“We are called to be the light of the world, not the light of the church.” This off-the-cuff remark by a panellist at the Lausanne Younger Leaders Gathering held in 2016 (YLG 2016) both bemused and triggered me, not just because of the interpretive issues therein, but also because of the artificial divide that was inserted between “We” and the “Church”. What triggered me further was that this was spoken to a gathering consisting of “emerging evangelical influencers for global mission” (Lausanne’s Report), “influencers” being the hip word for “younger leaders and mentors” (again, words from the Lausanne Report), and that Lausanne chose to feature this statement prominently on their social media page. Upon deeper reflection, however, statements like these indicate a trend that has been prevalent in the Church for quite some time now and continues to be so—the supersession of the community by the individual.
Who, then, is the light and salt of this world? These verses in Matthew 5 have an appeal beyond the community of faith and are often cited in secular circles as well, in various contexts. And as such, it is quite common to find variant interpretations of these verses, changing as and when the context demands, often disregarding the original intention of the speaker, who, in this case, happens to be Lord Jesus Christ. This statement, thus, carries a weight unlike similar sounding statements by wise men and women. The question of “who”, however, cannot be addressed without discussing the rampant individualism that has pervaded the Christian community, one that subtly or overtly disregards the Church. This has also seeped into scriptural interpretations, which nowadays often tend to be from the perspective of an individual (or some individuals). Now, of course, there is that burning and crucial question, which seems to have no answer in today’s Age of Fragmentation—who defines the Church? But that is for another time and day. A basic and defining characteristic of the church, that everyone can agree on, is that it is a community.
Almost all the teachings and statements of Jesus, except those uttered to specific persons, must be understood as prospectively and primarily meant for the Church, and that includes the statement being discussed in this article. But Individualism, a remnant more from the era of Modernism than from any other, increasingly continues to exist and exhibit in various forms within the church, and it leads to an individualistic appropriation of everything that is meant to be communitarian in the Christian faith. This can, perhaps, be seen commonly in some popular (confessional?) statements associated with daily Christian life, especially in the context of what is now construed as prosperity gospel—many of which often begin with “I” and “Me”. For example— “I am blessed”, “I am blessed to be a blessing”, or “I believe this message is for me”!
This incessant individualism can also be seen in the structural propensity of organizations and “churches” to highlight few individuals, bypassing and/or relegating to obscurity many who may have worked hard for it over the years, often under the guise of statements such as—“some are meant to do behind-the-scenes work”, “there is a future reward for you” and so on! If Jesus can see and recognize the widow’s two mites, then the onus is on us, as the Church, to recognize those who are serving God and His people in any way, in every way. That it’s not being done is a failure on the part of the Church and not an indication of how things are meant to be!.
Perhaps, it is this ongoing pandemic that has laid bare the issues associated with this particular topic at the local level in glaring light, along with the possibilities of correction and progress. While the progress made in this area is up for debate, it is worth discussing what one of the issues is. After all, as George Santayana’s paraphrased aphorism goes—those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it. When COVID-19 struck, and countries went into lockdown mode, prohibiting all forms of gathering—social, political, and religious—pastors around the world feared for the spiritual wellbeing of their flock without the possibility of regular weekly gatherings. While the existence and growth of modern communication tools such as Zoom allowed for a quick pivot to a different mode of gathering (and for which churches around the globe must be lauded), the initial concern betrayed something much deeper—while we idealize the model of the Berean Church, we have rarely enabled and equipped the Church to be so. Instead, we have modelled a church that is heavily dependent upon the insights and activities of a few—whether it is in terms of corporate worship, interpretation of the Word, or of other “spiritual” activities—not a very far cry from the Church that had to face the Reformation movement in the 16th Century. And this is where, at the local level, we do not have church communities that are capable of being the salt and light of this world. This, in turn, feeds into the increasingly affirmed (though rarely articulated) stance that some—not all—are meant to be the salt and light, bringing a change in the society and the world around us. The deluge of pastors’ seminar, leaders’ seminar, leadership workshops and so on, at least prior to the pandemic-induced restrictions, increasingly furthered the divide between the community of faith and a select few and is proof of the same. One of the highlights of theology in the postmodern era (not to be confused with postmodern theology) is the belief that theological enterprise belongs to the community. But for this to translate at a practical level, the community of faith needs to be equipped with the tools and the opportunities to exercise the tools. And for that to happen, deep changes are required at every level of the Church—from highly developed and structured organizations to the simple local churches. At organizational levels, change can begin by democratizing governance and decision-making, without the existence of—what I call— “replacement fear” (the fear of being replaced by someone more capable or qualified, or even better, more committed). At the local, community level, the same can happen by giving primacy to the community over the individual and focusing on activities that are community oriented. For example, incorporating more of collective Bible study during weekly gatherings, less of preaching—which often tends to be, nay, which is a one-person show. This must go along with equipping the church with tools and resources, enabling them to actively and fruitfully participate in these Bible studies. In the longer run, the goal for the local communities can be to become more person-oriented than activity-oriented. It is a very hard pivot from what we do today—after all, our focal point for gatherings today is to do some activities, rather than looking at activities as means to build stronger communities. But this is how we become the salt-and-light of this world, when we have the salt and light in every nook and corner of the world we live in, transforming and enlightening it, rather than a few dwelling in