What is the church’s relationship to the world? How much are we to be in the world yet not of it? How much influence are we to have on the world? How much separation? Should we simply let the world “go to hell in a hand-basket” or are we expected to get involved and change things? Jesus did not leave us without help in answering these questions. Consider these pictures in hammering out the answers:
1. The light-church.
Some churches act as if the entire teaching on relationship with the world is contained in the metaphor “light of the world.” Light-churches see their task as being a witness. Light-churches want to be beacons, light houses radiating hope for “lost and drowning seamen.” This view calls us to, “let it shine, let it shine let it shine.” Light-churches hope the world will see their good deeds and glorify the Father. They want worldlings to remark, “Behold, how they love one another!” Light-churches beam out hopeful light. If the unsaved would just follow the beam they’d wind up on the church’s doorstep — up there “set on a hill.”
But the light metaphor is inadequate on its own (though it gets far more coverage in songs than other models). While light-churches “send the light” from their comfortable hillside locations, the valley is darker than ever. Valley-dwellers might see the beam of light, but the vast throng are unable to follow it to the source — for the valley-dwellers are blind (for all practical purposes). Churches adopting the light-alone motif may be beautiful and bright and pure but they are usually useless. In setting themselves apart from the world they became irrelevant. Sure, they “came out from among them” and are separate, but they have no impact on the world around them. Their purity is poured out on themselves — they are light of the light, not the world. Light-churches figure sooner or later some valley-dweller will stumble up the hill and wander into a service asking for the cause of the hope in them. Few come. And the valley remains dark. For most light-churches are not the light of the world at all — but the light of the bushel. Light alone is too static a motif on which to hang our entire relationship with the world.
2. The salt-church.
How about salt? It is far more active and invasive. It gets rubbed into the meat — it keeps the meat from rotting. It is a pervasive noticeable preservative. Salt arrests corruption. It stays decay. Salt-churches see their task as intervention — engaging the world to stop moral decline. Salt-churches prod their people to get involved, sign up to march, write letters, participate in boycotts, wield influence, run for political office, go to the office party — make a difference! Stop the moral decline! Salt churches believe the world is rotting and we have got to stop it.
But the salt motif is still inadequate. Salt-churches often lose their influence. Strident salt-churches get ignored because they are so obnoxious. In trying to reverse the rotting-trend they forget to put the salt in the meat, and toss it into the world’s eyes. When they are rejected they turn inward, finding themselves speaking (and marching, and writing) to themselves. They have become salt of the church, not the world. Strident salt-churches eventually give up on changing things and start holding ain’t-it-awful parties (and posting ain’t it-awful bumper stickers on their cars). They become irrelevant.
But soft-sell salt-churches also often wind up irrelevant too. In trying to become so much like the world to win the world, the world influences the soft-sellers more than they change the world. Soft-sell salt-churches just simply evaporate — they disappear and get gradually assimilated. Trading off purity for relevance they finally “lose their saltiness” becoming meat, no longer salt. They wind up just as useless and the strident salt-churches.
But there is a bigger problem with the salt-church motif. Though it improves on the light-alone idea, it is simply not aggressive enough. Salt was primarily a “preventative” in the ancient world. (sure, flavor was a factor, but not the primary use). Salt makes a difference by preventing things from rotting — not by changing things. Salt stops evil, but falls short of providing a model for transforming evil into good. It stays decay in the meat, but is unable to make the meat into salt. Stemming the tide of moral decay is a worthy goal, but it falls short of the total redemption God has in mind. God intends to redeem all of creation, not just stay its decline. Salt alone is still not adequate to paint the full picture of our relationship with the world. (One is tempted to escape at this point by saying, “Well, it’s both, of course,” which might be good enough to end a Sunday school class, but not this essay.) Perhaps there is a third model which fills out the picture. How about leaven?
3. The leaven-church.
Leaven is the most revolutionary of the three metaphors. Leaven-churches see their task as transforming the world. Leaven is hidden in the huge lump of world-dough (“bushel” — Goodspeed), but it is not satisfied with preventing rottenness. Rather leaven gradually and irresistibly goes about transforming the whole lump, spreading quietly, penetrating it all, reforming and revolutionizing the whole thing until, when it is finished, the entire lump itself becomes leaven! ( The next “starter” will come from a tiny piece of the now-transformed loaf.) Leaven-churches (and leaven-Christians) are not satisfied with being a lighthouse for Jesus. Neither are they satisfied in preventing further decay in the world. Leaven-churches hide in the dough of the world and quietly serve as the revolutionary, transforming change agents of redemption. Why? Because God intends to redeem all of creation. And He expects us to help.
It takes a leaven-church (or, a leaven-University) to produce leaven-Christians who go out as agents of redemption — world-changers — helping God transform the entire lump… for God insists on the redemption of “all creation.”
So what do you think?
Reference: Salt & Light: Mt. 5:13-16 — Leaven: Mt. 13
To contribute to the thinking on this issue e-mail your response to Tuesday@indwes.edu
© Keith Drury, 2005. You are free to transmit, duplicate or distribute this article for non-profit use without permission.
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.