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MLK and the Missional Church

If Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, what would he say to the growing missional church movement?

First, I imagine Dr. King would say, “Well done.”

Throughout his ministry, King called the church to be socially engaged. As a 19-year-old seminary student, King wrote, “On the one hand I must attempt to change the soul of individuals so that their societies may be changed. On the other hand I must attempt to change the societies so the individual soul will have a change. Therefore, I must be concerned about unemployment, slums, and economic insecurity. I am a profound advocator of the social gospel.”

Throughout his adult life, King called for a missional church engaging all of the ills and challenges of society. Surely he would be pleased that so many are jumping on board.

Second, I think King would say, “Don’t view social justice as merely an evangelistic tool.”

All too often advocates of the missional church movement seem to be excited about the social engagement primarily for its evangelistic possibilities. From books such as “unChristian” by David Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons, church leaders know that young people will not consider Jesus if the church is not engaged in the biggest challenges facing our world today, including poverty, disease and violence.

But the call for social engagement and social change is not only a means to preach an individualistic gospel; it is good news to the poor. In July 1954 King told his Dexter Avenue congregation, “We can talk all we want to about saving souls from hell and preaching the pure and simple gospel, but unless we preach the social gospel our evangelistic gospel will be meaningless.”

The social and personal gospel are both essential for the church to live out the Matthew 28 mission of the church (the Great Commission) while also living out the Matthew 25 mission of the church (I was hungry and you gave me something to eat).

I imagine, finally, King would say, “Move from social services to social transformation.”

The church has come alive to serving the poor over the past decade. Short-term mission trips, urban ministries and HIV/AIDS clinics overseas are testimony to the renewed passion for Christian service.

In addition to asking, “How can we serve with and love the poor?” the church must add the question, “Why are there so many poor people in the world?” The missional church must begin to question systemic injustices that plague our nation and the globe.

In a sermon King delivered less than two weeks before Rosa Parks was arrested, he called for his congregation to move beyond “the one-sided approach of the Good Samaritan.” King lauded the Good Samaritan as the ultimate example of what it means to be a good neighbor and to be socially responsible.

While acknowledging that Jesus did not tell this parable to deal with all questions of social engagement, King went on to challenge the Good Samaritan: “There is no suggestion that the Samaritan sought to investigate the lack of police protection on the Jericho Road. Nor did he appeal to any public officials to set out after the robbers and clean up the Jericho Road. … He was concerned with temporary relief, not with thorough reconstruction. He sought to sooth the effects of evil, without going back to uproot the causes.”

Unless or until the missional church movement begins to engage the economic and political powers that be to bring real change, its impact will be limited.

King, I believe, would call the missional church movement to adopt a new scoreboard for measuring success. The church should continue to count conversions, worship attendance, membership and weekly offerings. However, the truly missional church would also keep track of key indicators that reflect the health and well-being of its immediate community: literacy rate, high school graduation rate, number of teenage pregnancies, number of uninsured, unemployment rate, poverty rate, rate of homelessness and murder rate.

How missional is your church?

King would challenge you to think first about the welfare of your community rather than the size of your congregation the next time someone asks how your church is doing.

Troy Jackson is senior pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. His book Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (University Press of Kentucky, 2008) will be available this fall. This column first appeared in The Christian Citizen, a magazine of National Ministries, a national board of the American Baptist Churches USA, and is used with permission. A complete copy of the magazine is available online.