In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King states, “The church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” In King’s eyes this was “the Church” that Jesus built with expectation to continue his own mission in the world. Are our churches today extensions of that Church? Or, are we so personalistic and individualistic that we forget that the church was built as a transformative mechanism for society? There is a certain wayward spirit in our society that is transforming the churches into thermometers instead of thermostats.
As I survey churches across America, I notice that far too few of the churches maintain a true prophetic character. Pathetic apathy compromise the prophetic nature of the Church that Jesus expects. In the face of oppressive immigration laws, poverty, violence, abuse, bullying, resistant and evil racism, and greed, the churches must become “the Church.” There is a need for a unified prophetic voice of “the Church” that cries aloud and spares not! The Church is not a privatized business opportunity for men and women who seize the opportunity to attract people to collect tithe and offerings. The Church that Christ intends is not a social club that collects membership fees and bifurcate the haves from the have-nots. That is what I see among many of our churches. In his 1963 Strength to Love, King says, “If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
If we are to continue King’s legacy, we must cross denominational, non-denominational, theological, ethnic, and gender lines to form the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ is not the vision of church leaders– thats corporate America that has infiltrated churches today. The Church of Jesus Christ bears a single vision and a single mission. Anything we call a vision or mission should be a microcosm of the single vision and mission of Christ’s. To this end, churches should be able to come together to a common cause. This is seldom the case. We (churches) must be aware. Let’s retract our human biases that interfere with divine purpose for the church.
Hollywood both steers society and reflects trends within society; in like manner, Christian television both steers churches and reflect trends within the church. I say, this is an ecclesiological tragedy on many levels. If churches are to align themselves with Christ’s divine vision for the church in transforming society, they must resist trends that are antithetical to the love, grace and peace intrinsic to the gospel. All to often church leaders look to televangelists for divine inspiration. People like Eddie Long, Marcus Lamb, Zachery Tims, Martin Luther King, Jr (himself), every other “minister,” “reverend,” “pastor,” “bishop,” “apostle” and “prophet” I know and even me help us to see that the humanity of local, regional and national religious leaders can not be trusted as perfect. But, Jesus can be trusted. The gospel can be trusted. It is a gospel of love and not of material and sexual lust. Many religious leaders are charismatic persons without divine anointing to lead churches or even to have national attention. Others are anointed for certain purposes but not to be elevated to a celebrated position.
Jesus founded the Church to glorify God. Who is our churches glorifying? Who do we seek to please? In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, King also says,“Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? …Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”
If we are to contextualize King’s frustration we can not fail to admit that we can not please God if we do not speak up for those who are in need. When we raise money to build buildings and fortify our own empires, we forsake building people. Giving food to people and giving them a jacket when it is cold so that we can boast in our good deeds does not bring glory to God. We must transition our disposition to that of building houses to help people get on their feet; educating the uneducated in areas that will sustain their welfare; challenging the government in godly ways to alleviate poverty; confronting injustice in our immigration laws and the list goes own. Churches must stop laying hold on their members, refusing to cross pollinate or fellowship with other churches because of petty divisions. When we do this, we are like salmons that move against the current; we become nonconformists in the dominating Christian religious landscape. But, until then, we fail to be the Church that King envisioned to be the Church that Jesus founded.
Happy Birthday Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We honor you for all that you did as servant of Christ for humanity. M.L.K., R.I.P.
Antipas L. Harris, Aspiring servant of the Lord.