Huge sobs and gasps of air interrupted the otherwise constant groaning. Nothing is more disconcerting than watching a grown man cry. This father of fourteen children stood in front of his apartment in a housing project. As he saw us approaching, he tried to regain his composure. Wiping the tears from his face, he focused on us and asked, “Why my boy? What did he ever do?”

Moments before, a stranger had walked up to their sparsely furnished apartment, lifted a shotgun, and fired at point-blank range into the stomach of Cecil’s eldest son. “We didn’t even know him,” Cecil said. “There was no reason. None at all.” The boy was dead on arrival at the hospital.

Cecil was so upset that he didn’t sleep for five days. He didn’t go to work. He was afraid. If he went to his job, who would protect his remaining twelve children? Another son had been murdered just over a year before.

This tragedy was not unusual in Cecil’s neighborhood. Consider:

• A fifteen-year-old boy was murdered walking home from school because five boys wanted his letterman’s sweater.

• An eighteen-year-old high school senior had his chest blown off by a shotgun fired by four youths he’d never seen before.

• An eighty-five-year-old blind woman was found starving on the street. She died four days later.

• Fifteen-year-old Lisa was knifed by a rival gang in the park and now has a cross permanently engraved on her back and multiple scars on her stomach and chest.

• Twelve-year-old Jane was raped in front of her four little sisters.

• Nine-year-old Letitia hadn’t eaten in three days.

• The parents of Tony (4), Chico (5), and JoAnn (6) tied and locked them in the bathroom every day with no food “so they wouldn’t get into trouble.”

In Cecil’s community, the sheriff’s department has determined that it is more likely that a boy born in 1976 will die by murder than that an American soldier in World War II would die in combat. Cecil himself is ten times more likely to be a murder victim than his suburban counterpart. Cecil lives in the ghetto.

Why are the inner cities of America deteriorating so rapidly? Why do we have armed guards in our inner-city schools?

Why are there bars over the windows in many private residences? Why are the elderly afraid to walk to the store or to the mailbox?

The easy answer is to attribute the violence, loneliness, and hurt of the ghetto to sin. This answer is correct but only partial. There is a more complete answer, and it involves the Church of Jesus Christ and its responsibility to the 40 million Americans who live in the inner city: the city is without salt.

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When you study recent church history, you discover that the evangelical church has run, not walked, away from the inner city, for what seem to be good reasons. People are afraid to be in the ghetto at night. Cars are stolen. Church property is vandalized. Parking is difficult. And when you remove the restraining and transforming influence of the Church, an area soon deteriorates. This is one of the major reasons why many of our inner-city areas become ghettos. The ghetto is isolated from the salt of the earth. And while there are some valid reasons for a church to move its buildings and meetings out of the ghetto, there is no excuse for totally deserting the people who live there.

In his high-priestly prayer, Jesus said, “I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from Satan’s power” (John 17:15, Living Bible). It was the practice of the first-century Jews to avoid the “tainted” Samaritans. But Jesus “had to pass through Samaria” (John 4:4), and as he did, the woman at the well—ghetto outcast of her day—was touched. A potent witness was spread because of this encounter, and many Samaritans believed. Jesus went where the people were—to the temple square in Jerusalem, to cities and villages, to the lake shores. He took the Gospel to the cities of the Decapolis, where Greeks in all their paganism were clustered. He went to the courts of the temple, where the hucksters and hypocrites were firmly entrenched, ripping off the people.

Paul found his way to the vital centers of the cities of the Greek world to evangelize and plant churches. He took his ministry to the proud, the pagan, and the castoffs in the marketplace, in the judgment seat, on Mars Hill, where men met to dispute. He carried the message even to Rome and to that special enclave of Caesar’s, the Praetorian guard.

What difference would it make if the Church were to re-enter the inner city? In Matthew 5:13 Jesus says that his followers are salt, and the basic characteristics of salt illustrate the potential effect.

Salt Preserves

Salt preserves flesh from decay, and the salt of the earth is meant to preserve a society dying in sin.

Christ himself came into the world, into our tightly organized, proud, and dying culture, to save us, to preserve us from the choices we had been making. God is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Salt preserves that which would otherwise perish. Through the incarnation Jesus Christ himself became salt—so that we perishing sinners might be preserved.

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The problem with Sodom and Gomorrah for Lot wasn’t simply that they were centers of vice. Certainly the ancient world had plenty of those. The problem was that there weren’t enough righteous people in them to do any good (Gen. 18:32). Sodom and Gomorrah would have been spared if even ten godly people could have been found. There wasn’t enough salt in Sodom. Ironically, Lot’s wife became, in her weakness, a testimonial pillar of salt.

God’s people can have a restraining influence on sin. Often when I speak to a service club or some other secular group, I notice a change in the room when I am introduded as “Reverend” Phillips. Swearing stops. People behave a bit differently. The presence of a Christian serves as a temporary restraint on their behavior. I believe the Church could affect the inner city in the same way if it were there to:

1. Exemplify the life of Christ in some potent and visible way, to attract attention to the resources of life in Christ. Peter suggests that the “seeing” of genuine good deeds can bring glory to God (1 Pet. 2:12; see also Acts 2:47).

2. Pray for the ghetto on the basis of personal, firsthand concern. James says, “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:16).

3. Bear the presence of the Holy Spirit, the restrainer of sin. In John 14:17 Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit: “He dwells with you, and will be in you.” If we are God’s regenerated people, we bear in ourselves the presence of the Holy Spirit. And we are told in John 16:8–11 that the Spirit of God convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. That potent presence of the Holy Spirit needs to be smuggled into the ghetto in our very lives—present and obediently reaching out in love.

4. Teach people in a way that makes a saving difference. Teach by precept and example. In First Timothy 4:11 Paul commands Timothy to teach the truths of Christ. He continues, “Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (vv. 15, 16).

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Salt Seasons

Salt makes palatable what would otherwise be bland. The Bible makes an interesting use of the idea of seasoning. In Exodus 30:35 we read that the incense offering was seasoned with salt. What a beautiful, symbolic recognition of the importance of seasoning in the life! Paul expressed the concern that Christians not come on drab and lifeless to unbelievers. He observes in Colossians 4:5, 6, “Conduct yourselves wisely towards outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer every one.”

How is a life seasoned? What makes it tasty? Such things as knowing that there are people who care, having hope, feeling secure. Life in the ghetto, with its fear, hurt, loneliness, crime, and violence, is tasteless, almost unbearable. But the love of Christ can transform fear into security, hurt into comfort, loneliness into community, crime and violence into order and peace.

Salt Purifies and Heals

Salt has often been used as a healer for wounds and sores. But if you refuse to apply the healing salt, none of the potential healing power is realized.

The Church of Jesus Christ has a healing ministry. In Malachi 4:2 we read that the Old Testament prophet looked forward to the coming of the “Sun of righteousness,” which would rise with “healing in its wings.” When Jesus began his ministry in Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah, he read the passage that said, “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18; Isa. 61:1, 2). When the Twelve went out, Luke 9:6 says they “departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.” In James 5:14 we read, “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man.”

One can dogmatically prescribe Jesus as the cure for the inner city’s ills. But Jesus works through his Church. And unless the Church is willing to be the purifying and healing agent to the ghetto, its proclamations are like sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. How can a sick person in the ghetto “call for the elders of the church” if that church has abandoned the ghetto?

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Salt Must Be Scattered

Salt must be in the right place. A box of salt in the corner of the garage is no more effective than a box of sawdust. Salt is useless when it is confined to its container.

The Great Commission was not “call ye all the people into one spot and give them a shot of the Gospel.” It was to go into “all the world” to teach and make disciples. That means going out and penetrating the sinful world with the transforming salt of the Gospel.

Christians can gather in their churches and be concerned about the ghetto for years, but the city feels no effect until the salt is scattered into its neighborhoods. The book of Acts is a narrative of the scattering of salt into a pagan world. This is a model that should stimulate us to action.

Jesus lived out his theology of incarnation. He became a man and lived among us (John 1:14). He did not count his valued status as God as something to be hung on to at all costs: rather, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7, 8). At great personal cost, Christ came to identify with us.

To minister in the ghetto effectively, Christians must become a part of the ghetto. We must live there, identifying with those to whom we minister. A missionary to Rome would never live in Paris and commute. An urban missionary must not commute from suburbia.

When the Church is content to send millions of dollars and thousands of missionaries to the four corners of the world and damn its own “Jerusalems” through neglect, it ceases to be the salt of the earth.

Consider these facts. The 40 million Americans living in the inner city compose a mission field six times larger than Cambodia, larger than North and South Viet Nam, larger than any country in Latin America, larger than all but one country in South America and all but one in Africa. Ninety-five per cent of the people living in the inner city are unchurched.

No longer should Christians discuss whether our commitment to the city should be “social” or “religious.” We cannot provide bread for the hungry and neglect to break the bread of life. Nor can we be pious soul-savers who ignore a starving child, a trapped addict, a lonely prostitute. We must translate our faith into realistic action that heeds Christ’s model of healing the sick and preaching the Gospel of the kingdom. After specifically speaking about people who were hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned, Jesus said, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).

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Throughout church history, revival has always spread most rapidly among the poor and the oppressed. The inner city is ripe for revival. There needs to be conviction and repentance. But how will the people hear if there is no preacher? How can they be healed and preserved if there is no salt?

You needn’t bury meat in salt to do it some good. Just a little salt, strategically scattered, suffices. It was a small number of early Christians who had a great impact on the Roman empire. God is always willing to do his work with a small but faithful remnant. Ezekiel records the message, “And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found none.” Amos tells in graphic terms of the rescuing of bits and pieces of the remnant in Samaria: “As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who dwell in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and part of abed.” What a triumph it would be if we could get even some scraps of the Church down into the ghettos of our land.

The 40 million people who live in the American ghettos desperately need men and women who will submit to God’s call as missionaries and who realize that a mission field is not necessarily across an ocean. We need families who will move into the city and by their very presence be a model of the biblical standards for parenthood and family life. We need pastors, Bible teachers, and Christian laymen in the inner city.

Twenty centuries ago the Apostle Paul traveled from one metropolitan center to another preaching Christ crucified, risen, and coming again. We too believe that the Gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. Today urban America is the greatest opportunity for missions that the American church has.

It is to this mission field that over one hundred World Impact staff members have committed themselves. In each of our ministries, from San Diego, Los Angeles, and Portland to Omaha, Wichita, St. Louis, and Newark, urban homes are available to meet the needs of our neighbors twenty-four hours a day with emergency food, clothing, and medical supplies. We teach reading and offer budget and marital counseling. But most of all we teach children, teen-agers, and adults the Word of God, seeking to build strong Christian family units.

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As new believers mature in Christ, they are invited to enter adiscipling relationship. When they are thoroughly trained, they join us in teaching others.

But last month we had to turn away four thousand people who wanted to study the Bible because there were not enough Christians to teach them. Our story now is “too little salt,” and our fear is that soon it will be too late.

No longer can we be content to say that blacks must reach blacks and browns must reach browns. That is a denial of God’s sovereignty. The Holy Spirit reaches any person he chooses through whatever vessel he chooses.

The Church must reverse its retreat and make a commitment to reach the inner cities for Christ. Christian men and women must become missionaries to the ghetto so that there no longer exists a city without salt.

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