Whenever people try to describe the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to today's America, their words fall short – and with good reason. Dr. King is a seminal figure in America's history, and like any great leader, his influence will always be a challenge to articulate. I am always blown away when I think about how God used him to lead a much-needed cultural renewal. And with each passing year, I see more and more how abhorrent systemic racism was – and, unfortunately, continues to be. The details may look a little different now than they did during Dr. King's lifetime, but many of the same issues are still at play in our contemporary society.
Dr. King functioned in modern America much like the biblical prophets did in ancient Israel. Prophets always call into question the status quo and make people take stock of what is really going on in their land. A prophet is brave enough to shine a light on problems that their world has grown accustomed to – and energize a vision for a future that is different than what anyone could imagine on their own. Prophets destabilize cultural blind spots and show us the way things ought to be.
That's exactly what Dr. King did for the generations before us, and that's what he still does today.
Sometimes we don't realize how wide-ranging his influence has been. He wasn't limited to discussions of racial inequality. He brought so much more out in the open that made people think about how things could be.
His words still ring loud and clear. And I hope the church today is listening. Check out these powerful words from "Letter From Birmingham Jail":
"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 20th century."
You know how sometimes you're reading a new book and you get a few chapters in and you can already guess the ending? This is one of those stories. You guessed it…by all accounts, these particular words of Dr. King's fell on deaf ears in his generation and the generation that followed.
But here's what I'm hoping…maybe, just maybe, our generation will have ears to hear.
Believe it or not, popular opinion statistics say the church is sliding more and more into the predicament Dr. King envisioned: in today's culture, the Church – the people of God, are seen as an irrelevant social club that lacks any meaning for the majority of our society. We are designed to be God's agent of change in the world, but people write us off as disconnected and out of touch with reality. Why is that? Much of the western world sees the Church as silent when it comes to the biggest issues that concern the rest of the world. And when they do see the Church speaking up, often they are confronted by people who are angry, fearful, frustrated, or apathetic.
But that reality doesn't have to be our reality. For those who believe and follow Jesus, if we can simply hear and respond to Dr. King's words, we know the Spirit will lead us to a more beautiful future.
Before I met Jesus, I was a skeptic from New Jersey…I'm not proud of it, but with that background comes a keen awareness that our culture despises hypocrisy and falsity more than ever. Social media and news stories are littered with people and companies being "outed" for all the ways they don't live up to what they say. A lack of authenticity and honesty is a quick ticket to a public firestorm.
In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King was inviting the church to return to who she really was: the redeemed people of God who live in harmony with love, truth, grace, forgiveness and mercy reigning over them. Today, we need that same authenticity. And Dr. King's words invite us again to embrace who we truly are.
So what would it look like for the Church to recapture our authenticity? How can we find our unique personality – who we were created to be – and produce in our wake the essential attributes of the original nature God gave us?
Well, if we take our cue from Dr. King, that authenticity hinges on one characteristic: the sacrificial spirit.
The Church is truly authentic when she is self-sacrificial.
The Church is the body of Christ. So it makes sense that when we think about the work of Jesus, we remember he gave up his life for the world, self-sacrificially. The Church is the most authentic when we are like Jesus. And we can't claim to be like Jesus if we are not sacrificial like he is.
When it comes to the Church losing touch with society, often people say, "The issue is with Church as an institution, and its leaders." But we must remember that the "Church," at its core, was never an institution or a building. That idea came along way after Jesus's ministry on the earth. The Church has always been a collection of people…individuals gathered together in the name of Jesus, set apart to change the world.
When I think about being an authentic follower of Jesus, here are some questions I ask myself that all of us can be asking: How am I living self-sacrificially? If I'm a follower of Jesus, is my life perceived as authentically Christian because of my love for others? Like the Good Samaritan, am I willing to give my time, energy and resources to help someone who I don't know (and might be different than I am) simply because that person needs help?
I want to encourage you…these are big questions. They take some work to process through if we want to be honest and let God work on our hearts. They have far-reaching implications, not only for us as individuals, but also for the Church and for the society in which we live.
But just imagine what our world can look like if God's people are willing to ask these questions and simply respond to Jesus. Only when we recapture the authenticity found in the sacrificial spirit of Jesus, will we become the relevant and meaningful people we were designed to be. We will truly become salt and light. And the world will be blessed.
You know, the more I think about it…maybe this was not only Dr. King's hope for the Church. I have a hunch this has been Jesus's plan for us all along.
Daniel Fusco, is the author of Upward, Inward, Outward, pastor of Crossroads Community Church (Vancouver, Washington), and host of the TV show Real with Daniel Fusco on the Hillsong Channel. Find him at Danielfusco.com and follow him at @danielfusco. This commentary was first published in 2019.