Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Martin Luther King, Jr.: How Christian churches can continue his legacy

Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy calls Christians to keep pressing forward toward justice and equality. - Image courtesy of UIC Digital Collections (
Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy calls Christians to keep pressing forward toward justice and equality. - Image courtesy of UIC Digital Collections (

Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy calls Christians to keep pressing forward toward justice and equality. – Image courtesy of UIC Digital Collections (

In 1983–the year after I was born–President Ronald Reagan officially designated the third Monday in January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But it wasn’t until 2000–the year I graduated from high school–that it was observed by all 50 states for the first time. As the saying goes, “Justice marches slowly on.” As we celebrate yet another MLK Day, the occasion warrants asking how the 21st century Christian church can continue Dr. King’s legacy.

Soong-Chan Rah—a popular speaker and author—is the B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL and the author of “The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity” and “Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church.” Previously, he was the founding senior pastor of the Cambridge Community Fellowship Church, a multi-ethnic, urban ministry-focused church committed to living out the values of racial reconciliation and social justice in the urban context. Here, we discuss how the Christian church can be an instrument of justice and reconciliation in our current era.

RNS: What message would you want to share with churches that are lukewarm about social justice, or simply not interested in prioritizing justice issues?

SCR: God’s heart for justice is a biblical mandate. It is not action arising from political correctness. If we’re lukewarm about social justice, then we are lukewarm about the Scriptures. The Bible calls for “justice to roll down” and consistently calls for believers to care for the poor and the immigrants among us. We are to be concerned about the orphans and the widows. We are given examples of how the prophets stood up to the powers. If we reject justice, we are performing a form of eisegesis that picks and chooses what we hold to be important from Scripture based upon our experiences, our cultural biases, and our personal preferences.

[tweetable]American Christianity in the 20th century created a false dichotomy between personal evangelism and social justice.[/tweetable] Evangelicalism in particular viewed engagement as social issues as an “add-on” or as a part of the liberal agenda. Historian David Moberg calls this moment the “great reversal.” The long history of the church reveals a church consistently concerned about social issues – whether providing for basic health care needs in impoverished communities or confronting the evils of the slave trade. In the twentieth century, we saw Christians reverse this positive expression by stifling involvement in social concern. We now have an opportunity in the twenty-first century to undo the great reversal and recover the important value of biblical social justice. We need to move from seeing social justice as purely a social, political activity to a spiritual activity. The work of the church should be both the powerful work of personal evangelism and social justice. Both are expressions of a biblical Christianity. 

Soong-Chan Rah is author of "The Next Evangelicalism."

Soong-Chan Rah is author of “The Next Evangelicalism.”

RNS: What about a congregation that is fired up about racial reconciliation? What practical steps do homogenous congregations need to take—or not take!—to be faithful to God’s kingdom vision for humanity?

SCR: I am thrilled that more and more congregations are seeing the importance of diverse expression of Christianity in the church. I would challenge these churches to continually seek ways to find a deep Scriptural grounding for our pursuit of racial reconciliation.

Explore the doctrine of the Imago Dei and how that shapes our understanding of our humanity and of our fellow humans. Explore a theology of culture and how all cultures seek to express God’s creation in positive ways (and in negative ways). Explore Jesus’ teachings about God’s concern for the Gentiles. Explore Paul’s deep concern for reconciliation. Scripture should continue to be our motivation to pursue the diversity found in God’s creation.

In addition, the Scriptures can also inform our experience. I would challenge congregations to read and learn from those who are coming from different cultural experiences. I frequently challenge Christian leaders who want to engage in racial reconciliation, that they must have had a sustained experience where they have learned from, been mentored by, been pastored by, or otherwise under the spiritual leadership of someone of a different ethnicity. This challenges our notion of racial reconciliation on our terms. Instead, by being under the spiritual authority of someone of a different race/ethnicity, you are challenging your own presuppositions about expressions of Christianity and putting yourself in a position of learning from those of a different race, rather than the one in control and with the power. Generally speaking, I have found that most non-whites have had this experience, while many whites have not had this experience.

I’d add one warning, though. [tweetable]Be careful of cultural tokenism and exoticizing another’s culture for your own sake.[/tweetable] Other cultures do not exist for your entertainment. They are not flavor crystals to be sprinkled over the “real faith” that arises from your own cultural expressions. All cultures should be seen as a gift of God and a desire by the created to reflect the Creator. In this way, other cultures are not failed attempts to be like you. Other cultures are a way of encountering the fullness of God. They are not to be seen as something manipulated for your own benefit or material gain

RNS: As the American church becomes less Western, and more diverse, how do you anticipate that Evangelical theology might be affected?

SCR: I think many of our cultural biases will become exposed. I think our basic evangelical theological understanding of how we engage and practice our faith will be challenged. This is not a bad thing. By engaging with other cultural expressions of faith, our own cultural captivity will be exposed. [tweetable]Our Christian faith is often captive to American culture more than to the Scriptures.[/tweetable] We may realize that our hyper-individualistic faith is less Biblical than the communal faith found in other cultures. We may discover our materialistic forms of church life do not measure up to the self-sacrificial living of some communities of need. We may realize that our methods of doing church are more culturally-driven rather than biblically-driven.

I think we will also rediscover a history and heritage of faith that has been “non-Western” for many years. We will rediscover the history of the early African church. We will rediscover the powerful expressions of faith in “slave religion” (using Prof. Rabiteau’s term describing Christian faith during the years of American slavery). We will see that the Church does not begin with the Puritans and end with the Emerging church.

RNS: Which institutions, today, do you view as being most stubbornly committed to Western captivity, and the most resistant to change?  Organizations? Schools? Denominations?

SCR: Institutions in general tend to have high levels of resistance to change. Institutions will often focus on their own survival. In a changing world, that may mean a resistance not only to change, but a last gasp effort (by any means necessary) to retain existing systems. In other words, it is not only a captivity to one’s own cultural expressions, it is doing everything within one’s power to maintain the system that elevates one’s own cultural biases.

For example, there are Christian academic institutions that have atrocious records when it comes to diversity on their faculty. Sometimes, the lack of faculty is not due to the dearth of minority candidates, but the claim that the white candidate fits our school better or that the white candidate represents an area of research that we want in our institution (usually in an area of study that reflects the perspective and interest of whites). The agenda of research and teaching reflects a particular American priority and emphasis, which may disqualify many minority candidates. The setting of the institutions’ priorities and the institutions’ agenda by the existing power structures (usually populated by whites) often prohibits diversity and the engagement with minority candidates.

I have seen institutions that claim to be committed to diversity have a long string of hiring white leaders because the structures and systems favor the insider, which oftentimes emerge from whites in the community. The existing social networks and connections will often favor the majority culture (i.e. – the people in power give jobs to people they know and if the people in power are whites who only spend time with other whites, then whites will naturally get the available jobs). Sadly, these patterns are more prevalent in evangelical institutions that have higher levels of segregation than secular institutions.

Often, the job description would not only favor the insider (usually whites), but also may favor whites in other ways. Job descriptions can be tailored in ways that reveals a bias from the very beginning on the type of candidate and leader that the institution is looking for. This prevents minority candidates from either getting the position or even applying for the position.

All of the above scenarios and issues find a very strong expression in Christian conference culture, which tends to elevate voices from within its own ranks or bring in the one minority voice to represent the entirety of the minority community. I raised the issue of the lack of diversity with one conference that had 29 white speakers and 1 non-white speaker. I was told that they had talked 3-4 prominent non-whites who turned them down. Part of the problem with that comment is that the 3-4 prominent speakers would be the same 3-4 minority speakers that are asked to every evangelical conference. I remember a conversation with a conference organizer who asked that I offer a potential list of minority speakers for their conference, but I was quickly told that they didn’t need any theological input because they already had a good handle on that.

All of these institutions have significant blind spots. They fail to see how their own biases are built into the system and structure; therefore, they can claim innocence when there is a consistent record of hiring or elevating from within their own communities. Christian institutions need to take a hard look at why there isn’t a consistent and ongoing record of diversity in their leadership. This problem is a deeply rooted institutional problem that will continue to perpetuate because the resistance to change is built into the system.

RNS: Although the U.S. is growing increasingly diverse, many Christians in the U.S. still don’t have friendships or experiences with diverse congregations. What would be helpful for these Christians to know about the faith and life of churches that are not “white dominant?”

SCR: [tweetable]American churches have a much higher rate of segregation than American society.[/tweetable] We have minimal contact with different people groups, ethnicities and cultures in our church communities. Our schools, our places of work, even our neighborhoods are better integrated than most of our churches. For many, the church becomes a central place of personal and spiritual interaction. When our churches are highly segregated, we have minimal connection with people outside of our ethnic and cultural group in the most important area of our lives: our spiritual lives and our worship life.

I think our spiritual lives  are impoverished by our lack of interaction with other cultural expressions of Christianity. In Genesis, we see how God’s image is found in both the male and female, in other words in the “I” and the “Thou” of humanity. We do not experience God in solitude or in the context of hyper individualism, but rather, our spirituality finds a robust expression through interaction with fellow believers who have a different cultural expression and experience of God. When we limit our spiritual interaction and learning to one ethnic or cultural group, we spiritually impoverish ourselves.

One of the issues when a dominant culture relates to a minority culture is that the dominant culture can view their own culture as the more complete culture. Or that the dominant culture is a little closer to God than others. If that point-of-view frames the intersection between different cultural groups, we stifle mutual learning. I think that if we have assumptions about the superiority of one’s own culture over another culture, we undermine the diverse and rich community that God had intended for His people.

God intends for his people to reflect the diversity found in Revelation 7:9. It is a picture of what God wants for his people – the full range of cultural expressions worshipping before the throne of God. When we learn from other cultures, we are getting a taste of what heaven has in store for us. Those whose primary influence is majority culture need to fully understand and embrace how God is at work in other cultures. Other communities that have a different set of experiences with God and expressions of worship provide an important enriching experience that is desperately needed in American majority cultural contexts.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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