Fifty years ago, today, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel. Like anyone of our heroes, King wasn’t perfect. Unlike most of our heroes, probably, he is among the most important Americans to have lived within our lifetime. And he helped to make plain one of the biggest stumbling blocks to evangelistic witness in North America: racial segregation and inequality within our churches.
In a well-known interview he did with Meet the Press in 1960, King said these famous lines:
I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America. I definitely think the Christian church should be integrated, and any church that stands against integration and that has a segregated body is standing against the spirit and the teachings of Jesus Christ, and it fails to be a true witness.
The sentiment of this statement challenged the North American church to be better and to do better. And King’s life has been a part of launching a new missional narrative of evangelistic mission that results in racially integrated and racially reconciled churches. The heart and story behind this missional narrative come from a deeply rooted Biblical mission planted, by God, into the lives of people who all their lives only knew segregation and marginalization.
King never planted a church. But he lived with a church planter’s vision. Call it a dream.
It’s not just Gospel mission at the margins, but it’s Gospel mission from the margins.
What is a missional narrative?
A missional narrative is a lens or a motivational story used to mobilize a people for the Great Commission and is found at the intersection of the Missio Dei, their personal or group background, and the context where they’re called to do ministry. It’s the heart of why someone is motivated for mission.
And for a large segment of the evangelical church in America, the missional narrative has been the decline narrative that says something to the effect that North America is becoming less and less Christian, as reflected in church attendance, and we need to reverse this trend.
But for those who latch onto King’s vision for a racially reconciled church, their missional narrative isn’t motivated by church attendance decline. Rather, it’s motivated by a greater longing for the death, resurrection, and return of Jesus to really do the work of rooting out racism and all of its stains. Especially the stains that have become embedded in his Church and all its denominations.
These church planters and church plants are motivated by a reconciliation missional narrative that says that the power of the Gospel is the only power that can overcome and undo the 400 year effects of a race-based value system that has been with North America and its church from its inception, denigrating so many people, not only, but especially Native Americans and Blacks. And now today, increasingly more and more, Latinos and Latinas.
These kinds of churches are no less “Gospel-centered” than a church plant started by a “Gospel-centered” network. And they are no less evangelistic than a “seeker sensitive” church plant helping people far from God find their way back. Because those who plant these kinds of churches are wholly dependent on the power of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit to transform not only the internal attitudes towards race and apathy, but also to unveil and thwart the systemic and structural sins that are hard at work to keep those attitudes hidden and alive.
Those who are planting churches motivated by a reconciliation missional narrative are no less Gospel-centered and are no less evangelistic than those who are motivated by a church decline narrative. And if it’s true that racism is America’s original sin, then it may be true that these churches and church planters are among the most faithful in Gospel witness and evangelism.
Living Out King’s Vision of an Integrated Church
King’s vision of an integrated church has real merit for witness and softens the ground for evangelism in North America. It doesn’t work for us to say, “We don’t see color in our churches,” because the people that our church plants are trying to reach are actually saying, “We do see color and it matters.” They also know that our notions of race today is a result of a failed 400+ year social experiment and social propaganda that created a tangled web of injustice and inequality. It’s just that they haven’t the slightest clue that it’s the Gospel that has both the power and the logic to undo this tangled web.
By starting churches through the preaching and application of the Gospel, which reconciles God to man and man to one another, we’ll not only see King’s vision realized, but we’ll also see three missiological phenomena emerge:
1. Multiracial Church as An Apologetic
It isn’t enough for an unbelieving world that the church is talking about racial reconciliation or that we have conferences about it or that our preachers can quote MLK. When we have authentic communities that are intrinsically multiracial to the third and fourth generation and the lives of its people have become intertwined like family, then and only then, will the church have a new testimony that even the harshest critic can’t rebut. This is a long-term investment that’ll pay evangelistic dividends in future generations–if we don’t waver from it.
2. Racial Reconciliation as Convening for Proclamation
When the church earns the reputation as being the place that offers models for society to have positive discourse around reconciliation–not just racial, but all kinds of reconciliation–it will then have the natural channel to proclaim the Gospel. We’re so entrenched with the decline narrative which often pits church against culture, that it’s hard for some to see the church as a friend and natural ally of the public, offering a service that society so often desperately needs. It’s what Jesus called “peacemaking.” When we gather our communities for the sake of peacemaking, inevitably the church will be asked, “So, then, what is your hope?”
3. The Reconciliation Missional Narrative Increases the Laborers (and Church Planters)
We live in a time when the New York Times is writing articles about how young African-Americans are leaving the evangelical church because of what appears to be a strong silence on the issues of race and unjust killings of unarmed black men. But while it’s true that there is a segment of evangelicals who are silent, there is also a growing segment of evangelicals who are not and they genuinely want leadership from people of all colors and of both genders and of all ages. These evangelicals aren’t just playing identity politics or advocating tokenism. They’re truly led by the Spirit of God and are convinced that the future of their institution depends on their ability to repent in action, now and today. And it’ll be these renewed and revived institutions that’ll capture the hearts of the next generation who will, in turn, become the leaders and laborers for the next generation of churches and church plants.
If King preached the gospel of church decline or one similarly advocated today, he may not have been murdered. He could still be alive today. But he preached a gospel of reconciliation and repentance and for that, he was murdered. And yet the vision for an integrated church became more compelling with his death.
And without trying too hard to compare King with King Jesus, the reality is also that if Jesus preached a gospel about religious attendance or one similarly advocated today, he too may not have been murdered. But he actually led the way in preaching a gospel of reconciliation and repentance and for that, he too was murdered. And it is without any doubt that Jesus’ vision for the reconciled church–and the reconciled world–became most compelling in his death.
And the Christian hope is that when King Jesus returns, not only will Martin Luther King’s vision of an integrated church be fully realized, but so will God the Father’s dream of a fully integrated family.
Because in Christ, that’s what we are.
On this fifty year anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, let’s continue to implement, now and today, this vision of the integrated and reconciled Church while we look toward an imminent and more perfect future by praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”