The longer I am in ministry--and, in the grand scheme, it has been about five minutes--the more I am certain that in the American church, the greatest threat the church faces is a general lack of integrity.
Now, you should know that I erased the previous sentence five or six times before I felt as if I got it right: before I was willing to finally commit to the language of "a lack of integrity." I am very cautious about speaking in such bold language, especially because everybody these days has an elevator speech about what the biggest threat to the church is. Perhaps the church is most threatened by relativism, or a lack of scriptural literacy, or by money, or by politics. I have heard it all. So I approach this matter with fear and trembling, knowing that everybody knows what the biggest threat facing the church is, and it's always something different.
I've thought long and hard about this. I am convinced a lack of integrity is the biggest threat to the American church. Now, before you dismiss this conversation as some high-minded hoopla about a "lack of character" or a "lack of respect," I'd better define the term involved, because when I talk about lack of integrity I am thinking of more than one definition of the word.
The first definition of integrity, of course, involves sticking to your principles, even in difficult times. This is very important, of course, and I see so many folks who just give up on their principles when times get though. There is a difference between having integrity, though, and in being obstinate. Having integrity does not mean you are not allowed to change. It just means that you cannot forfeit what you believe when it becomes easy to do so. Change is difficult, while betraying integrity is always the easier path. Integrity is about being true to who you are.
But there is another definition of integrity that matters for the church, and that is this: the state of being whole: as in the integrity of the ship, the bridge, the union. Whenever I hear conversations about integrity, I never hear about this dimension of integrity, but we forget about this dimension of integrity at our own peril. We are called to have a holistic worldview, a holistic theology, and we are called to reconcile that which we see against that which we believe.
The problem with encountering things that do not match up with what you believe, of course, is that you are faced with a dilemma. You have three options: 1. ignore that which you see, 2. change that which you believe, or 3. compartmentalize, such that you make exceptions for that which you see but are unwilling to question that which you believe. While I have seen many who have fallen victim to number 1, it is number 3 that I think offers the biggest challenge to the church.
I see this issue most often as it relates to mission and the church’s involvement in the world. I believe that a church's engagement in mission—done well—can be the magic bullet as it relates to solving problems of giving, involvement, and ecclesiology. When we are involved in mission, taking time to reflect on our experiences and talk about that which we are seeing, we cannot walk away unchanged. But what a simple mission trip cannot do is make people have integrity, such that even if they are changed—even if they do see poverty as they have never seen it before (that is to say, even if they have smelled poverty as they have never before), even if they talk about fixing the need, doing continued work, that change does not spread towards other areas of their life.
We compartmentalize. We allow the Spirit of God into one small portion of our lives, and I suppose this makes sense. If we were to, you know, actually allow the Spirit of God to fill our whole beings, then we lose control of who we are. If I just let God into my earlobe, I can deal with that. My earlobe does not drive my body. If it gets too inflamed I can just cut it off, and it will be painful, but it is survivable. But if I allow God into my entire life, into my body and my home and even my savings account, then I am in danger of losing control.
We compartmentalize, because it is easier. The only problem with compartmentalizing is that it is not sustainable. You either lose that part of you which has been changed, or you split right in two (just ask these two folks).
To have integrity, then, is not only speak in such a way that people can believe you. Having integrity means being who you are in all areas of your life. Accept ambiguity—I do not mean to suggest that everything must be cut and dry—but do not lock your God in a cell. Do not allow yourself to be changed only a little bit. You might as well not bother.
If you do allow yourself to be changed--if you do recognize, for instance, that what you see in one country may actually have implications for your own—you may just find yourself in the presence of God. There are worse things.
Or, you can just miss that opportunity. That is also an option, if it is what you prefer.