents for others who might not see them otherwise? I wonder what will happen if we hosted an event to raise money and awareness about issues such as breast cancer, human trafficking, and homeless youth that affect our community at an exceptionally high rate? I wonder what will happen when our life as a congregation is one where we – “share our food with the hungry, invite the homeless poor into our homes, put clothes on the shivering ill-clad, [and] are available to be…” with each other in times of need? Because sharing and serving within our community is what God views as worship with integrity.
The question is not – “Can we do it?” – because Jesus says you are already salt and light. You are already blessed by God with what you need to serve God’s mission. So we can do it. The question is not – “Do we have the ministry trifecta to make it happen?” – because research and experience shows that none of that stuff matters. So, we can do it. The real, difficult question we must answer is – “How much do we want it?” How much do we – Grace Presbyterian Church – want to grow? Not as a congregation – but as Disciples of Christ? How much do you – as individuals – want to grow in your sharing and serving? In your discipleship and evangelism? And therefore worship God with integrity? How much do we – as a congregation – actually care about those outside of us in this community? We say we do, until we have to sacrifice something important to us. So, how much are we willing to sacrifice in order to free our community of injustice, poverty, and suffering? How much are we willing to sacrifice in order to free ourselves from pride, greed, and nostalgia for the past?
Would we sacrifice our Wednesday lunches to provide a meal for other senior citizens in the community? Would we sacrifice our pristine park to provide a playground for children in Old Town who still don’t have a viable playground? Would we change the time of our worship service so that people living at Colonial House across the street would be able to worship with us every Sunday? Would we sacrifice our building and move to a rental space so that the money could feed children in our community or put a roof over a homeless teenager’s head at night? How much do you want to be a Disciple of Christ in every aspect of your life? How much do you want to embrace your saltiness and your lights? How much do we want to be a congregation who worships with biblical integrity – where we stop doing church and start being church?
Do you want to be bland and dull?
Or do you want to be salty and shiny?
How much do you want it?
The answer lies in knowing:
Who you are
and whose you are?