In 1963, King wrote his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" after he was arrested there for leading protests and eight White ministers wrote an editorial in the Birmingham newspaper criticizing his actions and calling for restraint. I referred to this this morning on my Facebook and deal with this in chapter 5 of my book on Evangelical Christianity in the South and the Civil Rights Movement. In the letter, King says that the Church in America was losing its influence and voice because it was on the wrong side of justice and history. King says,
I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification. Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days 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. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.
King must be listened to here, I think. He addresses the real issue involving the weakening of the church in America. Instead of challenging the status quo, we have supported it. Sure, the church is against certain sins, but we have often not called for any real change in the way of life for people. We have often simply sought to help people live more happily in their present world and environment.
There has been much handwringing over the past 20 years as to why the American Church is in decline. All kinds of ideas have been put forward claiming that we are not relevant enough, our music is bad, we aren't willing to change, or we are just not accessible. But, what if we looked inside of a Birmingham Jail in 1963 when Martin read the editorial from the White ministers and what if we felt his outrage and discouragement? When the Church ceases to represent another Kingdom, one not of this world, and instead serves as a chaplain to the larger culture, then it has lost its reason for existence and will quickly be tossed out onto the ash heap. That seems to be what we are seeing now.
See the whole letter here: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html