Why is the church working today?

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Schools, universities and government institutions across the country are closed for a day to consider the monumental impact of one man’s life that was part of an entire movement that helped to move humanity forward toward a more just society.*

But if you work for a (white) church** today, you’re probably at work. And this morning I have to ask, “Why?”

Don’t get me wrong…I know that taking a day off doesn’t necessarily correspond to actually honoring someone. There’s probably many people who are off today who won’t really take much time to consider the impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or his life. But even if the church didn’t take today off, why didn’t most (white) church even mention Dr. King in their services yesterday? Many of our churches acknowledge Veteran’s Day or the 4th of July. We do special services for Mothers Day and Fathers Day. But Dr. King’s legacy is conspicuously absent from our church calendars.

Reverend King was one of our own. He was a Christian man who tried to connect his faith with his life in real, tangible ways and in the process ended up altering the course of an entire country along the way. He modeled what it looks like to radically “love your neighbor” and lead the way in a non-violent, Christ-like movement that righted injustices in a our country.

Why does this bother me? It seems to me that Protestantism has generally failed at finding role models to help us aspire to Christ-like living for a variety of reasons.

I know some are afraid to honor Dr. King because he struggled with some areas of morality. My question to that fear is whether or not we’ve read our Bibles recently. Do we aspire to the example set by people like Noah, Abraham, David, Peter, or Mary Magdalene? Because these people had gigantic character flaws. For me, that’s part of the beauty of their stories, actually. When I look in the mirror, I see someone who has huge character flaws, too, but the stories of these Bible heroes and the stories modern day heroes, such as Dr. King, remind me that God can work through me despite my flaws. That he is strong in my weakness and is not limited by my limitations.

Some are afraid to honor people like Dr. King because we ought to be aware of making an idol out of anyone, but should follow only Christ. However, even Paul said “follow my example as I follow Christ.”*** Now, I’m not suggesting that we should idolize anyone. I agree that Christ is our ultimate example. But I also think others can aid us in following Christ, that their example can help us to grasp more fully the example of Christ. I’m not in any way suggesting substitution. But most of us acknowledge the worth of mentors, of accountability groups, and of the worth of others’ influence on our lives. So why not consider people like Dr. King and what they have to say to us as we walk with him toward Christ’s Kingdom?

So today I hope that you’ll take some time (even if you can’t have the whole day off) to think about who Dr. King was, about the way that he lived his life, and consider what inspiration it might be to you as you live your life.  Here’s some resources to help with that:




  • Harvard Sitkoff’s book “Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop“, is a readable, fair treatment of Dr. King’s life that is both inspirational and realistic.


*I’m not suggesting here that Dr. King managed to accomplish this on his own or in a vacuum. I readily acknowledge there were many heroes in the civil rights movement. I’m also not suggesting that the work of racial equality is done.  There is still so much to do.

**I mostly interact with white Protestantism, so my thoughts here are directed toward that slice of the church.  This may actually point to some of the work that is left to do…that there is “white” church and “black” church (though we don’t tend to speak so bluntly about our gatherings). Many have observed that Sunday morning is one of the most racially divided times in America. Anyway, as a “white” male, I’m speaking to my slice of the church in this post.

***I Corinthians 11:1


13 Responses to Why is the church working today?

  1. Mark Winner says:

    Thanks for the sobering thoughts, Joel. As always, causing me to think!

  2. Pat Pope says:

    As an African-American, I say “thank you” for this post. I currently serve in a predominantly white meeting (aren’t they all?) and in my 12 years there, there has never been any neglible mention or honor paid to Dr. King. Although yesterday, a video was shown with Wintley Phipps talking about the unity of the races, but I’m not sure if many people “got it”.

    I think in many white churches there is either a discomfort with acknowledging it or just a general unawareness of the day and its significance. People tend to go about their lives with no presence of mind to things in the larger world if there is no direct impact to them personally. However, for those who fall into this latter category, they need to ask themselves are they really unaffected by what Dr. King and others did? Maybe they weren’t victims of segregation, but isn’t our world better off for all people being declared equal and that reality being lived out?

    As for the examples of people who did not live stellar moral lives, we could even look at some of the church fathers who are said to have struggled with violent tempers or depression or anti-Semitism. We tend not to focus on that stuff though. Once we select our heroes, we dare not look at the less than glamourous side of their lives. I guess it’s because WE decide who is worthy of our adoration and who isn’t and the criteria we use is rather nebulous.

  3. Mark Winner says:

    Thanks for your perspective Pat! Honestly, I regret not having brought the significance of this man’s life and impact upon the world to light in yesterday’s service. Dr. King’s effort has never been lost on me. I recognize how much greater our world is because of the the civil rights movement and Dr. King’s powerful words allow me the ability to dream of even greater unity among races in the future.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Quaker Quaker. Quaker Quaker said: Joel Daniel: Why is the church working today? http://bit.ly/e78BKQ #quakers […]

  5. joeldaniel says:

    @Mark – thanks for reading & for thinking about how it connects to your ministry. I’m always impressed by the humility with which you approach your job.

    @Pat – as Mark said, thanks for the perspective! I’m wondering if you’re also a Quaker, as you used the term “meeting”? I think you’re absolutely right in suggesting that we’re all better off, even if we’re unaware of it.

  6. Meg says:

    I would also ask why Christian colleges are open on MLK. Since it was our first day of the semester, teachers or students didn’t have the possibility to talk about alternatives.
    A few years back a friend at an HBU asked me to come to an event. She was shocked to hear we were open and said “our parents would never accept that.”

  7. Pat Pope says:

    @Mark, thanks.

    @Joel, yes, I’m at Willoughby Hills.

  8. The elder’s encouraged me to take the day off, for which I was thankful. We all drove up the our state’s capitol and marched on City Hall for economic welfare of the working poor. It felt like a good way to spend the day in honor of Dr. King. Thanks for the reflection Joel, I think we still have a long way to go to uproot these kinds of issues in the church and our local meetings.

  9. kevin Lee says:

    Great article, thank you, Friend.

  10. Jessica Mudger says:

    Thanks for the post, JDH! As usual, I think you hit the nail on the head. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I forgot today was Martin Luther King, Jr Day until I read your post. As a mom, I’m constantly looking for great examples of faith to show my kids. I think I’ll teach them about Dr. King today.

  11. rdcrock says:

    “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.” Letter from a Birmingham Jail

    The moral sense of justice within the church seems not to have matured much in nearly 50 years. These words are not to condemn and point fingers. Rather, they should serve as a wake up call that we cannot just know the “right” thing to do, but actually “do” the right thing.

  12. […] morning I re-read a post that I had put up last year on MLK Jr. Day. It was a challenge to the church to consider why they didn’t more fully […]

  13. joeldaniel says:

    @Jessica – sounds like a great idea!

    @Ron – fantastic quote. And definitely relevant and challenging.

    Here’s what I’m thinking about today:

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