Questions by John Streit. Answers by Leon Dunning. Images courtesy Salt Church.

S&A: Describe the time of your life when you felt called to start your own church.

Leon Dunning: When I was younger, I never wanted to be a pastor. My dad was one, and everyone assumed that I would follow in his footsteps. It wasn’t that being a pastor was bad. I just didn’t think it was me, and I wanted to be myself. In 2001, after college (while I was working in North Carolina), I felt the call of God on my heart to enter ministry, but planting a church wasn’t even on the radar. I’ve always had this entrepreneurial nature, but I never thought it would be used to start a ministry.

It was probably about six years ago while working in youth ministry that God starting pressing on my heart for a new kind of church. I felt there was something missing. These kids would come in and out of the youth service but never step foot into Sunday morning services. I would ask them why. They would say over and over that it wasn’t something they related to. It wasn’t that they had a problem with Jesus or the Sunday morning service, but he, Jesus, just seemed so far removed from them. I realized that we have an entire generation coming up that does not know Jesus or that he is completely relevant in our lives. There was something missing—authenticity. I saw the need, and my vision was bigger than where I was at the time. There are so many people in Hampton Roads who have no clue who Jesus is. They see him as a religion among many. But Jesus isn’t a religion. He’s God in the flesh and wants to have a relationship with his creation. That’s why I do this. I love Jesus. He has done so much for me, and I want everyone to know him.

Leon fam

S&A: What led you to choose the name “Salt Church”?

LD: When we decided that we wanted to reach the beach community, we threw a lot of names around, and I knew that I had to have the right name for this area. It had to be something that centered on Jesus yet communicated relevancy to our culture. One of my favorite passages comes right after the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:13. Jesus uses something common to the culture that day—salt. He says that we are the salt of the earth. Salt was a primary industry in that day and most commonly used as a preservative. So in essence, Jesus says that those who follow him preserve the entire world. That’s a big deal! We sustain, bring good things, and rescue people not just physically but, most importantly, spiritually. Eternal life is our mission. Jesus says in John 10:10, “I come so you may have life and life abundantly.” The local church is a life force, so to speak. People are looking for hope. As followers of Christ, we believe that hope is only found in Jesus Christ, and the local church is the avenue by which Jesus brings hope to world. Nothing else this world offers gives us true hope and belonging except Jesus. Yes, everything that we enjoy is a blessing from God, but nothing will bring real, everlasting joy. He is the answer.

Not only does salt have real spiritual meaning but it’s also something everyone can identify with in a beach community. We love the salt life: salt water, salt brands, etc. Beach people are drawn to salt, so why not Salt Church?


S&A: It’s pretty unique that the church meets in a brewery. Tell us about your relationship with Back Bay Brewing Company.

LD: You know what’s crazy about that? I had a friend tell me that I was going to be meeting up there well before I started a congregation. My first thought was, That’s not going to happen. There’s no room in that place. And then they remodeled the upstairs to make it a entertainment area.

We actually started meeting at Taking Shape Fitness across and down the hall. It was a nice, open place with a good beach vibe. Unfortunately, after three months of having services there, the location went out of business. We literally got the call a week before the business closed its doors.

A few weeks before this, a good friend and elder of the church, Alex Rubio, and I were packing up one Sunday after service and ran into Travis Kesler, the bar manager at Back Bay, and he mentioned they were remodeling the upstairs into an entertainment area for bands and events. He took us to see the unfinished room, and in the back of my mind, I was thinking, How could we get into this place and have services? When I received the call from the owner of Taking Shape Fitness that she was closing shop, Travis was one of the first people I called, and he was thrilled. We started meeting there the very next week.

It was a really good move. It breaks barriers and boundaries. Come on: Who wouldn’t want to try out a church in a bar? Plus, the bar owners are very kind, and it’s been a great relationship. Travis said it himself: “I want [Back Bay] to really mean something.” We almost feel like Travis is one of our congregants. He is always trying to help us get the word out and offer ideas. He even came to one of our services and brought visitors. Back Bay Brewing is great to us. 

S&A: Ironically enough, I saw some thought-provoking messages about social media use on your Facebook page. The quote “Like money, social media is a great servant but a terrible master” stands out. Elaborate on this concept and how you’ve tied in this cautionary message to your ministry.

LD: I like to teach the way Jesus taught. He didn’t use “church” language or ideas that were so impractical and far removed from reality that no one could relate to them. He taught through everyday stories and real-life experiences but used deep, theological truth. For example, he used a vine in John 15:5 to symbolize his relationship with God and with us. People of that time knew vineyards very well. Perhaps some in his crowd were caretakers of vineyards. They thought, Oh yeah, I get it. That makes so much sense.

I strive to do the same at Salt. We just completed our social media series, #struggles, which was the source of your question; we highlighted the struggles we deal with as a result of social media, such as relationships, unfair comparisons, contentment, authenticity, intimacy, and rest. I then contrasted these with biblical principles. We want people to really get it.

During this series, we had a couple visit for the first time. They came back the next week, and again the next—with excitement. They approached me a few Sundays later with smiles on their faces and told me they had never been to church in their entire lives. They could not believe how relevant it could be. It just made sense to them. That’s what we want. Jesus is reality.


S&A: Obviously, a love for surfing and the ocean is a common bonding point for Salt Church members. How do you weave these elements into the Christian lessons?

LD: Yes, leaders tend to attract people like themselves. As a surfer and ocean lover, I’ve attracted many with the same love. I also have a business and academic background, and I’m a musician. By virtue of this, I’ve attracted those types as well. Our niche and starting point, however, is the beach community, and we’ve stayed focused on this although our long-term vision is to move out to other demographics.

I always like to say that Jesus was a water guy. He called his first disciples by the water, he taught by the water, and he spent a lot of time on a boat. It’s fun to share this with people who love the water. The Bible also uses water to symbolize many things. Water baptism represents the death of our old self and new life in Christ. Salvation is often referred to as a cleansing water or water that quenches an everlasting thirst. The Holy Spirit is also mentioned as a river of water or flowing water. The list goes on and on. It’s actually very easy to use the ocean and the water in my teachings. Aside from that, it’s cool to share stories of surfing, outings, and things related to the ocean to drive points home in my messages.


S&A: If someone was on the fence about coming out to Salt Church for a Sunday service, what would you say to that person?

LD: Just come out and experience it. Throw out all the presumptions, judgments, and bad experiences, and give it a shot. What’s great about Salt Church is that it’s different. We are a loving community that does not judge or expect you to be something you aren’t. Come as you are. Jesus isn’t concerned about your baggage, your past, or all the messiness your life may bring in the door. He just wants a relationship with you, and we do our best to express and share the love of Jesus with everyone who visits. Many of the people attending our church are unchurched and dechurched. We have those who’ve rarely stepped in the doors of a church but who loved it. We have many who were disgruntled with church and after so many years gave it another shot and are so happy they made that decision. If you asked these people personally, they would tell you it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to them.

S&A: What are the church’s long-term plans as of now?

LD: I don’t think I would have enough time in this interview to give you all the things that God has laid on my heart for Salt Church, but we are desperately concerned about who God is, what he is doing, and his heart for people. We share the heart of God, and what that means for us is to reach as many with the good news of Jesus as possible. At this point in time, we have strategically placed ourselves in an area were there is a need that’s not being met, and as we grow, we’ll branch out into the communities around us and ultimately into the entire city and the world. That may mean a large building, multiple campuses, planting other churches, or something completely different. I just know the vision that God has is bigger than anything I can imagine, and I will do whatever it takes to reach more people for Christ. It’s all about glorifying Jesus, loving people, and giving life.

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