Touring the Roman Coliseum was awe-inspiring. Our tour group walked to the Roman Forum. The tour guide stated, “…and for a short time, this building housed the most valuable element in the Roman world. This element reached its apex during the time of Christ. Does anyone know what it is?”
My seminary brain was straining hard. Probably a bit too hard. My brain fog quickly lifted when a pre-pubescent voice from the back of the group emphatically proclaimed, “Salt!” The correct answer (accompanied with a side of sodium-free humble pie for me).
When Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, he gathered his disciples nearby. Now, a huge crowd gathered around to be in earshot of what He was primarily teaching these original twelve disciples. The context: Jesus is about to deliver a major, thought-provoking, tradition-breaking sermon to the men He already knew would carry out His ministry and start the church. He told them, “You are the salt of the earth.”
You have heard the sermon as many times as I have preached it. In Jesus’ day, salt was used to enhance flavor, but its primary usage was to preserve. Enhancing flavor is a staple in American society, but I doubt many of us have salted a fish to preserve it for later.
Jesus said, “Disciples….YOU are the salt of the earth.” Meaning the disciples were to preserve the world from decay. The gospel the disciples would proclaim would preserve or keep the soul from decay. They were to be salt for all the people of the earth.
To get the context correct, also consider Jesus' next major statement: “You are the light of the world.” Salt of the earth. Light of the world. I can not help but think about John 3:16, “For God so loved the world.” God’s love is bigger than just “the world.” God so loved the cosmos, as the original Greek text allows us to see. In Matthew 5, Jesus is saying, “future leaders of the church, you are to preserve the earth, the world, with a gospel large enough to save everyone in the cosmos. Go be salt. Preserve the soul from separation from God with gospel truth.”
Here is my fear pastor, deacon, church leader……
We have preserved the church and not the world.
The church has been “salted” in preservation mode rather than advancement mode. Many churches are calcified. Change is difficult or sometimes impossible. The radical and dangerous nature of the gospel has been traded for comfort and safety. Too many churches are sterile. Churches have retreated. Churches often live in a glorified past rather than a hopeful and powerful future. Meanwhile, the church's mission remains the same, “Go and make disciples locally and around the world.”
What is needed in this hour? As we as a nation move out of a pandemic, as there is a reshuffling of the church, as change becomes more and more possible for your church context, we need courage! Pastors, ministers, deacons, and church leaders need courage.
Joshua must have felt the angst of leadership. So God told him to be “strong and courageous” for “the Lord is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9)
Dr. Paul Powell said, “There are more pastors holding churches back than churches holding pastors back.” I disagreed with Dr. Powell for the first five years of my ministry, until I realized and felt the sting of leading change at a church. The people got salty. Some left. Some would not speak to me, even at the grocery store. But eventually, the Lord gave me thick(er) skin and vision for what could and should be, not for what had been.
Pastor, be courageous! I believe this is the hour God has orchestrated for boldness. Here’s why:
It took a pandemic to prove it, but your church is more fluid than you realized. Yes, there were likely disagreements about masks, distancing, and church online. But, you set the masking tone, you put the distance markers in place, you purchased the camera, secured a youtube channel, and your people adapted. Every church can change. The people just need the right catalyst. Covid-19 provided a temporary catalyst.
Covid has created a sense of urgency. You too can create a sense of gut-wrenching urgency, and you never needed a pandemic to make it happen. Even a three-year attendance plateau in a church must be treated as if the house is on fire. An attendance plateau quickly becomes a decline.
To create urgency, chart and graph your worship attendance, Bible study attendance, total membership, giving, and baptisms. Show your findings to your deacon body or elders. Branch out and show it to other key leaders. Gather your Bible study leaders together and show them the results. Finally, inform your entire congregation. I call this “problem casting.” You do not need to know all of the solutions; just continually present the problems. The early adopters or pioneers in your church will quickly raise their voices. I will never forget showing attendance graphs in a deacons meeting. A successful businessman stated, “Why have I never seen an attendance graph in church?” He quickly became my greatest advocate.
Compare your findings to the book of Acts. You can even just use Acts 2. We tend to compare our findings to the other church in town that is growing. I call that “compare-i-sin.” You need to “compare-i-SON.” Talk about the differences between the current condition of your church and the early church. Compare your church findings to the Great Commission.
You spent a season in “problem casting.” You lit a fire beneath at least a few. Your church is starting to talk about solutions. You now have at least a small coalition of people ready for the solutions. Be bold. Be brave. Prayerfully show the church the needed changes and solutions.
And remember, all church health, growth, and revitalization is an act of God, not charts and graphs. If your church is going to make disciples, it will be because of the power of the Holy Spirit. Pray for growth. Plan for growth. Focus on growing God’s kingdom and trust God to grow your church.
Dr. Jonathan L. Smith is the statewide director of Church Health Strategy for Texas Baptists. A twenty-nine-year veteran of preaching and pastoring, his calling is to equip pastors and lay leaders to grow God's Kingdom. Dr. Smith holds degrees in Christianity and Speech from Houston Baptist University, a Masters degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a D.Min from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.