November 9, 2023
Throughout this fall, I will be reflecting on parts of the book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America by Russell Moore. I hope you are willing to grab a copy and read alongside me. Today I will be looking at Chapter Four: Losing Our Integrity (p. 103-152):
A few years ago, Pennsylvania State University was rocked with the scandal that one of the assistant football coaches, Jerry Sandusky, had sexually abused at least ten boys over a period of fifteen years. When the news finally came to light, it was not just the incidents of abuse that shattered lives, but also the revelation that there was a systematic cover-up to protect Sandusky. It completely ruined the reputation of the beloved coach Joe Paterno. And when asked why the cover-up had been so pervasive, someone admitted very clearly: he was good at winning football games.
That’s the tension we live with in the world. In order to achieve success do we have to sacrifice our values? And do our values mean we should be resigned to failure?
In Moore’s chapter, he explores the difficult balance when it comes to theological leadership. He points out that many in the evangelical world seem to have decided that it is better to support candidates who will utilize any and all tactics to “win” rather than seeking leaders who exemplify traits of quality character. But this isn’t a tension found just in the worlds of football or church. It’s a temptation that will confront us in nearly any realm of our lives. And integrity is the ability to remain steadfast to what we believe to be right even (and especially) when we are threatened with success.
So, how do we combat this temptation to sacrifice our values for success? Moore offers four strategies:
Prioritize Long-Term Integrity Over Short-Term Success. One of the golden calves that we are sometimes tempted to worship is that of numbers. We often ask questions like, “How many people were there on Sunday?” or “How many students went to that camp?” or “How many people were in that Bible Study?” I will admit that I am sometimes guilty of putting too much emphasis on numbers. And it’s not that numbers don’t matter. They do and they can be ways to measure whether or not a ministry is functional or dysfunctional. But when numbers become THE way that we measure success, then we are willing to sacrifice anything and everything (even our values) in order to reach those numbers. The success of a church should not be solely measured by the numbers but by faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Pay Attention to Means, Not Just to Ends. I’ve said this before, but Tim Keller is one of my pastoral heroes. Before his death from pancreatic cancer, he was a kind of pastor to pastors. He led the way through the integrity with which he led. He preached thoughtful, beautiful sermons that were moving without resorting to emotional manipulation. He boldly stood for racial justice even when others within his conservative, Reformed-evangelical tribe accused him of being “woke” and preaching “critical race theory.” Even when his church in Manhattan began to experience rapid growth, he did not stop what he was doing but doubled down on winsome sermons, quality pastoral care, and wise leadership. In other words, Tim Keller never sacrificed his character to grasp at fleeting, worldly successes. He did not sacrifice the means for the ends.
Expect Better from Institutions (Especially the Church). In the New Testament letter of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul is dealing with some very sticky issues. The church in Corinth was a mess: they were buying into competing philosophies, they were denying the physical resurrection of Jesus, their worship services were utter chaos, there was inequity in how they ate Communion, some of the members were suing each other, and, on top of it all, one of the church members was sleeping with his step-mother. The entire letter of 1 Corinthians is Paul basically saying, “You are the people who are supposed to know better.” And that’s just as true today as it was in the first century. We should expect churches to always, always be above board. It’s why we at Ardmore have a transparent financial process, why we maintain that no adult be alone in a room with minors, and why we are committed to rotational lay leadership. Do some of these policies complicate our church and could we be nimbler without them? Certainly. But we believe that we are held to a higher standard and we are not going to sacrifice that standard.
Protect Your Own Conscience. When Moore speaks about protecting our “conscience” he is not talking about an internal Jiminy Cricket who tells us what the right thing to do is. Instead, he is talking about our character or, in other words: what person are you becoming? What voices are you listening to on a daily basis? What media are you consuming? What perspectives are you allowing to have influence over you? Rather than blindly following any news channel or any candidate or any pastor or any other voices we may be listening to, we need an inner compass that recognizes our blind spots and protects us from giving in to the lesser angels of our nature.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.” As we all seek to live out our faith in this world, friends, let us guard our integrity and hold fast to our faith.
My next reflection on Losing Our Religion will look at Chapter Five: Losing Our Stability (p. 203-239) and it will be posted on November 30.