You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. —Matthew 5:14-16 (NIV)
I think it’s safe to say that when we read this verse, our imagination paints a nostalgic, beautiful picture—warm light shining through a cabin, flickering candles, cheerful flame in the fireplace, a beautiful little lake outside. Right? The language of the verse encourages this: “ . . . light a lamp . . . put it on its stand . . .” And so this is the only way many of us are willing to think about it. But there are other ways of creating light—most of us, at least in the Western world, don’t even use fire anymore. So, as people leave the traditional church—the keeper of the flame—by the tens of thousands, perhaps it’s time to reinterpret what it means to be the light of today’s world.
There are Three Things You Need to Generate Light
1) a source or ignition,
2) some kind of fuel, and
3) a suitable environment.
To ignite a flame, you need a flintlock or match—something that creates a spark. Your fuel substance would most likely be something made from oil or wood. If you need a brighter light, you use more fuel—more wood, more oil, more of a non-renewable resource. (Of course, as you toss more wood on a fire, you’re not just creating a brighter light, you’re also making the fire hotter and hotter, which may or may not be helpful.) To keep the flame going, the environment must have plenty of oxygen.
Fire has been the light source for humans for thousands of years, so it’s no surprise that we have built our churches in this paradigm. Traditional churches, whether small or mega, want to light their flames and put them on stands—and in a “dark world” the brighter the better, right? Which means they need bigger and bigger fires consuming more and more fuel, more and more resources.
Why We Burn Out
But we’re finding that these resources are, like wood and oil, non-renewable. Lay and professional ministers are burning out, money is scarce, and the people the light was meant to attract are repelled by the wastefulness and the excess energy—the heat—that is no longer cozy or even useful for life.
But in the same way that our most common source of light has moved from the flame to electrical light, we’re seeing a migration in what it means for us to be the light of the world.
Same Mission, Different Approach
An electrical light has the same three requirements a flame does, but these are met in a very different way. First, the source is either an alternating or direct current. Unlike a match or flintlock, electricity is unseen most of the time . . . it’s kind of magical. You flip a switch and the light turns on whether you understand the physics behind it or not, whether you accept it or fear and shun it.
Second, the fuel we used first were filaments before we moved on to gasses. Here we discovered different kinds of light, like neon and all these colors that were bright and cool. As we worked on generating brighter and more efficient light, we discovered halogen and now LEDs, which are very bright, power efficient, safe to touch, and if you hook them up to solar panels, completely renewable.
What is really mind-blowing is that the environment in which these new sources of light work is the direct opposite of flame. Rather than the air-filled oxygenated environment that fire needs, electrical lights operate in a vacuum.
Church Is Radically Transforming
What a drastic change in a relatively short period of time! We have moved away from the traditional, age-old flame to a technology that is at once more mysterious and more useful while achieving the exact same goal—lighting up dark places.
So this change will be different, strange, perhaps a little threatening to people who think of fire as the only or proper way to generate light. But it will be very natural, logical, and appealing for someone who has grown up flipping a switch to generate light in a brighter, cooler, more efficient way.
We Have a Challenge and an Opportunity
Here’s a potential problem, though. Someone in the new world might look back and say to someone in the traditional world, “You’re wrong! Building bigger and bigger fires doesn’t make any sense and is a waste of resources!” And those coming from a traditional world view might look into the new world and call what they don’t understand “heresy” or “unbiblical.” But both would be rude, and we don’t want to ever insult or disparage each other because that behavior is like a wet blanket or flicking a switch—either way, the light is extinguished.
To have either a traditional or a cultural way of interpreting what it means to be the light of the world does not mean that either is the only way to interpret Jesus’ words—we are merely looking at what he said in a different fashion. And as the church moves from being teaching-centric to service-centric, we need the next generation to lead us, discovering new, more efficient ways to shine the light more brightly than ever before.
About the author:
Spencer Burke is the Founding Executive Director of Hatchery LA, an incubator for Common Cause Communities. For more information, please visit www.HatcheryLA.com.