Fifty years ago this week hundreds of thousands of protesters and civil rights activists marched in Washington, D.C., for jobs and equality. The march became a watershed moment in the civil right struggle, culminating in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Last week we talked with Trillia Newbell about the march and church diversity. This week we continue that conversation by talking with several church communicators about what the church can learn from the civil rights movement.
Several church communicators graciously shared their thoughts with us, including social media expert Deanna Mingo; Anthony Miller, pastor of marketing and communications at Saddleback Church; consultant and strategist DJ Chuang, Adam Legg, creative arts and communications pastor at ChangePoint Alaska; Milan Ford, executive pastor of strategic development at Celebration Church; Katie Strandlund, founder of Dirty Work and our own organizational rock star; Shaun King, former pastor and founder of Hope Mob and Upfront; and writer and social media guru Meredith Gould. We encourage you to join the conversation in the comments.
How do you think churches could do more to make Dr. King’s dream a reality?
Deanna Mingo: Fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington, I find that many people of color still aren’t free in this country. Similar to how Dr. King described the realization of prevailing oppressive forces despite the Emancipation Proclamation, an air of inequality remains in the United States. But instead of battling segregation, we are fighting against more covert forces. Today our fight is against gentrification, racial profiling, mass incarceration, and disparities in access to education and healthy food.
During the civil rights movement, Christians played a central role in ending segregation. They organized, boycotted, protested and relentlessly spoke against the injustices plaguing people of color. This legacy of zeal and boldness in the face of inequality is one that the church must continue today. I challenge all churches to rally together through protests, lobbying and innovative community building to put an end to systems of inequality in America. And to do so with the passion and ‘fierce urgency’ that it requires.
Then and only then will we get closer to making Dr. King’s beautiful dream a reality.
Anthony Miller: It is true that Dr. King’s dream inspired an entire nation to change. For millions of Americans freedom is now a reality. And for that we are grateful. Yet, Sunday still remains ‘the most segregated day of the week.’ This can only mean that the church still has work to do to fulfill a dream that started a half century ago.
So is diversity in the church possible? Yes! Diversity is possible through unity. Unity happens when we leverage both the individual opportunity and collective strength of the church through partnership. Imagine if each church uniquely served their community in collaboration with the “Big C” Church, then together as one body of Christ we can fulfill the vision that the dream started.
I’m not suggesting churches need to agree on everything. I’m suggesting we focus on the things we do agree on, like feeding the poor and caring for the sick, and do it together.
In Rwanda, through the efforts of The PEACE Plan, over 120 different denominations have united to restore a nation after the most tragic event in recent history. In less than 20 years after a genocide that took the lives of over 800,000 men, women, and children, there’s unity in the churches of Rwanda like no other place in the world. Hundreds of churches have mobilized thousands of volunteers to serve communities across the country, creating lasting change for generations to come. Families that were enemies are now serving together bringing new life and vitality.
Dr. King’s call for the “sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners sitting down together at the table of brotherhood” is the perfect vision for how transformative unity can be.
What can churches do to become less segregated and welcome all people?
DJ Chuang: Recent events in history have shown us that we are not in a post-racial society. While there has been some signs of progress during the past 50 years, racial tensions are still prevalent in too many neighborhoods and organizations in our American society. There are sociological, historical, and even theological factors that reinforce our human tendency to be segregated along racial and ethnic lines. I believe the problem of church segregation has been analyzed and discussions have raised our collective awareness, but the statistics still show that a large majority of churches in America are largely homogeneous.
There are so many things that churches can do to become more authentically diverse. The tendency for many homogeneous churches is to feel paralyzed by too many things they could do, not sure where to start, and wind up doing nothing. And for the few that are doing something, the focus is on doing a task or work on a project rather than building a relationship for the long haul. In other words, just doing things, even good things, can easily come across inauthentic. And nobody wants to be treated like a project.
To authentically diversify a community begins with having real cross-cultural friendships, both at the leadership level and the grassroots level. Invest the time to build meaningful relationships across racial and ethnic lines by living life together and learning to appreciate one another’s stories, backgrounds, cultures and foods. Persevere through the misunderstandings and conflicts that will come and demonstrate humility, forgiveness and reconciliation. Then as the social fabric of the entire community changes, that diversity must also show up on the organizational chart, worship music, and the content and style of communication. That is the kind of church that puts on display a compelling picture of the supernatural power of the gospel that can truly heal racial tensions, bring peace to all humankind, with God and with one another.
Adam Legg: The church of Jesus needs to place as high of a value on unity as the person of Jesus did.
In John chapter 17 Jesus prays for his followers (us!) that we would be one, just as he and the father are one, and by doing so the world will know that God the father sent Jesus into the world.
Want the word to see Jesus for who he really is? Pursue unity and champion a oneness that crosses racial, gender and socio-economic boundaries so that “the world may believe.”
What can churches learn from the civil rights movement about communication?
- In order for any organization to bring about lasting change, the message it seeks to convey to its target audience must be both memorable and portable. What was remarkable about the civil rights movement is that for a span of nearly 13 years (1955-1968), the message and pursuit for equality was communicated clearly from church to church, from city to city, and from march to march.
- We as creative leaders today, in a genuine effort to attract and reach those far from God, try to always push the envelope with all of our messaging and design, not knowing that is often what is the most simple and most repetitive communication methods that spark movements.
- From in-service announcement videos and fliers, to how we design our websites and church advertisements, churches must be as clear as they are creative if they want to be as impactful as what we saw through the civil rights movement and era.
Katie Strandlund: I think one of the biggest things I learn from MLK is how to cast a compelling vision. As Simon Sinek said, “MLK gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.'” I think that’s huge when it comes to how we communicate our vision, stories, etc. MLK was a compelling communicator because he expressed the importance and value—the “so what” in terms of what he was communicating.
I often wonder what the progress of civil rights would look like today if MLK hadn’t been killed. Did he do a good job of building up leaders to take his place when he was gone? Or was he too much of a “face” to the movement that it hurt the movement when he died and was no longer able to lead? I don’t imagine he would’ve expected the state of civil rights in America to be what it is in 2013—I think he would’ve hoped for more progress. My take away from that is as churches, are we building something bigger than ourselves? Are we always looking to train up those who will take over from here when we’re done? Or do we intentionally or unintentionally become the face of the “movement” that is our church, etc?
I think as a whole the church could stand to not be so afraid of being political that we opt for silence. I think we often associate civil rights with a political agenda. But, it’s not a political issue, it’s a people issue (in my opinion). Polarizing, yes, but not political. We have a charge to speak up for those who don’t have a voice and to stand up for the oppressed. That’s at the heart of civil rights. I think we can learn from MLK’s boldness and not being afraid to be vocal about how is faith caused him to believe what he did about the issues.
It’s been 50 years since Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Are there ways that we have glossed over the civil rights movement and made it safe, cozy history without actually changing?
Shaun King: History has a way of turning revolutionaries into cartoon characters. Jesus was a revolutionary. Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary. Dr. King and the small band of leaders beside him were revolutionaries. These men and women risked their lives, were harassed and assaulted, and gave everything they had to fight for a better, more equal nation.
When Dr. King was killed his focus in life was poverty and income inequality. Unfortunately, today, the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer—with a dwindling middle class. Discrimination of all kinds, while better than the 1960s, still exists in ways old and new. The burden to fight for these things is now on us. It’s never a popular fight. It comes with risks, but we must all play our part.
Meredith Gould: Instead of swiftly sending a response, I’ve been soaking in this question a bit. Ever the sociologist, I suspect the answers you receive will depend, in part, on the generational cohort membership of the person answering.
Let me pop out of my denial long enough to admit that I’m a Baby Boomer. I’m old enough to remember race relations during the 1950s and 1960s and so from my perspective, the civil rights movement will never seem like a “safe, cozy history.” Remember, too, that the modern civil rights movement was the precursor of the “2nd wave” women’s movement and gay rights movement of the 1970s.
And, a lot has indeed changed. Situations that were unimaginable 50 or 60 years ago are now no big deal—like interracial dating, marriage, adoption. I think the better question is, “has enough changed?” answer to that is, of course, “no” because racism is pernicious and persistent. Still, I wouldn’t minimize all that has happened since Rev. King’s speech.
Thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts. It’s an engaging discussion and an important conversation for the church today. We encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments.
For more on the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr., check out our archives:
- The March on Washington, Racism & Church Diversity With Trillia Newbell
- Church Communication Hero: The Work of MLK, The Dream of MLK, The Words of MLK and our original hero piece on Martin Luther King Jr.
- The Last of a Generation: Church Hero Fred Shuttlesworth
- Our review of Church Diversity: Sunday the Most Segregated Day of the Week
- Church Diversity Sucks: Why Diversity Matters
- Social Club or Thermostat Church?