“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.