Disgusted Young People: How Martin Luther King Predicted the Decline of the Mainline Church


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“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.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

There’s been a series on NPR this past week about young adults leaving their religion behind. The thrust of the weeklong series centered on the increasing number among the emerging generations who no longer claim any religious affiliation.

Some gave traumatic grief as a reason for giving up, and others named a ponderous ecclesiastical hierarchy they no longer found useful, while still others struggled with what felt like the silliness of trying to find consolation in mythology. I get the impression from listening to them that they’ve thought more about religion than many of the people I know who’ve remainedin the church. They’ve carved their disbelief out of the cold existential marble of a future scape devoid of religious infrastructure.

Interestingly, though, some of what I heard sounded like wistfulness, a desire somehow to have the “something” they felt like religion offers. “Not consolation, necessarily” they say. “Not so much forgiveness,” they’re quick to add. For some it sounded like a desire for community. For another I heard it as a longing for the kind of taken-for-grantedness associated with a meaningful afterlife, which some religion offers.

“Do you still pray?” the interviewer wanted to know.

Haltingly, “Yes … well, sort of. I’m not sure you could call it prayer.”

Another, “I try to feel gratitude, which seems to me like prayer.”

Young man: “I’m embarrassed to admit it, because it makes me sound like a hypocrite after all the things I’ve said this week, but yes, when things get really bad, I still do.”

Many of them were quick to point out that they weren’t looking to get back into religion, but there seemed to be something …

I think the church ought to pay attention—not so we can figure out a way to give them what they want in the hopes that all these “nones” will want what we’ve got and come back to teach the 2nd grade Sunday School class. I think the church ought to pay attention because, whether they can articulate it with precision or not, much of what the “nones” are saying is that the kind of stuff often peddled in the name of religion just isn’t interesting enough to hold anybody’s attention—let alone young people who have precious little extra time and a mountain of student loan debt with which to be preoccupied.

The other thing I’ve heard the “nones” saying is that evidence of Jesus and his commitment to a new world is often difficult to find in the lives of the people who appear to claim his blessings with the most enthusiasm.

In other words, what “nones” tend to see when they see the church has less to do with the humble path of faithful service in the pursuit of justice, than with what appears to be the venal and self-aggrandizing building of personal kingdoms by those certain that the Jesus of the Gospels must not have meant what he said “literally.”

I mean, come on. Have you read the Gospels? I am not even lying.

Surely, Jesus was just doing a little fancy rhetorical two-stepping when he uttered the first words of his public ministry in Luke: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind” (Lk. 4:18-19).

It’s not like Jesus literally meant that we shouldn’t oppose people who think differently from us about God, not like Jesus wasactually saying that “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk. 9:40).

He couldn’t really mean it when he said, “Do not resist the evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Mt. 5:39).

Jesus didn’t intend it literally (and especially not corporately … about congregations) when he said that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it” (Mk. 8:35).

Yeah, that whole thing about “tax collectors and prostitutes going into the kingdom of God ahead of you [religious folks]” was just a figure of speech (Mt. 21:31).

Seriously, he was just trying to make a point when he proclaimed: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Lk. 6:24-26).

Jesus was just being, you know, metaphorical when he set down the sweeping breadth of his vision of the saving love he was about to unleash through his death: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (Jn. 12:32).

Irony: I—and progressives who view the Bible not as the blueprint of a castle meant to house a few select people but as a series of sketches meant, when taken together, to set down a comprehensive vision of an entirely new world in which everybody’s welcome—am regularly accused of not taking the Bible seriously, of picking and choosing only the parts I like, of failing to read the “literal sense” of Scripture.

Unfortunately, Christianity—because of so many botched attempts at fitting in, at being relevant, at making sure society doesn’t think us metaphysical rubes and hayseeds—has domesticated the faith to such an extent that disbelief takes little effort. We have fostered a situation in which it is appallingly easy, as Terry Eagleton says, to reject faith “on the cheap.” Faith, in the hands of too many of Jesus’ loudest and most unremittingly convinced fans, cannot but feel like the spiritual equivalent of polyester underpants—unflattering, out-of-date, and scratchy in the tenderest places.1

Here’s the thing: If the “nones” find disbelief preferable (and Lord knows there are plenty of really good reasons to do so) why not try to give them something interesting in which to disbelieve? My fear is that at the heart of much disbelief sits a reality that I, as a Christian, don’t have any stake in believing in either.

If the “nones” are leaving the church (and again, anyone with a little sense and some walking around change admits that there exist arguably compelling grounds for doing so) why not give them a true picture of what is they’re leaving? My fear is that they’re leaving because they’ve gotten a taste of a Christianity that many of us have no desire to defend.

If the “nones” ever should venture into a church looking for Jesus, they’re probably first going to have to witness him in the lives of his followers outside the church … years, miles before they ever get through the front door. My big fear is that what they’ll witness isn’t Jesus, but instead someone parading around wearing a symbol of the capital punishment that killed him, winking and talking knowingly about “those” people, and how this once proud Christian nation is going to hell because of________ (fill in the blank: the humanists, the gays, the illegals, the moochers who carry iPhones but who expect us to pay for their cigarettes and healthcare, the gun control sissies, or the liberal socialists and their “class warfare”).2

Fifty years ago this April, Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama and wrote a letter to moderate clergymen in white mainline churches. In it he expressed his disappointment in the church’s inability to be a people formed more by a vision of Jesus than by fear of cultural rejection. Those “men of God” asked him to lighten up on the integration demands, to let time make the changes for which they were too afraid to stand. But in the process they forfeited something crucial—the ability to speak with integrity on behalf of Jesus, the one who gave his life as the ultimate embrace of the abandoned and the voiceless. It’s possible, I’ve heard it said somewhere, to lose your life by the very process employed to try to save it.

And do you want to know, at least in part, what losing your life while trying to save it might look like? According to Martin Luther King, it looks like a stampede of disgusted young people falling all over themselves trying to get to the back door.

They came. They saw. They beat feet.

The God who gave enough of a crap about this dirt mound to call it “good,” and then to show up to rent a shabby one bedroom apartment in the very throbbing heart of it must find little utility in the overly sentimentalized and acculturated versions of piety that have come to be associated with popular Christianity. People are dying all over the world (many of them in our name) and we find time to fume over the fact that the Lord’s Prayer can’t be said in homeroom.

Poor folks in our own neighborhoods are hungry, cold, and sick because we can’t figure out a way to help them and build really cool bombs at the same time, but we spend our hours figuring out all the conspiratorial ways to transmogrify government bureaucrats into rapacious tyrants ready to relieve us of our money and our constitutional rights.

In 2010 the wealthiest 1% of Americans owned 35.4% of the wealth, while the bottom 90% owned just 23.3%, but a vast swath of Christianity is much more concerned that folks with the same sexual equipment can now get a marriage license down at the courthouse in a handful of states.

Fifty years out, Martin Luther King called it. He said that “the judgment of God is on 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.”

And guess what happened. Over the next fifty years, we have seen those millions cast whatever loyalty to the church they might once have held aside. Looking like a social club apparently just won’t get it done.

If the church ever figures to reclaim the respect of the “nones,” let alone their loyalty, it had better take a hard look—not just at itself, but at Jesus. Because to the extent that the “nones” are looking at all, they’re looking for Jesus.

Why not try something new?  The world has plenty of social clubs.  And we’ve done “disappointment” and “disgust” to death.

  1. Eagleton writes that “it is hard to avoid the feeling that a God as bright, resourceful, and imaginative as the one that might just possibly exist could not have hit on some more agreeable way of saving the world than religion” in Reason, Faith, and Revolution, 57. ↩
  2. If this is a straw man, then it’s a straw man that seems to have squatters rights at the “Express Line” at the Kroger where I shop. ↩
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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

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