pastoral leadership

MLK on Pandering to Religious Consumers

By Skye Jethani

More than 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the risk of pandering to the whims of religious consumers and warned about two common dangers—emotionalism and classism. King said emotionalism is the trend of “reducing worship to entertainment, [it] places more emphasis on volume than on content and confuses spirituality with muscularity. The danger in such a church is that the members may have more religion in their hands and feet than in their souls.”

We all know churches like this. With music and stage production to rival the best theaters or concerts, they provide a transcendent, mountaintop experience that keeps audiences emotionally charged, but when the show is over and people descend back to earth the glory quickly fades. And for some of these churches, that’s acceptable because the goal is drawing people back up the mountain week after week. The goal isn’t fostering an internal, sustained communion with Christ that is manifested out in the world Monday through Saturday.

The other market-driven temptation King saw was churches devoted to status and classism. They try to attract members with the implicit promise of dignity, respectability, and exclusivity. If emotionalism turned churches into nightclubs, classism made churches into country clubs. “In such churches,” King said, “ the worship service is cold and meaningless, the music is dull and uninspiring, and the sermon little more than a homily on current events. If the pastor says too much about Jesus Christ, the members feel that he is robbing the pulpit of dignity. If the choir sings a Negro spiritual, the members claim an affront to their class status” (From the sermon “A Knock at Midnight” delivered in June 1967).

The problem with both emotionalism and classism, MLK said, is that they seek to construct a church on something other than our “oneness and unity under God.” We so easily become bound by a common social status or style of music rather than by Jes us’ word, table, or cross because in a free market the customer, rather than Christ, is king.

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