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Issues Facing Missions Today: 7. Church and Mission in Mt. 5.13-16

Issues Facing Missions Today: 7. Church and Mission in Mt. 5.13-16

Matthew 5:13-16 (NRSV) 3 "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.  14 "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Jesus’ first teaching on the Church’s mission in Matthew’s Gospel appears in Mt. 5.13-16.  In these four verses, we learn at least six things about the Church and its mission.  (1) Size does not matter.  (2) Character is critical for mission.  (3) Effectiveness comes because of purity. (4) Mission entails having something significant to offer the world—God’s reign.  (5) Mission involves being a community that draws people to itself.  (6) The goal of mission is that people will give glory to the Father in heaven.  Each of these points offers guidance for issues facing missions today.

1. Size Does Not Matter

In these few brief verses, Jesus delivers to his new disciples a missionary calling.  He uses four images for this:

Be salt
            Be light
            Be a city on a hill
            Be a lamp

Each of these images is of something small in its environment.  Each one suggests that just a little can make a very big difference.  A little salt can turn a poor tasting soup into something quite nice.  A little light can make all the difference in darkness.  A city on a hill, like Jerusalem, can be seen easily and draw people to it from miles around.  In fact, it did, and on a festival day one could hear the songs of Israelites gathering from far and near as they made their pilgrimage up to Mt. Zion.  Finally, a lamp can light up an entire room.  Thus the first thing we realise from these images for missions is that something small can make a big difference.  You do not need a majority, and you do not need power.  So much of missions in the 19th and early 20th century from Europe came on the coattails of Empire, of colonialism.  But missions is wrongly understood when it seeks the world’s power in order to be effective.  It is rightly understood when it seeks God’s pleasure simply by being faithful.

A small church can be more effective in missions than a large church, with all its money, members, and ministries.  It is not the amount of kindling gathered that makes the fire burn well but the mature logs that produce a steady flame.

2. Character is Critical for Mission

Just before these verses, Mt. 5.13-16, come Jesus’ beatitudes (Mt. 5.3-12).  These are the very qualities that make Jesus’ disciples to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  The qualities are to be poor in spirit, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to be meek, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers, and even to suffer persecution.  Such character means that one can stand out from the crowd and make the sort of difference that draws others out of the crowd to find Jesus, who Himself is poor in spirit, is righteousness, is meek and gentle, is pure in heart, is a peacemaker, and who suffered and died.  What we see in the beatitudes is Jesus’ conviction that the mission of the Church arises out of a community that seeks God, not by a church that marshals massive resources to accomplish a project for a season.  The beatitudes remind us that mission begins with a righteous character and firm desire for God.  The fire that cooks is not the fire that flames up fiercely, only to need a furious fanning moments later.  Rather, the fire that cooks is the fire made of hot coals.

3. Effectiveness Comes Because of Purity

If salt loses its saltiness, it becomes useless and is only fit to be thrown out and trampled under foot.  Salt, of course, does not actually lose its own properties, but it can become useless by being combined with something else.  In Israel, salt was gathered from the Dead Sea’s shoreline.  If it was not collected quickly enough, the salt would look like or combine with another element, gypsum, on the seashore. The Greek word for ‘useless’ is actually ‘foolish’.  Jesus would have been speaking Aramaic, and the Aramaic word behind the Greek in our New Testaments can mean either useless or foolish.  Salt that was not collected in time along the Dead Sea shoreline would seem to be one thing but be another—and that could just as well be a definition of ‘foolish’.  Someone who pretends to be one thing but is another is ‘foolish’.  The person who is not true to him or herself is foolish.  Christian witness can become foolish, like salt, either because the church confuses itself with something else or because it combines itself with something else.  Either way, it loses its saltiness.

Jesus is saying about the disciples’ mission that it should be a mission that is true, is pure, is uncorrupted and therefore really has something to offer the world.  It is not something that pretends to be useful but is not.  It is not something that has let other elements distort its identity.  It is not some duplication of what the world offers.  The disciples’ mission can become useless or foolish by becoming combined with the world’s impurities or confused with other good projects that fail to proclaim the reign of God. 

This is, in fact, something we are witnessing today in Europe and North America.  The Church is in many respects a salt that has become useless because it has been confused with other elements in the culture.  When those outside the Church see nothing distinctive about the Church in their culture, they see no reason to become part of the Church.  It is just another political group or charity or club, but it is no longer the salt of the earth.

Take, for example, the decline of the Church in the United Kingdom.  Where it has lost its purity, it is losing its witness. The following statistics (collected in 2006 and needing to be updated) are rather sobering for one of the countries that has stood out as a mission sending country in the history of modern missions:

                0.4% decline each year in the size of the Church in the UK
                4% of children are in Sunday School in the UK, and less than 1 million
children are in Sunday School in England (2004)
                1500 people are leaving the Church each week
                By 2037 there will be no Methodists
                By 2033 there will be no Church of Scotland
                By 2020 the Church in Wales will be unsustainable
Some statistics for the Church in the United States tell a similar story.  In general, mainline denominations are declining rapidly:
                The Presbyterian Church USA has been declining since the mid-1960’s and
will cease to exist at this rate of decline by the year 1947 or so.
                The UCC has lost members each year since 1965.
                The Evangelical Lutheran Church has been losing members since 1991, with
baptisms, confirmations, and attendance down as well.
                The United Methodist Church has seen membership decline each year since
1968.        Contrast this with the growth of Methodists in Africa by 30% and in Eastern Europe by 3.5% in the early years of the 21st century.

Yet a denomination that seeks to be faithful to the Bible first rather than likeable by the culture is not one that loses its saltiness, its witness.  Church growth is not by any means an indication of faithfulness, yet the growth of churches that are Biblically faithful over against seeking popularity in the larger culture demonstrates that faithfulness is a strong witness.  For example, the Assemblies of God reported a growth of 34% between 1980 and 1990.

There are various reasons for such decline over the past forty years.  One reason that these mainline denominations are on the decline is that they have lost their distinctiveness from the culture and so have ceased to be the salt of the earth.  As Stanley Hauerwas has written,

the first social ethical task of the church is to be the church—the servant community.  Such a claim may well sound self-serving until we remember that what makes the church the church is its faithful manifestation of the peaceable kingdom in the world.  As such the church does not have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic.[1]
There is a relationship between distinctiveness and effectiveness.  This is why unorthodox groups, not just Christian groups, are also growing (Mormons, e.g.).  Mainline denominations have wanted to be considered respectable in society, to be inclusive, tolerant and non-judgemental—and these are not bad things to be in themselves.  Yet they have wanted to be so without being salt to our culture in upholding God’s holiness, they have lost the will and the reason to evangelise, and they have failed to teach the commandments of God to His people.
There is an example of this in the person of Adoniram Judson, the first missionary from the US to go overseas.  He eventually became salt and light by taking the Gospel to Burma, where he also translated the Bible into Burmese.  He grew up in a Christian home—his father was a minister in the Boston area at the end of the 17th and early part of the 18th century.  Adoniram lost his faith in college, however.  He made choices to become foolish, to lose his saltiness in the world.  He and his best friend at Brown University became atheists.  Adoniram decided to set off to see the world for himself after college and got as far as New York City.  One night he checked into a hotel and was given a room next to a dying man.  He had a terrible night, listening to the person groaning in the next room.  He wondered what would happen to the person if he did die that night, and he began to think about the faith of his parents.  In the morning, he found out more about the young man in the next room, who did die in the early morning.  He found out that this young man was none other than his best friend from university.  This transformed Adoniram Judson’s life, and within the year he gave his life to Christ.  He became America’s first missionary, along with his wife and two others sent out from Salem Harbor in 1812.  He who had become foolish now became the salt of the earth in Burma.
4.Mission Entails Having Something Significant to Offer the World—God’s Reign
Whether the image is of disciples being the salt of the earth or the light of the world, the meaning is also that they have something to offer the world.  The Church does not just offer the world anything, least of all what the world thinks it needs.  The Church offers what it has been given to give others, the message and ministry of the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s reign.  Those churches that are convinced that they have something worth offering people seem to be growing.  The decline of the church or the growth of the church is not a simple matter.  But the vibrant Christianity of churches in South America, Africa, and parts of Asia testify to the fact that those who see that they can offer a needy world something precious in Jesus Christ are churches that are growing.  Consider some amazing statistics in our day from Philip Jenkins’ book The Next Christendom:[2]
                25% growth in 1965, 46% in 2001
                8.4 million new Christians per year
                23,000 new Christians per day in Africa
                16 million Roman Catholics in Africa in 1955.  Today, 120 million.
                In Tanzania, since 1961, there has been a 419% growth in the Catholic Church.
                There are 70 million Anglicans in the world.  20 million are in Nigeria, 23
million in Uganda (35-40% of the population)
                In Botswana, ½ population is Christian.  30% are in traditional churches,
7% are Pentecostals, and 63% are in independent churches.

South America
                450 million Roman Catholics
1 million Protestants in 1960; today 50 million (6.4% growth/yr.)
In Chile and Guatemala, Protestants now number ¼ the population.
In Puerto Rico, Protestants number 35% of the population.
In Mexico, 2% of the population were Protestant in 1970; today Protestants
are 6% of the population (with notable conversions among the
Mayans and people in the southeast)
In Brazil, 20-25 million Protestants.

                Began in 1906—100 years ago this year.  They now number 19 million per
year worldwide.
                80-90% of growth among Protestants in South America is among
                In Brazil, Assemblies of God numbers about 12 million (2-3 million in USA)

In China, 20-100 million Christians (numbers are uncertain given
                In Korea in 1920, there were 300,000 Christians.  In 2002, there were about
10 to 12 million, a growth of 25%.  Presbyterians in Korea are twice as large as in the US.
                In Vietnam, registered Christians number about 80 million (9 % of the
population).  Unregistered Christians put this number far higher.

Central Asia[3]
In Kazakhstan, there were 30 Baptist Churches in the 1930’s, 109 in 1991, 129 in 1992, and 281 in 2001 (11,605 members).  In 2005 there were 10,774 Baptist church members, but there have been about 15,000 Baptists who have emigrated.
                In Kyrgyzstan since independence from the Soviet Union, the Baptist churches have quadrupled.

There is, however, a concern to voice about growth.  As any gardener would be quick to point out, a garden needs to be nurtured.  That is exactly what Paul did: having established churches, he continued to instruct them in person and through his letters that they would grow up into their faith in Christ Jesus.  Wild enthusiasm may be destructive.  Missions includes instruction of disciples.  In fact, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sends his disciples out to all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that Jesus had commanded them. 

5. Mission Involves Being A Community that Draws People To Itself

Mission is certainly a centrifugal force going out with a message and ministry to the world.  Yet it is also a centripetal force pulling people in to a winsome community that offers something distinct from the world.  As John Howard Yoder said,

The primary social structure through which the gospel works to change other structures is that of the Christian community.[4]

The image of being a city on a hill not only offers yet another image of something that stands out clearly for others to see; it also offers an image of a community.  Changing the image yet again to a lamp, Jesus says, ‘that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (Mt. 5.16).  Perhaps this city on a hill in Jesus’ teaching is an allusion to Is. 2.2-5 (cf. Mic. 4.1-5), where the nations stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house to learn righteousness from God.  If so, Jesus develops the idea somewhat by likening his disciples to the city where the people can come and learn righteousness from God.  The early church in Jerusalem, living communally, modelled the kind of community of God’s people that others wanted to join.  Mission is not simply about calling individuals to repent and be saved; it is also about joining a community—the church—that witnesses to the reign of God.

According to Robert E. Webber,

In the postmodern world evangelism is shifting away from Enlightenment individualism to the more communal model of the early church….  Evangelism is therefore not only a conversion to Christ, who has won a victory over the powers of evil, but a conversion into a community.[5]

The early church spoke of the church as the ‘womb’ in which the new convert would be formed, and conversion was a process culminating in baptism (Webber, p. 148).

Jonathan Edwards, the primary figure in the Great Awakening that began in New England in America in the 1700s, said,

If God’s people in this land were once brought to abound in such deeds of love, as much as in praying, hearing, singing, and religious meetings and conference, it would be a most blessed omen.  Nothing would have a greater tendency to bring the God of love down from heaven to earth; so amiable would be the sight in the eyes of our loving and exalted Redeemer, that it would soon as it were fetch him down from his throne in heaven, to set up his tabernacle with men on the earth, and dwell with them (Thoughts on the Revival, p. 527).

Mission involves ‘deep discipleship,’ by which the larger culture is itself changed in significant ways.  As Richard Lovelace wrote,

Christianity has saturated the Western world for a thousand years; even the calendars and the economic patterns of Western nations bear constant witness to the lorship of Christ.  What comparable witness has been born in the Islamic world, among the Chinese and the many other hundreds of millions who live only in the meager starlight of gospel witness?  Is preaching of the good news to the nations limited to flying over once or twice in a gospel blimp and dropping tracts?[6]

Of course, the Church can easily overestimate its influence on the culture—just as it can misrepresent its true membership through statistics.  Operation World listed statistics for Rwanda in 1993, just before the genocide, that reported that the country was 80% Christian.  Protestants were growing at a rate of 9.2%.  7th Day Adventists were the second largest Protestant group in terms of churches in the country, with 770 congregations, and the largest group in terms of members, with 208,000 members listed.  Evangelicals amounted to 20.2% of the population.  These sorts of statistics tell us very important things about missions: (a) do not take statistics too seriously; (b) churches and church memberships are not strong representatives of the strength of the church; (c) evangelism, as in Mt. 28.19-20, has not only to do with baptisms but also with being taught to obey all that Jesus commanded.

6. The Goal of Mission is that People Will Give Glory to the Father in Heaven

Finally, doing good deeds is by no means an end in itself.  There is, to be sure, no separating doing good deeds from mission.  There is no separating doing good deeds from the community that is itself the result of mission and that is engaged in mission.  Yet the goal of the people engaged in God’s mission is to lead people to declare the glory of the Father in heaven.


Six points regarding the Church’s mission have been identified in what Jesus says in Mt. 5.13-16: (1) Size does not matter.  (2) Character is critical for mission.  (3) Effectiveness comes because of purity. (4) Mission entails having something significant to offer the world—God’s reign.  (5) Mission involves being a community that draws people to itself.  (6) The goal of mission is that people will give glory to the Father in heaven.  Of these, the last is what guides mission from start to finish: what is done is done that God the Father might be glorified.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, p. 99.
[2] J. Philip Jenkins, ‘The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,’ 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
[3] See Rollin G. Grams and Parush R. Parushev, eds., Towards an Understanding of European Baptist Identity: Listening to the Churches in Armenia, Bulgaria, Central Asia, Moldova, North Caucasus, Omsk and Poland, (Prague, CZ: International Baptist Theological Seminary, 2006).
[4] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed. (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1994), p. 154.
[5] Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Baker, 1999), p. 143.
[6] Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1979), pp. 424f.