Did MLK Jr predict the decline of mainline churches?

[D]mergent believes that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. predicted the Predicted the Decline of the Mainline Church. Perhaps the blog speaks to all churches as all are in decline as the "nones" become the largest faith group:

...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most unremittingly convinced fans, cannot but feel like the spiritual equivalent of polyester underpants—unflattering, out-of-date, and scratchy in the tenderest places.1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....

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....

Read it all here.

Comments (14)

Baloney. We can get ethics and social justice stuff anywhere. Religion doesn't have a corner on it.

The whole purpose of religion is mysticism, ecstasy and bliss. Make that available, and let people know about it, and they will come. Not everyone, because only a small minority are interested in mysticism. But without social pressure and superstition, no one else has any reason to bother with religion.

Christ Jesus disagrees with you, Harriet. He didn't say much, if anything, about mysticism, ecstasy and bliss. He taught a lot about communion: forming and sustaining relationships based on loving neighbors, loving enemies and treating each other the same way we ourselves want to be treated -- in other words, ethics and social justice. Without those gospel values, mysticism, ecstasy and bliss just turn into spiritual narcissism focused on the ego -- and gratifying the ego definitely wasn't Jesus' bag.

I don't buy Terry Eagleton's take on religion. But the article in general makes me think of Alfred Loisy, who said, "Jesus came preaching the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church." 'Jésus annonçait le Royaume et c'est l'Église qui est venue.' Once Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire comfort became the goal rather than asking tough questions.

Ethics and social justice are not extras that can be forgotten or simply added on to religion. The being-in-common of politics is not set apart but shared.

Gary Paul Gilbert

A diarist at DailyKos yesterday lamented the decline of the supportive fellowship she'd found at her neighborhood church. In recent years, the institution seemed to have gone stale:

I gave it the last five years, thinking I just needed to show up and make an effort. I volunteered to do governance and took on a bunch of tasks within that framework. I feel now like the voice in Leonard Cohen's "First We Take Manhattan." They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom for tryin' to change the system from within -- I can't do it anymore. I spent the whole of last year sitting on committees whose goal was to rationalize a $3 million project to replace the pipe organ. As if 19th-century pipe organ concerts are the future of a soul-based, liberal city culture that already doesn't want anything to do with religion. I have to leave before I start to despise these people. . . . I dream about starting a sort of un-church -- a neighborhood-based community that's creative, accessible, and functional. I'm looking for models.
Religion doesn't actually make available mysticism, ecstasy, or bliss -- it's one medium where these qualities are cultivated. I suspect that they all derive from language, that intangible thing that encodes reality for us (whether its creations actually happen or not). Humankind seeks patterns in events, i.e., meaning, and we weave the patterns into stories as soon as we can put together a subject, verb, and object.

It happens that religious stories pull people together for mutual support and against common enemies. In our pluralistic society, common stories and common enemies are lacking. (Terrorism and Islam rather abstract to fulfill the role. A quarter of the US under-informed citizenry are finding Democrats and gun-control more satisfying sources of unifying fear.) Dr. Baber may be right that social pressure and superstition are the only reasons to bother with religion. But we need unifying goals and social support. Church still offers these, with diminishing conviction. It's an excellent question: Where can we find what church has offered if the religious story no longer compels?

Mr. Penwell's article is good on analysis, less so on recommendations. Just stress the true picture of church? I agree that a promising step would be to recover a sense of the human Jesus rather than the metaphysical Christ, but the popular appeal of that is uncertain. Sounds like a formula for small, active bodies like the Quakers, not culture-wide bodies of members.

Venezuela has had great success with youth orchestras. They keep kids off the streets, give them highly admirable individual skills that they can practice in company for the benefit of their communities. Where are the arts programs in US schools? Music and art are vehicles of ecstasy and beauty. Maybe we could look to 19th century communities that provided their own entertainment with enrichment from occasional traveling roadshows. Religion began in theatre; perhaps we need to go all the way back. Theatre gives us realities frankly presented as artifice. Technology has led to stultifying monopolies in stage, screen, and television, but cheap excellent video is opening the way for individual achievements on the Internet. Maybe YouTube is the new civic center.

Murdoch Matthew

Derek Penwell's article has two paragraphs taken from "Letter From Birmingham Jail" at the top under his by-line. Its important to put the paragraphs within the context of both Dr. King's entire letter and the social and political context in which he was writing. King's letter is addressed to "Fellow Clergymen" and is a response to criticism from clergy who described his actions as "unwise and untimely". Near the paragraphs quoted in the Penwell piece, Martin Luther King writes:

"Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Maybe I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany,Georgia with us. ...Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been kicked out of their churches, and lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. ... Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times."

I'm not sure decline as we currently define it is the kind of thing that Martin Luther King was predicting (future tense). It seems more of an instance of decline present tense (1963). Perhaps what we ought to be asking ourselves is, what is our status quo, and where do we see now that “church within the church” that Dr. King wrote about?

No surprise: the usual smarmy moralism and puritanism--"no bliss please, we're Christians." Christianity isn't about narcissistic navel-gazing for fun: it's about "community" and being nice. Jeeeezus said so.

There are two problems:

(1) Atheists have a legitimate complaint: when religious believers harp on the theme that religion is all about love, do-goodism and "community" the implication is that religion puts one at an ethical advantage. In addition to being insulting to atheists and other Nones, it's as a matter of empirical fact false. For all the anecdotal evidence and personal testimonies, in the aggregate religion doesn't make people or societies better. Compare Nigeria and Sweden, for example.

(2) If we can't get our mysticism, ecstasy and bliss at church, where can we get it? Since church-going is now de facto as de jure voluntary, church-goers are self-selected: happy campers, who like the do-goodism, sentimentality and "community" churches provide stay, and post on Episcopal Cafe; those want religious experience leave because churches don't provide it. As one of my students said when I used the phrase "Christian mysticism"--"You don't associate Christianity with mysticism." Right--and what a pity.

So Happy Campers worry about declining numbers, and repeat the theme endlessly--more pop culture, more relevance, more "community" Hasn't worked, has it? From the 1960s when the church was pumping out folk masses to current yammering about incorporating tech tricks (get your church on twitter!) IT HAS NOT WORKED. First of all, fewer people are looking for "community"--see Putnam. Second of all those who want "community" or have a taste for do-good work can find it readily in the secular world.

Give people bliss, and they will come!

Re Harriet Baber, your post is an engaing critique. The church as a source of mysticism or a locale for finding mysticism is an interesting problem. But isn't mysticism rare and elusive by nature no matter what the context? Martin Buber seemed to think so. I think one needs to be careful to distinguish "do-gooderism" and even well defined "outreach" from the more prophetic task of seeking social justice. Justice is a much more demanding call to communities of faith, and the sometimes exhasuting task of "doing justice" is as good a place to expect an opneing to the mystic as anywhere. Dr. King famoulsy said, "I have been to the mountian top." Sounds like mysticism to me. One sees the binding of doing justice and the mystical in Isaiah for example, and in the Jesus of Luke's Gospel. Consider the crtique of the churches that Martin Luther King lays bare in his letter. How could they possibly have been a source of mysticsim and the transcendent until they were engaged with the suffering around them.

On this issue in the wider view, the NYT article by Gary Gutting (if you can acess it) may be of interest.


Many social justice movements have grown out of small prayer groups. Often the prayer and Bible study call people to a deeper engagement with the world. Not sure if the "high" of worship does that though it does keep one spiritually fed when doing the justice work.

isn't mysticism rare?

Religious experience is not rare: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2012/02/religious-and-mystical-experiences-common-among-americans/

Maybe religious experience is actuallyrarer amongst church-goers than others since churches promote "community" and social action and other do-good work. So people looking for religious experience go elsewhere--meditation, New Age products, recreational drugs.

Working for social justice, like all do-good work, is tough, usually boring and thoroughly unpleasant. How many people are going to be attracted to a church that tells them: C'mon down: we have some hard, boring work for you to do? Won't more be attracted if the church says: C'mon down: we have mysticism, aesthetic experience and bliss for you?

Community for community's sake is not where it's at, and Jesus never promised that. But community grows when people are committed to excellent worship in the beauty of holiness, and committed to dynamic social justice work that really helps and makes a difference, especially tending to needs and wants that are overlooked by other charities and whatever (including giving musicians a place to play and artists a place to show?) Dr. Baber, if you're enjoying a high liturgy, would you pass up the opportunity to play a part in its production? Community happens when you are asked, invited, and say yes. It doesn't happen because you're supposed to be extroverted and all over everyone all the time. Lord knows Episcopalians aren't generally the extroverted type.

Nothing against "community" as such but against the tradition in which we were told that every grain of incense was bread from the mouths of the poor--that religion was "escapist." And more so the endless attempts to promote the "horizontal dimension" in liturgy--from the "we" in the Creed to the Peace to all the attempts to make church services less formal, less impersonal--which suck out every bit of the numinous. Mysticism is "the flight of the alone to the Alone" and sociability destroys it.

Re Harriet Babers' 1:31 post, I would agree that the grain of incense/bread from the mouths of the poor is a false dichtomy. So too would much of Catholic, including Anglo-Catholic, tradition.

However, mysticism has been defined variously from mystery religions,to Platonism, gnosticism, etc. However defined for Christians, mysticism cannot be understood in opposstion to the human experience as social and communal experience. The whole Hebrew Christian enterprise is profoundly communal and social.

The article linked in the previous post, regarding mystic experiences being not so rare, does not define mysticism in any susbantive way, makes no attempt to discern the genuine mystical expereince from self-defined subjective "highs".

Love of God and love of neighbor are not opossing phenomena. I'm suspicious that what people often claim as mystical experience is merely what Michael Novak once described as a "service station of the soul" kind of experience.

Just as communal religious life can be lacking in authenticity so to can self-defined, self-created, religious "experiences"--indeed likley more so.

The "flight of the alone to the alone" is fine as long as its a return flight to human community, and as long as its a flight that does not make one a fugitive.

Community OR Mysticism?

Social Justice OR Bliss?

Both/And, PLEASE!!!!

JC Fisher

@ JC Fisher, a good place to look for the connection between mysticism and community/society within a Christian context is in the work of Bernard Lonergan.

In "Method in Theology" Lonergan identifies the ascetic and the mystic as a bearer of just one of a number of expressions of "differentiated" religious conciousness.

In "Insight", commenting on the church as mystical body, ( phrase used by Anglicans)Lonergan notes that the seed of eternal life cannot bear fruit "without effecting a transfiguration of human living and, in turn, that transfiguraiton contians the solution not only to man's individual but also to his social problem of evil." He links, within the context of the mystical body, individual conversion, Catholic action, and collective responsibility.(B. Lonergan. Inisght. pp.742-743. Darton, longman and Todd 1957.)

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