"There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. The church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society."
- Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 1963
I've been thinking a lot about this quote lately. I can't seem to get it out of my head. Ben mentioned it to me in some context (which I have long since forgotten, though it was only a couple days ago), and it re-emerged again in the OSL morning prayer rite during the readings for reflection portion (Ben had picked that passage). It really strikes me that in the 40+ years since Martin Luther King Jr. wrote these words on scraps of paper and newsprint, nothing has changed. The Church is still reactionary, responding to the culture as opposed to putting pressure on it to change.
Change is only achieved by the application of pressure to a system. Examining this from a physics perspective, if you want to move an object, you have to supply an external force to the system. If you want to change the direction of an already moving object? Apply force in a different direction. You want the temperature to rise? You have to put the pressure on.
In contrast, the Church acts by reaction. The object moves along, and all the Church says is "this object is moving at 'x' miles per hour." The Church may claim that the speed is "too fast" or "too slow" or that the object shouldn't even be moving at all! But, it is a response to what is already happening in society. It doesn't challenge popular opinion; it merely accepts it, and moves along. Or, it passes a resolution that gets buried in a book, and nothing happens.
I wonder if this is because the Church is largely comprised of thermometer Christians. Christians who check themselves against the tides of the mainstream, say "yea" or "nay" and subsequently go about business as scheduled. They may get angry about what they find, but how likely is the average person sitting in the pew on Sunday morning to take that anger and channel it to challenge the system, to initiate change, to put the pressure on? We need more thermostat Christians in our midst to "turn up the heat" and transform the mores of our culture.