Identity Defines Mission


The rapid changes in our world offer a great opportunity for local Churches to look more closely at how they approach ministry. Churches must expand their visions of ministry beyond the typical maintenance mentality that characterizes too many local fellowships. A Biblically holistic approach to ministry must be our aim if we desire to be God’s instrument of transformation in the world.

Jesus outlined this approach to ministry in Matthew 5:1-16 and I find it helpful to review His words several times each year. Before inviting you to reflect on these words, however, consider some of the wider issues involved for casting a holistic view for ministry.

Three Dimensions of holistic ministry:

  1. Relief: because we are physical beings with bodily needs
  2. Development: because we are social beings with community needs
  3. Evangelism: because we are spiritual beings in need of salvation

Three questions to answer:

  1. Why do we rely on government to meet the needs of relief and development?
  2. What relief and development needs can we meet locally, nationally and internationally?
  3. How does evangelism meet relief and development needs? or What are the beneficial horizontal effects of the gospel?

Three extremes to avoid

  1. Imposition: coercing people by legislation to accept the Christian way. Yet Christians should offer influence on the formation of law
  2. Inquisition: violence used in the name of Christ to force Christianity on others.
  3. Indifference: a principled belief in the necessity of non-interference; leaving people alone in their non-Christian ways

Three God-ordained institutions — for the good of humanity:

  1. Family — for nurturing and molding the character of our children (Eph.  6:1; Colo. 3:18-21)
  2. Human government — for punishing evildoers and praising those who do right (Gen. 9:6; Rom. 13:1-6:I Pe. 2:13-14)
  3. Church — as salt and light to the World (Matt. 5:13-16; Colo. 4:5-6)

Thought: When the two agents of influence (government and home) are failing, the church feels a greater need for her salt and light role in the world.


Key Scripture: Matthew 5:13-16 emphasizes the extensive role of Jesus’ followers in the world.

Jesus outlines the strategic deployment of his disciples for capturing prominent places of influence in the world. My focus will be on the metaphors of salt and light but it’s noteworthy that Jesus defined the character of true disciples in the eight beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) before discussing their influence. Unless our lives are distinguished by the qualities of the beatitudes, we will not be salt to the earth or light to the world.

Two metaphors: our mission defined

To help His followers understand their relationship with the world, Jesus used two common commodities: salt and light. Salt functioned as a preservative to keep perishable items from decaying and rotting. Light dispels darkness to help people see. Using these commodities as metaphors for influence, Jesus described how His followers should view their relationship with the world.

  1. verse 13 — “You are the salt of the earth.”  But salt must retain its saltiness.  If salt gets tainted or contaminated with other properties it loses its ability to function as salt.
  2. verse 14 — “You are the light of the world.”  But the light must be allowed to shine:  verses 14b-16.

The ‘you” in each of these verses is the person Jesus described in the eight beatitudes in verses 3-10. Again, character precedes influence. The key to salt and light influence is to live out the descriptive qualities of those to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs.

Salt and Light

    1. As salt—to deter decay: moral and social. Implication: the world is a corrupt place. “Sometimes standards slip and slide in a community for want of a clear Christian protest”  (Stott). As salt, we serve a restraining function as a deterrent to social and moral deterioration.
    2. As light—to dispel the darkness sin and unbelief. Implication: the world is a dark place. As light, we serve a directional function in guiding those who sit in the darkness of sin and unbelief.

Provokingly different:

In Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus indicated that His disciples would live a provokingly different lifestyle.  Evidently, the followers of Jesus are not viewed as just a bunch of nice guys who are great to have around. People don’t persecute “nice guys”!  They persecute people who disturb them and convict them. Perhaps we see so little persecution because, unlike the Old Testament prophets, we are more concerned about being seen as nice people than we are about standing for righteousness.

1. Contact:

In both metaphors, Jesus implies that His followers must make permeating contact with the world and establish strategic places of influence like well-lit cities on a hill. Salt will not help preserve meat unless it permeates it to hold back the corruption and decay.

“Christians are not to remain aloof from society where they cannot affect it, but are to become immersed in its life.”   John Stott

This requires more than casual contact with unbelievers.  There must be meaningful intersection of our lives with unregenerate people so that we can fulfill a restraining influence and shine for Christ.  This means that we must resist the temptation to isolate and insulate ourselves by overly “Christianizing” our lives.

We need Christian fellowship as a sustaining discipline for godly living, but we also need to permeate unbelieving community with our influence.  This means we must avoid the “meet, eat and retreat” mentality that controls many Churches. New Testament evangelism is not fulfilled when we drop the drawbridges to our Christian stockades long enough to gospel-bomb the community with Christian literature and run back for cover.

What we need is the strategic deployment of well-placed believers who are situated among unbelievers like well-lit cities that cannot be missed.  Jesus says: Don’t bushel the light!

2. Distinction:

The metaphors require distinction as well as contact.  The salt cannot become tainted or contaminated.  The light is obviously distinct from the darkness it enters.  Jesus’ followers must maintain their distinctions if they hope to fulfill their purposes in the world.  In our values, morality, attitudes and speech, we must live to please God within the community of unbelievers.

Key Question: How can we maintain permeating contact without being contaminated by the values, morality, attitudes, and speech of unbelievers?

Throughout church history, Christians have not always handled this tension well. Frankly, two extremes have often hurt the church.

  1. Trying to gain distinction through isolation (monasteries, cloisters, completely “Christianized” lives)
  2. Trying to gain influence through accommodation and compromise (taking our cue from the culture, not the cross)

It is vital to our witness—to our ability to permeate the community of unbelievers—that we know where God expects us to be different and where He doesn’t. Over renouncing hinders Christian witness far too often. Some Christians, by turning everything into divine imperative, think they’re standing for Christ—when in fact they are often just being unnecessarily different.  These are often the type of Christians who move from one crusade to another against whatever appears to be acceptable to the world.

We must not allow ourselves to be detoured from the main road of the gospel. When we become issue-driven on non-essential matters, we often end up looking unnecessarily strange to the world.  We misrepresent what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ! Study Romans 14-15 to settle the tensions regarding debatable matters (see my category link on this)

Three strategic considerations:

  1. The scope of mission is the earth, the world or all nations (Matthew 28:19-20)–the entire sphere of human existence.
  2. The basis of influence: true Christian character as defined in the eight beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)
  3. The necessities for influence: Contact and distinction. Light must shine in dark places and salt must make permeating contact to bring preservation.

See also: You are the light of the world 

Steve Cornell


Two assignments:

1. Reflect on some common obstacles to Christian influence

  1. Distractions: Matthew 6:25-34
  2. Disloyalty: James 4:1-3
  3. Fear: Luke 9:25; Mark 8:38; John 12:35-36; Matthew 10:28; Luke 6:26
  4. Misdirected love: I John 2:15-17; II Timothy 3:4; Matthew 10:37-38

2. Chart some ideas for each dimension of ministry:

Evangelism Relief Development

About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
This entry was posted in Church growth, Church Leadership, Church membership, Church Planting, Culture, Elders, Holistic ministry, Leadership, Life of a pastor, Local Church, Manifesto, Mission statement, Missions, Pastors, Wisdom. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Identity Defines Mission

  1. Kenneth says:

    Hello Mr. Cornell, I really enjoyed this post. I was only wondering how being salt and really settling into an area works with Jesus saying, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” in Like 9:58. It has been a while since I read that and I do not know if that is out of context. I don’t believe it is and to me it meant that we will not have an established “home”. Basically saying we will be moving around going as followers of Christ. If you could help me with this that would be great. Thank you! – Kenny


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