The proclamation of the gospel can never take place apart from the surrounding culture. Indeed, it is done in some sort of culture all the time – it does not exist in a vacuum. Thus all our efforts at Christian proclamation will be affected one way or another by the time, place and culture we live in.
While we want our gospel message to transcend all cultures, and not be tainted by any, nonetheless we live in this world and all our Christian work will in some measure be influenced by the surrounding culture. It is a full time job to seek to make our gospel culturally relevant while not allowing it to be dragged down to the level of any one worldly culture.
Our Christian witness will always to some extent reflect the culture that we find ourselves in. Thus the expression of Christianity might look quite different in, say, middle class America than it does in poverty-stricken Ethiopia. But hopefully there is somehow a common core biblical message that emerges in all these differing locales.
We use terms like “contextualisation” and “enculturation” when we speak of such matters. I raise all this because of some recent experiences I have had here in Australia. I do a fair amount of speaking in churches, and sometimes I proffer my services to a pastor I happen to be chatting with.
On a number of occasions the first thing these church leaders have asked me is, “What is your speaking fee?” Although I have heard this now a number of times, I am still taken aback by it. It still jars me. I would have thought the first question would have had something to do with my qualifications, my spirituality, my gifting, and so on.
Indeed, why should money even be a consideration here? I usually respond to these questions by saying I do not have a speaking fee. Never have, and never will. What I do I do for the sake of the Kingdom, not for monetary gain. Indeed, I have never once done Christian ministry simply based on what financial recompense I might get.
But I am aware that many Christian speakers obviously do have such a standing policy – money matters are up front and must be included in any negotiations about speaking. Many do have a speaking fee and often these speaking fees can be quite high. And they may well have all sorts of other demands: first-class airfares, swank hotels, fancy food and drink, and so on.
Indeed, let me quote from something I wrote about this issue several years ago:
A recent article in Charisma magazine speaks to one aspect of all this. It speaks of the “deadly virus of celebrity Christianity” and is well worth having a look at. (It does not yet appear to be in the Charisma website.) J. Lee Grady, the author, reminds us that we have strayed quite a way from the early church, as we engage in “shameful carnality”.
He begins with these words: “Some bigheaded preachers demand rock star treatment. If the apostle Paul were around today he might throw rocks at them. Just when I thought we had finally taken enough abuse from the egomaniac ministers in our midst, I’ve learned that some of our leaders are taking things to a new extreme. We’ve moved beyond the red carpets, limousines and entourages of the 1990s. A new strain of the celebrity virus is spreading in large segments of the church.”
He provides several examples of this. One really takes the cake: “One friend of mine in Texas recently inquired to see if a prominent preacher could speak at her conference. The minister’s assistant faxed back a list of requirements that had to be met in order to book a speaking engagement. The demands included:
-a five-figure honorarium
-a $10,000 gasoline deposit for the private plane
-a manicurist and hairstylist for the speaker
-a suite in a five-star hotel
-a luxury car from the airport to the hotel
Just how widespread is this sort of thing in the Christian church today? But I am not trying to knock these leaders who asked me about fees. It is a fair enough question – but maybe not as your very first question! After all, it is biblical that the preacher of the gospel should be rewarded for his efforts. For example, Paul could say this:
“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wage’” (1 Tim 5:17-18).
He says a similar thing in 1 Cor 9:1-18. But he went on to say, “But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ” (12b), and “But I have not used any of these rights” (15a). He was willing to waive his rightful remuneration if it better served the gospel.
Paul’s practice of not accepting money for his ministerial services, even though he was fully entitled to do so, are also discussed in 2 Cor. 11:7-12 and 2 Thes 3:6-10. Charles Wanamaker, commenting on the Thessalonians passage, offers a good summary: “Paul’s refusal to accept support would appear to have formed part of his missionary strategy (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1-18; 2 Cor. 11:7). Not only was this policy intended as an example to be imitated, but … it also served to distinguish Paul himself and his message from that of the many charlatan preachers who made a living hawking their messages (cf. 1 Thes. 2:4…).”
But it is nonetheless a biblical principle: pastors and Christian workers have a right to some financial compensation from those they minister to. But a legitimate biblical right may well be misused and abused by Christian leaders.
Indeed, Scripture speaks to this as well. We have this warning in 1 Tim 6:5 which speaks about false teachers “who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain”. Peter likewise issues some stern warnings about the misuse of wealth. He cautions his readers about certain false teachers who “in their greed … will exploit you with stories they have made up” (2 Pet 2:3).
And in today’s climate where money and greed have contaminated everything, even the churches, then perhaps we should follow Paul’s example and support ourselves with tentmaker ministries, instead of risking our reputations on other funding arrangements.
Again, there is a proper place for all this. I certainly do expect to have at least my expenses covered – that is fair enough. I must say that over the years sometimes even this has not always been forthcoming. I have at times driven 4 or 6 hours round trip to speak somewhere, and not received a penny in return!
At least enough funds to cover my petrol costs would be in order. Sure, anything over that is a welcome gift, and I do have obligations to look after the needs of my own family. So if these Christian leaders are asking me this question with considerations such as this in mind, I don’t mind a bit them asking me.
But I just wonder how much of the consumerist and money-driven culture that surrounds us has infiltrated into the churches? How has it come to pass that the first question we offer when discussing Christian ministry has to do with price tags?
Perhaps we all need to step back and see if the surrounding secular culture has not too greatly coloured our understanding of the preaching of the gospel and the work of Christian ministry.