by Chris Ritter

I was out working in the yard this week and I reached out for my leaf blower. Fortunately, it cranked right up with its usual roar. But I soon noticed something was wrong. It wasn’t moving any leaves or grass clippings. I put my hand near the output nozzle and felt only the slightest of air movement. In fact, I think I could have blown harder than what my leaf-blower was accomplishing (not that I am calling myself a blow-hard). A leaf blower can do a lot of things right, but if it doesn’t blow leaves, what good is it?

Let’s revisit our key passage in this Radiate Message Series:

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:13-16

We have been looking at this amazing passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount for three weeks now as we have talked about being salt and light. But I want to point out today that Jesus does some trouble-shooting here, just like I needed to do on my leaf-blower. Sometimes the light doesn’t shine. Sometimes the salt isn’t salty. What is wrong?

We are called to be salt and light, but not every follower of Jesus Christ gets this important job done.

What can go wrong with light? Light, as you know, is one of the strongest forces in our universe. It travels at nearly 3 million meters per second. As the old cliche goes, no amount of darkness that stop the light of one small candle. But Jesus tells us that light can be blocked. The sun is the largest light we experience here on Earth, but something as small as a quarter can obscure the light from your eyes if you hold it close enough to you.

Jesus said not to put our light under a bowl. That creates a dome over us that does not let the light be seen. We were meant to shine. The Apostle Paul, in Philippians 2, gives us some instructions on how to shine brightly. Let’s take a look:

14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain. 17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.

Philippians 2:14-18

Notice how Paul says to shine. First, he talks to them about their attitude: “Do everything without grumbling or arguing.” That should be the theme verse for 2020, right? Our attitude speaks volumes about the God we serve. In this same chapter Paul reminds us of the attitude of Jesus Christ who took on the form of a servant and made things about others instead of himself. Christians are to have that other-centered, non-complaining spirit. God, please forgive me for how I fail at this.

Paul also calls them to shine by living to a higher standard: “become blameless and pure, even amidst a corrupt and crooked generation.” Christians shine when they step up to answer the high calling given to us by Christ. This can only be done through cooperating with the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, Paul calls us to a tighter grip: “Hold firmly to the word of life.” Another name for the Bible is our “canon.” That word means a standard or a measuring rod. If we are not careful, we will start to judge ourselves against others instead of the standard provided to us by God. We need a tight grip on Truth or we will certainly drift.

So to shine, we need the attitude of Jesus, the sanctifying work of the Spirit, and the firm Word of the Father. The whole Trinity is needed to make us the light that we are called to be.

The Trouble with Salt

What can go wrong with salt? Jesus said to watch out that our salt doesn’t lose its flavor… it’s saltiness. If any of you have a background in chemistry, you may be thinking: “Wait a minute. Salt, sodium chloride, is one of the most stable molecules on the planet. It does not degrade into something else. Salt can’t become unsalty.

I have been using pink Himalayan salt recently. I ran across this label:

This salt is 250 million years old, from the Jurassic Period. Wow. But do you notice the stamped expiration date?: “Best by 6/20/2020.” That would be just my luck. I buy 250 million year old salt only to have it expire in two years. In reality, that salt would still be salt 250 million years from now. Salt is… salt. So what is Jesus talking about?

Well, the salt in Jesus’ day was not as pure as what we buy at the store, or even like the 500 lbs. of water softener salt that I purchased this week. It was often mixed with other things. In fact, some less-than-reputable business people were known to have cut the salt down with a cheaper white substance known as gypsum. If the salt mixture ever got wet, the sodium chloride would leach out and the buyer would be left with the chemical dregs: Unsalty “salt.” Jesus remarked that such a substance is only good to be thrown out.

So salt loses its saltiness when it is mixed with so many other things that is loses its distinctive qualities. As followers of Jesus, we are what 1 Peter 2:9 calls “a peculiar people.” Following Jesus will make you weird…. out of step with the rest of the world. We don’t have to work at being weird (combing our hair different or dressing strange.). Just loving, serving, and forgiving like Jesus calls us to will make us strange enough. And our world needs an alternative. As Dave Ramsey says, “Normal is broken. Be weird.”

Christians are not to fade into the cultural background. We are to maintain our distinctive practices. And I want to spend the balance of our time today talking about a distinctive practice that is very much under threat.

The Spectacle of Public Worship

One of the most time-tested Christian distinctives is our practice of gathering together for worship, particularly on the Lord’s Day. The New Testament word translated “church” is ekklesia and means a gathering of people. It carries with it the notion of being called out of something else and called together as one body. Before someone joins our church, or any church, they promise to be faithful to meet together with the congregation. Author Mark Dever writes:

“The most fundamental duty Christians have in relation to the congregation is the duty regularly to attend gatherings of the congregation. A biblically faithful church is a gathered church. A local church is more than a congregation, a gathering, but it is never less.” 

Mark Dever, A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership

We have ample New Testament evidence that Sunday, the Lord’s Day, was early observed by Christians as a special time for gathering. Acts 20:7 mentioned believers gathering on the Lord’s Day to break bread. The Lord’s Day, when Jesus rose from the dead, was distinct from the Jewish Sabbath which ran from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday (the last day of the week.). The first Christians marked the day of Resurrection by meeting together even though it was not a day off from work. John, in Revelation 1, mentions that he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day. In 2 Corinthians Paul mentions that the Lord’s Day is an ideal time to lay aside an offering. When Constantine became the first Roman emperor to claim Christianity, Sunday became a day of rest.. a Christian Sabbath. And this has been the case whenever a society is organized around Christian beliefs.

I have witnessed tremendous movement on the centrality of Sunday worship during my lifetime. Growing up, my grandpa was a dairy farmer. If you know anything about a dairy, you know that the cows must be milked twice a day. But grandpa still found ways to observe Sunday. He did only the bare minimum and was always in church. He loved to fish, but never fished on Sunday. It was a special day. You never heard a lawnmower running on Sunday.

My friend, Linda, had a godly father. One time, he was so behind on his work that he took the very unusual step of mowing the yard on Sunday after church. She said she went into the house and cried all day because her beloved dad was going to hell. We may chuckle at this, but such was Sunday not too long ago.

In 1999, 70% of Americans held membership in a church. By 2019, that number dropped to 50%. Pre-COVID, 37% of Americans attended a church on any given Sunday morning. What it is today is anyone’s guess, but I would not be surprised to learn that it is less than 10% in terms of in-person attendance. I am told that perhaps 20% of U.S. congregations will never reopen following the COVID pandemic. The crisis has accelerated their ongoing decline to a point of un-sustainability.

We have online worship. But this is a pale comparison to the real thing. And fewer and fewer people are tuning in. I am told that, of those who still watch worship online, some 40% watch the services of a church other than their own. We are pleased to have people from other churches joining us each week, but do you see how this leads to a loss of community and connection? Instead of being a gathered body of believers, we are consumers of Christian content.

Online worship is certainly better than nothing. And it is absolutely necessary for those who are quarantining and isolating at home due to health concerns. Many people should continue to be cautious and stay home. But others are staying home for the sake of convenience. This is what has me concerned.

Here is what my gut tells me: Online worship is becoming, effectively, an off-ramp from the practice of Christian worship. We all tuned in at first with the family gathering around the screen together. Now, more than often, it is something that runs in the background if at all. It is easy to convince ourselves that we will watch later if an opportunity rolls around to do something else. But do we? I think we are becoming more and more disconnected from the practice of worship.

Like nature itself, our scheduled abhor a vacuum. Once something else is allowed to take Sunday morning, we will find it hard to take it back.

David Gundersen has enumerated “Ten Reasons to Come Back to Church After COVID-19.” I would like to close by quickly running through that list:

First, We Are Embodied Creatures

We are not pixels and headshots. We are living, breathing entities. This year has taught us how to use Zoom and other tools, but it has also taught us the limits of these tools. A marriage can survive a long-distance relationship, but there are limits to how long it can endure this. Being a church means physically gathering together.

Second, the Church is One Body

The New Testament metaphor for the church is a physical body with many and diverse individual members. These members are strengthened and made more effective by their connection with one another. We are interdependent. We need each other.

Third, the Holy Spirit Draws Believers Together

On the Day of Pentecost when the Church was born, the believers began the practice of meeting together in the temple and in homes:

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Acts 2:42-47

Fourth, We are a Spiritual Family

The metaphor of a household is used throughout the New Testament to describe the Church. We gather around the table of our Lord and spend time with one another. The church is about relationships.

Fifth, Hearing the Word and Experiencing Worship Together Matters

There is something very important about hearing the same Word at the same time from the pastor and others. Together, we live under the authority of the Word of God and hold one another mutually accountable.

Sixth, There is Nothing Like Congregational Singing

Lifting our voices to the Lord and singing together is one of the gloriously peculiar things that Christians do. In China, the underground church cannot sing out loudly because of government oppression. So they have learned to whisper their songs to God. But they nonetheless lift their voices up to God… together. It is what Christians do.

Seventh, the Sacraments

Sacraments are things that Jesus told us to, things he participated in personally, and things that involve physical signs. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper do to translate well into virtual experiences. They require contact. (Maybe that is intentional on God’s part.)

Eighth, We Come to Church to Give to Others

I have noticed over the years that the more mature a person is in Christ, the less they come to church to receive and the more they come to give. A big percentage of the serving we do happens in the course of weekend worship.

Ninth, Our Worship is Our Witness

Gundersen: “An unbelieving world needs to see the Gospel’s transforming power embodied in a local family of Christians who love God and serve each other in the most gracious and gritty ways.” When we park in the church parking lot, put on our face masks, and come to church we are making a form of Christian witness to our community about what is really important.

Tenth, Lives Are Changed in Fellowship

God does amazing things through worship and the preaching of the Word. But He also does amazing work in the lobby as people interact with one another. This is where people are invited to small groups. This is where life-changing relationships are formed.

Come Back to Church

Not all of us can come back to in-person worship at this time. Most of us, however, can. As a pastor, I am imploring you to do so. I understand that circumstances are less than ideal. I understand that sacrifices are involved.

One comment I have heard from some is that they will not be back as long as masks are required. I would respectfully ask these brothers and sisters to reconsider. Truth be told, I don’t enjoy wearing a face mask. But our bishop, the spiritual authority over our congregation, has asked us to wear them. On a personal level, I believe that the wearing of masks is prudent and helps stem the tide of COVID-19. If it is even marginally helpful in protecting others in our church family, why wouldn’t we?

I want you to love worshipping in person with your church family more than you dislike wearing a mask. I watch our preschool kids bounce into church through the week with their masks. If they can wear them, surely I can, too.

There are two types of churches. There are those driven by the preferences of their members and those who are driven by the Great Commission. A church that bows to preferences will always be weak and ineffective.

It is time to start gathering back together safely and in person. If we don’t answer this urgent call, I am concerned that we will cease to be distinctively salty to a world that needs Jesus so desperately.