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King’s Call to Remain Awake

Instead of sleeping through this period of change, we need, as King said, “new mental responses.” New situations demand new attitudes, new ways, new resources.

When Van Winkle left for his trip to the mountain, King said, he saw a picture of King George. When Van Winkle returned from his prolonged slumber, he saw a picture of George Washington and had no idea who he was.

Rip Van Winkle “slept through a revolution,” King said. “While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountain a revolution was taking place that at points would change the course of history—and Rip knew nothing about it.”

King said, “One of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”

A few days later, King was assassinated. His assassination awakened many white Southern Baptist ministers, who either had slept through the civil rights revolution or played possum.

With an eternal slowness, Southern Baptist clergy gained a new appreciation for King. Years later and to this day, many quote the most famous line from his sermon at the cathedral, the one about America’s most segregated hour being Sunday morning.

“We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America,” King said.

Thirty-five years later, little has changed about Sunday morning, except for the sociological excuses for this reality and the pulpit freedom to quote King about the obvious segregation in worship.

Moreover, many still want to sleep through another period of change.

How can we sleep when the war dogs bark for a clash of cultures? Some in our midst want the American military to crush Islam to advance Christianity. Others want American public schools to provide religious instruction for a generic god. Still others push the American government to do the evangelism of the church.

How can we nod off when technology revolutionizes society? In an age of global communications and 24-hour news channels, the primary way Baptists communicate is through weekly newspapers or monthly magazines that carry dated news. Most of our churches and church organizations retain a paper fixation—printed curriculum with lessons written 18 months ago.

Many denominational leaders fail to appreciate that playing to their audience for cheap feedback can bring harmful consequences to others abroad.

Instead of sleeping through this period of change, we need, as King said, “new mental responses.” New situations demand new attitudes, new ways, new resources.

The Baptist Center for Ethics has long believed that one of our most important missions is to provide resources to churches that help create new ways of thinking, being and doing. We think that churches are one of the keys to constructive social change.

We have produced a new, online adult curriculum, Courageous Churches, to equip and challenge congregations to face this era of change with alert boldness.

We believe and hope that these lessons outfit your church in this era.

Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.

Click here to read King’s sermon.