A friend recently introduced me to Maldon Sea Salt Flakes, which is apparently the “chef’s choice” for finishing salt. The brand boasts in providing “salt as it should be, hand-harvested with the distinctive flaky texture and taste that lends a certain piquancy to virtually any dish.” If you know what the term piquancy means, then you are likely a foodie.  But, it is a great word for discipleship as well. Piquancy means to be “pleasantly sharp.” As disciples of Jesus, we should lend a certain piquancy—or, pleasantly sharp—flavor to the world in which we live.

In Matthew 5:13, Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth.” But, then he warns, “If salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” He issues a similar admonition in Mark 9:50: “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Churches lose their saltiness when they lose their piquancy. Rather than providing a pleasantly sharp presence in the world, they become either pleasant or sharp. On one hand, a church may become so pleasant that she dulls any and every edge off her discipleship. Such a church may avoid saying or doing anything that may contradict the prevailing practices and priorities of the current spirit of the age. On the other hand, a church may become so sharp in her discipleship that she cuts anyone with whom she comes in contact. One is grace without truth. The other is truth without grace. In either case, a church ceases to represent her Savior whose life and ministry simultaneously characterized by both grace and truth.

Areas in which churches are tempted to lose their saltiness are raised in Mark 10. Immediately following Jesus’s warnings about disciples losing their saltiness, Jesus deals with matters related to marriage and divorce, serving the ‘least of these’ in a given society, as well as the suffocating trap of wealth and materialism. Each issue is, of course, as relevant to a church’s saltiness today as it was in the first century. How such matters are handled can attribute to a church’s saltiness, or lack thereof.

Take marriage and divorce for example.

Over the past four decades, some churches lost their saltiness by ignoring the rise in divorce rates. As the divorce rate peaked in the 80s, many American churches remained silent or they conceded divorce as a common, no big deal occurrence in our culture. As a result, churches lost their ability to speak meaningfully into other areas of life.

The Washington Post published an article last week titled, “How Decades of Divorce Helped Erode Religion.” The author cites Andrew Root, a professor at Luther Seminary, who wrote a book arguing that the church’s avoidance of this issue has caused her to lose influence among the children of divorce. The article summarizes Root’s research:

“When the divorce rate climbed in the 1980s, many members of the clergy, especially mainline Protestant pastors, stopped speaking out against divorce so as not to alienate struggling congregants. By going silent on the subject, they didn’t offer any comfort to the kids.  As adults, Root said, those same people do not believe the church will respond to their adult problems. . . . The church must not have anything to say to me, because when I was 8 and dealing with divorce, my Sunday-school teacher didn’t even say, ‘Man, Amanda, that must be really complicated for you.’”

According to Root’s research, churches that either ignored or too broadly conceded divorce lost her saltiness among broad swaths of the now adult children of divorce–many of whom now view church as irrelevant and unhelpful. I suspect the same conclusion could be drawn about churches that may have lacked compassion and understanding when helping struggling couples navigate the tumultuous waters of their relationship in the midst of a culture that no longer viewed divorce as problematic.  By applying truth without grace, they may have harmed hurting couples by shielding their eyes from the gospel’s redeeming beauty.

Churches lose their piquancy when they are unwilling or unable to apply both a prophetic edge and a pastoral heart in controversial, cultural shifts and developments. When a church loses her saltiness people suffer. Ironically, a church often surrenders her saltiness because she does not want people to suffer. Yet, when truth is abandoned because it seems too sharp or grace is forsaken because it seems too soft, the end result is ultimately unloving irrelevance.

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