|"Sermon on the Mount" by Laura James (laurajamesart.com)|
Looking at the two sayings themselves, it seems clear that they are ironical and even humorous, maybe not quite as humorous as modern day biblicists trying to prove that salt can lose its taste or the philosophical debate about whether salt can lose its taste and remain salt—but still humorous. Jesus' point was that tasteless salt is useless, and so is a covered lamp. The two images of tasteless salt and a covered lamp are memorable for the ironic way they so aptly make their point, which is why they were remembered.
The point is, of course, that the disciples were called by Jesus for a purpose, and if they failed that purpose they were of no more use than tasteless salt or a lamp placed under a basket. And when they fail to live up to their calling, they like the tasteless salt will be thrown away. Instead, they were to "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:16).
There are many reasons why churches decline, some of them having little to do with the quality of the life of the church itself. Populations migrate, and churches are closed in one locality while new ones are founded in others. But, where you find a declining church in the midst of a large population, there is something else going on. That church in that locality has usually lost is savor and stashed its light under a basket. This is the case even when the church does good things and maintains an active institutional life. As long as such churches fail to ask what they can do to restore their savor and light, they will decline. That is a hard lesson the last fifty years have taught the mainline churches. The good news is that in many places new expressions of the mainline church are emerging—not as large, structured, and financed as the old mainline, but with a vibrancy also unlike those churches. In some instances and in some places, we are learning how to put the taste back into salt and discovering that the lamp is a lot more useful if we take it out from under the basket. To pick up on Jesus' third image, we're beginning to learn how to be the city on the hill again—the one that can't be hid. Decline thus is both threat and opportunity.