Integrity Can Be Lonely

“All of them deserted him and fled” (Mark 14:51).

I was reading an article not long ago about a famous preacher.  One of his admirers made the comment that one could tell this preacher’s ministry had “integrity” by virtue of the number of people in his church (50 bazillion people, or some other astronomical number).  I often hear something closely approximating that same sentiment from well-meaning church folk.  I was talking to a colleague on the phone awhile back, when the topic of one of this state’s “premiere” evangelists arose (I’m not sure how “premiere” qualifies as a theological descriptor).  He said: “Well, look how many people he draws.  He must be doing something right.”  To which I replied, “Obviously, he’s doing something right — but it may or may not have anything to do with God, or faithfulness, or discipleship.”

I was taken aback by the assumptions underlying such a statement, that is, that God is most intensely present in the large, the successful, the well-attended.  I am amazed that people who read the Bible are still naïve enough to make comments to the effect that the bigger the church, the more “integrity” is in evidence.  If mere size is the only criterion for judging faithfulness, then Jim Jones had more integrity, was blessed in richer fashion than 99% of the ministers in the world.  If size is what God uses to show us who is doing a better job at proclaiming the Gospel, then the bozos on televisions who preside over vast broadcasting empires are, by definition, closer to the kingdom of heaven than the rest of us laboring in tiny, “unblessed” congregations lacking “integrity.”

On the other hand, that leaves us in pretty good company—I mean, what with Jesus dying abandoned and alone—presumably stripped of his blessedness and integrity.  (His ministry fell on hard times.  I imagine it was hard to make budget after Good Friday.)  Where did we get the idea that if it is getting bigger, God must be in the middle of it?  Is God to be found in the market analysis?  If popularity is the standard by which faithfulness in ministry is judged, then Jesus is not the person we ought to hold up as the standard-bearer for our vocation.  Because Jesus nailed all that hooey about popularity and big crowds and succeeding according to this world’s standards on a cross one Friday afternoon.  Tell Jesus how blessed he was as you stare into his face on the cross.  (Just try not to get any blood on yourself.  It can get messy being a Christian.)

That is not to say that the Gospel doesn’t have appeal; it does.  But any appeal that Jesus has has to do with losing our lives, with turning the other cheek, with the first being last, with forgiving our enemies and those who persecute us, with selling all that we have and giving it to the poor, with dropping our nets and all the things the world says we need to be successful, in order to pick up our crosses and follow him.  (Try selling that stuff with your anointed prayer cloths.  “User-friendly God,” indeed.)  The appeal of Jesus is to the last, the least, the lost, and the dead—presumably because they are the only ones who know that they aren’t successful enough to sail in under their own steam.  At least in the gospels, it is precisely the big religious muckity-mucks that Jesus avoids like the plague.  Jesus isn’t impressed with toothy smiles, blow-dried hair, and healthy Neilsen ratings.  He spends his time with those that this world has declared losers.

Jesus doesn’t call us to succeed; he calls us to die.  Success is his alone; and alone is how he died.  Sometimes, integrity can be lonely.

by Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.  He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions.  He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and currently a Ph.D. candidate in humanities at the University of Louisville.  He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon.  Penwell frequently crochets Mexican serapes from the tattered remnants of repurposed 1970s tube socks.
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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity,, and blogs at his own site at

7 thoughts on “Integrity Can Be Lonely

  1. My concern with this line of thinking is that we should be very cautious about seeing ourselves as being faithful to the Gospel. We should try. We should do our best. Yet, the moment we believe we are being faithful but “they” are not, we become self-serving, maybe even delusional.

    I especially think that white men in our culture need to be extra-cautious in this regard. I am passionate about the belief that critical thinking must be most powerfully focused on what I believe and what my “team” espouses.

    • Brian,

      You are right that humility ought to be the watchword. However, when you say “the moment we believe we are being faithful but ‘they’ are not, we become self-serving, maybe even delusional,” you’ve ventured a bit too far out onto the limb. If by definition every time I thought I was right and someone else wrong I was serving only my own self-interest, the whole concept of “right” would lose any meaning. By this reckoning Martin Luther King and Bull Connor were equally self-serving–and both were charged with being delusional.

      Critical thinking does require a strong penchant for questioning one’s own motives and reasoning, but that cannot mean the abandonment of all truth claims, else we’ve no place left to stand, and both agreement and disagreement become unintelligible.

      I take your warning to heart, though. Thank you.


      • Good morning Derek.

        First off, I was not criticizing you, just the line of thinking. I hear/read it all the time. (Sometimes I even write it!)

        Secondly, I’m not describing humility. The irony is that I’m describing (from my vantage point) integrity. By this I mean that I see little to no integrity in “seeing myself as being faithful to God”. I do, however, see integrity in trying to be faithful to God.

        What was going on in the hearts and minds of Bull Conner and MLK is known only to God. Besides, there is a tremendous difference between a person responsible for the armed and violent suppression of peaceful protestors as opposed to a minister who preaches differently than I do.

        I’ve never in my life come across a Christian, especially a minister, who says, “My goal in life is to be unfaithful to Jesus Christ”. It just doesn’t happen. The guy who shot the abortion doctor in his church believes he’s being faithful to God. Fred Phelps who protests funerals with signs saying “God Hates Fags” believes he is being faithful to God.* It is meaningless. I agree with Jesus that we judge somebody by their fruits. Or, St. Forrest Gump, “Stupid is as stupid does”. (The fresh air of empiricism.)

        In the realm of abstract philosophy I will (grudgingly) grant that truth claims can be helpful. However, in the messiness of this beautiful and tragic life, truth claims are folly. (Obviously, this is simply my opinion.)

        I guess one of my concerns with adherence to truth claims is that it tends to become ego-centered. (O Lord, I thank you that I’m not like this tax collector.) “Truth” is nice, but community is better. Ego can stand in the way of community. It can also hurt people. Ministers especially need to be careful not to confuse our truth claims with reality. The reality is the tear-stained face in front of us in that moment.

        One last note. Truth claims, like all other social phenomenon, are conditioned by social and genetic factors. I’ll use white privilege as an example. Everything, and I do mean everything, that I see, think, hear, and feel, is filtered in my brain through growing up a white man in a culture that has historically given me more credibility and opportunity than my darker skinned sisters and brothers. Therefore, I must be diligent in self-criticism. This is not humility. This is integrity.

        OK, I’m done now. Were I writing for a different format I’d edit this and make it flow more academically or professionally, but that would run counter to my communication goals.


        * This is an assumption. It is possible they believe they are not faithful to God.

  2. Derek,

    As always, your pen is powerful. And I agree with much of what you have written. I always find it amazing that at our General Assembly, if congregational pastors preach, they are always from the largest congregations – emphasizing, once again, that numbers are what really matter. Your pen is, however, somewhat hyperbolic (Of course, I think you intend for it to be – using hyperbole to make a point – just like our Lord) which can lead to comments like the previous one. I don’t think you are drawing a distinction between “them” and “us” as much as you are trying to get people to think what does it mean to be “us” – those who follow Jesus.

    Large numbers or small ones do not necessarily indicate anything other than large or small. What matters is that the living presence of Jesus is evident in concrete ways that make the realm of God more present in this world.


    • Mark,

      You’ve caught me with my rhetorical bloomers showing. However, let me be clear that what I intended to call into question was not the proposition that any instance of number is necessarily unfaithful. Instead, what I hope to challenge is the assumption that any instance of numbers is necessarily faithful. That is to say, I want to suggest that, popular accounting to the contrary notwithstanding, numbers may not be the best way for Christians to keep score.

      Thanks for keeping me honest.


  3. Derek,
    This is brilliant, and just what a small-church pastor needed to be reminded of. Thanks for this perspective.


  4. Pingback: It’s About More Than Just the Words: A Response to Albert Mohler « The Company of the Eudaimon

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