Missional Metaphors – Salt and Light

“You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:13, 14)

I find Jesus’ juxtaposition of salt and light in this passage absolutely fascinating. I started reflecting on these two images of salt and light in my master’s thesis. I’ve picked them up a couple of times in my doctoral work as well. And I find myself still digging into them to mine the depth of meaning and understanding that is within them. After listening to my denomination’s recent discussion about whether or not to adopt a request that would require the denomination to develop a detailed plan for implementing the Great Commission, I have found myself coming back to these two metaphors again.

[What follows is a brief adaptation of some of my musings from more formal academic settings.]

Light and salt provide two vivid pictures of the Church’s mission. We are as light resisting an encroaching darkness and as salt preserving what can be saved in our decay-dominated environment. But before we embrace these images, it’s good to briefly consider some of the ways they are different than each other.  

Salt is best utilized when dispersed. Piled up, salt becomes corrosive, eating through all sorts of metals and damaging other substances. Too much salt on food ruins what it is trying to preserve—even steak and mashed potatoes can become unpalatable. Yet when deliberately and more evenly dispersed, salt can melt a wide area of ice, providing a safe path along an otherwise dangerous steps, sidewalk, or road. Scattered well, salt will bring out a food’s natural flavors, somehow increasing our enjoyment of the food we eat. In some forms, salt can even help cleanse infected wounds.

Light, on the other hand, weakens the further it travels from its source. When dispersed, light becomes dim, ineffective, and of little benefit. Yet when gathered, light fills dark places. Magnified, light beckons ships into safe harbors. When angled and directed well, light can bring out unnoticed colours and hidden contours. In the hand of a trained physician, light can even restore sight.

One is powerful when dispersed, the other when gathered together. Yet, Jesus uses both as examples of how God’s recreated people are to engage the world.

God’s people are like salt dispersed throughout the communities and structures of the world. In this way, they are constantly unveiling God through their personal relationships and in the manner in which they utilize their resources to shape the broader public life of their neighborhoods, cities, countries, and indeed the whole world. God’s people are also like light gathered together in the unity of the Spirit, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. When gathered in this visible unity, the Church remembers and believes—and reveals to others—that God is at work here and now making all things new.  

Yet this fluidity between being salt and light does not seem to be as natural for us as it was for Jesus and his first followers. Our tendency is to position these light and salt expressions in an either-or relationship. We turn outreach against worship, caring for our youth against ministering to the marginalized, evangelism against service, and in many smaller ways hold these two expressions apart from each other. We are invited to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” But having tasted and seen God’s goodness ourselves, we far too often sit around debating whether it’s more important for the world to taste or to see the Lord’s goodness. Instead of seeing God for who he revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ, the world receives two divergent and often adversarial expressions of God’s people: one fixated on being light; the other consumed with being salt.   

Yet, if we take Jesus’ words seriously, there is more hope than despair. There is room for both: we are to be salt and light. The opportunity then is not to debate, which is more important, but to find ways to celebrate and encourage God’s people to be both light and salt. Instead of slipping into our centuries’ old pattern of debating whether words or deeds are more important, whether Sunday gatherings or identifying with the marginalized, or other divisive distinctions, what might it look for to communally and personally seek opportunities where we can be salt and light so that the world can both “taste and see that the Lord is good and his steadfast love endures forever”?  

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Missional Metaphors – Salt and Light

  1. Joe Kamphuis

    Great thoughts, Chris. I have also often spoken of the gathering and scattering of God’s people. One author has identified them as modality and sodality (I don’t remember which is which), but curiously this author assumes there are parachurch organizations that “scatter” and institutional churches that “gather”. My question has always been why not be the church as we do both (gather to worship God together and then scatter to bring Jesus to our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers)? What do you think? Should a local church be characterized as those who “gather” and “scatter” or should a local church specialize in “gathering”?

    • Thanks for the response, Joe. I’ve heard a few people phrase the gathered and scattered in terms of church as institute and church as organism. I’ve gone that direction as well before, though I don’t do so as frequently now. I lean much more in the direction of your question: that the local church gathers and scatters. But I try to emphasize that the gathering needs to take place in people’s homes as well as Sunday morning. Acts 2:42ff talks about meeting together daily in homes and at the temple. It also seems to me that part of our challenge is to emphasize that the local church is still a covenant community even while scattered. The church is present in the person who is landscaping, the student in school, the city planner, etc. Everywhere we go, the people are the church. The church is not simply the formal worship service. There is much more to being the church. Take a look at the second half of Belgic Confession article 29. The first half is all about marks of the church. But the second part gets into describing personal dimensions and a working out of what it means to be church. The problem is we seldom hear or (for us pastors/church leaders) teach on the second part. So our operational definition of church gets confined to what happens in the building on Sunday mornings.

      • Joe Kamphuis

        Awesome! I read the second part (really the middle between true church and false church), and want to thank you for bringing it to my attention. I like it. People of faith, who flee sin and pursue righteousness, who love God and neighbor, and crucify the works of the flesh being renewed by the Spirit as they appeal to the obedience and death of the resurrected Christ in whom they place their faith!

        As for the part about the church building, I also agree. One of the things I say most often is “the church is not a building, it’s the people”.
        Blessings to you in ministry, Chris, and I look forward to dialoguing along this front more in the future!

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