Big Bucks and the Gospel

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
-room-temperature Perrier

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.

[1291 words]

33 Replies to “Big Bucks and the Gospel”

  1. Hi Bill,

    I think you might be misjudging the questioners. In fairness to them (and giving them the benefit of the doubt) if they are asking you to speak, or if you are offering and they are interested, then there is a good chance they already have a good idea where you stand on issues.

    Also, it could be that that has been their experience (sadly) of people offering to speak like you did. Also, I think it is kind of disgusting that people would ask you to speak and not cover your expenses.

    An additional thought from a different side of the coin. You note the list of requirements for a christian speaker that was faxed over. It is a sad reflection that they would send over such a list, but I think there is a more disturbing side of the coin than that. Anybody can be an idiot and a prima donna like that after all. I hope it was nobody I look up to.

    What I found really disturbing is that they sent such a list, which means that clearly people will happily meet such requirements to get this speaker to turn up. I think it is far more disturbing that such requirements could reasonably be expected to be asked for in the first place.

    In terms of the speakers fee, that is up to them and if people are willing to pay it then fair enough. I am a strong free marketeer and I have no problem with speakers charging what they think is a fair price for the service they offer. It is actually the other requirements that I find far more disturbing as they suggest a certain narcissism on the part of the speaker that seems at least somewhat problematic.

    Why are people willing to cater to such immaturity? Worse yet, why do they think someone who is willing to carry on like this is to be trusted to address the flock the organizers are supposed to take care of?

    I suspect if you named the speaker and the organization that the information came from it would result in raised eye brows and comments of “actually not that surprising” or at least I would hope so.

    Still, the whole thing evidences a depressing trend in the church and the sort of things it will tolerate.

    Jason Rennie

  2. I am not sure you can reduce preaching the Gospel to a financial transaction Jason. I think that is the problem, some preachers see what they offer as a service they offer, for a fee, rather than a gift from God that he has hopefully given them for free. Surely they should accept an offer prayerfully and trust God to provide. Is this a bit simplistic? It only seems so because we have become so commercialised. If our leaders can’t model trusting in God, particularly in a Christian enviroment, then we are in big trouble.

    Pete Hall

  3. Thanks Bill once again. I’m not so keen on being given a credit card slip to tithe, and i found it well can i say uncomfortable, when making a donation to our christian radio station here in perth, a cash payment in person was greatly recieved, and then a big fuss was made to ensure i was given a receipt and told youll need this so you can claim it on your tax. I said no thanks.
    Daniel Kempton

  4. In all fairness perhaps these pastors were poor. But then again, pastoring can easily be done as a profession today, rather than from a calling.
    I am just now reading Leonard Ravenhill’s “Why Revival Tarries” and there are many choice words that could be said here:
    On evangelists today,

    For their own lusts they bleed the audience financially in the name of the One who had to borrow a penny to illustrate His sermon. They wear expensive Hollywood suits in honor of One who wore a peasant’s robe.

    Today an evangelist is not only worthy of his hire (so he thinks), but of compound interest. How fearful will all this be in the judgment morning!

    And he was talking about this 50 years back! (1959 was the first edition)
    So for me: if I must decline to preach the Gospel because I’m not going to be paid enough – far out! I am storing up much eternal riches in heaven!
    Nathan Keen

  5. Thanks Nathan

    Yes you may well be right that some of them are poor, and so it was a legitimate question for them. But I still find the whole concept rather odd. Imagine early Christian communities asking Paul or Peter, ‘What is your speaking fee?’ Did any of the early evangelists and teachers think about a speaking fee?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. I am not sure you can reduce preaching the Gospel to a financial transaction Jason.

    I agree. I’m just noting, that I think the problem is that they are taken up on these conditions more than that they offer them.

    On some level, who are we to judge what they do with the honorarium they are given. They may well pass large amounts of it onto charity etc. I don’t think the money is actually here or there ultimately. The other conditions seemed much much more problematic as to what they suggest about the persons character.

    The money is sort of secondary in my mind because it is difficult to know the motivation for charging it and how it is used. The other things I think speak much much more about the character of the speakers.

    Jason Rennie

  7. Thanks Bill once again. I’m not so keen on being given a credit card slip to tithe, and i found it well can i say uncomfortable, when making a donation to our christian radio station here in perth, a cash payment in person was greatly recieved, and then a big fuss was made to ensure i was given a receipt and told youll need this so you can claim it on your tax. I said no thanks.
    My Church, which meets in a school hall perfers electronic giving to cash because cash is a problem to handle in the circumstances. They can handle it, but ultimately it is discouraged as problematic.

    I don’t see the problem with taking the tax deduction. If you feel a problem with it then don’t take it, but I figure, being able to collect the tax deduction actually increases the resources that can be given. So it is a good thing.

    Not that tax deductability effects who I donate too. But it never hurts.

    Jason Rennie

  8. Imagine early Christian communities asking Paul or Peter, ‘What is your speaking fee?’

    Yes I agree Bill. Absolutely ridiculous. In fact I could readily imagine Paul blasting someone (nicely…) who asked a question like that.
    Nathan Keen

  9. Bill,
    Shame on these ‘men of God’ who demand payment for their services.The word of God is not a merchandise to be peddled. Preaching the gospel and the word of God should simply be an act of obedience to the Master’s call for us to make disciples. Any payment received should not be solicited but received as a voluntary love gift from the host church.
    Barry Koh

  10. Thanks Barry

    Yes that has been how I have operated. I certainly will not knock back a financial gift if it is offered, but I have never made ministry conditional on some sort of payment first.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Bill, (and Jason), when I first became a Christian, I was in a pentecostal church where the pastor was a wise and humble man, who understood that a pulpit is a dangerous place to put someone.

    To let a relative stranger talk to the congregation that God has given you to shepherd is a risky business.

    His approach was to only have speakers who were prepared to doss down in the spare bedroom of his family home. He simply did not abide any who placed financial conditions on their speaking engagements.

    As a young person and very young Christian, I sure learned a lot from him!

    John Angelico

  12. Hi John,

    That sounds like a really good approach. I stand by my suggestion that the money itself is a side issue because we don’t know what is done with it, but I think we are on the same page about the other list of “demands”.

    There is something deeply troubling about a christian speaker who would make a list of demands like that. The demands speak enormously of the mans character (I assume the speaker was a man) and raise many troubling questions.

    Though I am still much more disturbed by the idea that the speaker could get away with making such demands and reasonably expected to have them met. That is what really bothers me about the whole thing. That churches would willingly indulge a person of such questionable character after seeing him for what he is.

    Jason Rennie

  13. This discussion would have a different tone if the initial question had been, “Do you have a speaking fee?”

    Evidently the pastor’s experience–and I suspect it was not a pleasant one–convinced him that such a fee (i.e., one that goes beyond mere compensation for the speaker’s inconvenience) is the norm, with exceptions being so rare as to be disregarded. In other words, the speaking ministry has become a for-profit enterprise.

    The phrase “peddling the word of God” comes to mind.

    Michael Spence, USA

  14. I wonder whether anyone has done a study to see whether there is an inverse relationship between the content of the message, and maybe even the messenger, and the price demanded for it!

    Roger Birch

  15. Sadly fleecing the sheep is wide spread, especially in the USA. I remember a couple who came to my college in the mid eighties. They insisted on all expenses paid, a limo, a luxury hotel and a $10,000 retainer with a minimum of 20% of the massive offerings they usually got.

    These days that is nothing with the top 5 in the WOF. No accountability, private jets, large staff, unbelievable life styles all paid for by the faithful hoping for a promised miracle if they plant their seed faith offering. I used to have a photo of the inside of one man’s personal corporate jet, the walls covered in gold leaf and nearly everything else gold plated. His name was Maurice Cerullo.

    I contrasted the people above with a repentance for ministers seminar I attended just down the road, put on by David Wilkerson. Low key, simple offering for expenses, no hard sell, with a comment, all my books are on the table, $5 each and if you are short of money just take one.

    In which one’s company would Jesus be likely to be found?

    Rob Withall

  16. Hi Rob,

    That is what I would expect from WOF clowns.

    I guess the question is, what was the nature of the minister that was hilighted in the original article. If it was a WOF fraud then I wouldn’t have even been surprised. I’m just wondering if the speaker/minister in question was someone that would be surprised to see this sort of behavior from.

    I’ve never tried to book speakers so I don’t know what happens when you try to book a Bill Craig, Don Carson or other such orthodox christian speaker.

    Jason Rennie

  17. Hi Bill
    My first time on your site and having looked around a little, I appreciate what you have to say so far. As for the whole money thing, I agree with your perspective. Accepting generosity is certainly OK, demanding it, another thing all together. Biblical ministry is not to be about making a good living; more to do with making a “good dying” perhaps…if that makes sense.
    Glenn Christopherson

  18. Hey Bill,

    I’ve been reading your site again lately and you always manage to spark interest. Thank you so much for continuing to write regularly, send emails and keep on top of issues.

    Your stance on accepting but not expecting because you are serving a greater kingdom should be the norm among called ministers.

    May you have great success in spreading this message!

    Jay Rusty

  19. Can I first direct your attention to a great little book by Don Carson “The Cross and Christian Ministry: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians”. Great little book and he addresses just these sorts of issues.

    Secondly, David Cook, Principal of SMBC, has the observation – if you (meaning us Christians) were in Germany in the 1930s, would you have stood up against the Nazis, probably not; if you were in South Africa in the 1960/70s, would you have stood up against apartheid, probably not; do you today stand up against materialism; probably not. This is an observation applicable to many situations and concerns beyond materialism, and one, that if we are honest we all need to seriously consider in many aspects of our lives.

    Greg Randles

  20. I’ve got to chip in again. Although as I have said repeatedly that the example given is really problematic, I have to say, using words like “demanding it” and similar ideas is probably unfair.

    Whoever they guy making these requirements of his appearance isn’t demanding anything. He is only saying that these are prerequisites of him turning up.

    This is no more “demanding” that if Bill (for example) said, “I’d like to speak at your church but you’ll need to cover my travel expenses if you want me to come”.

    Nobody is being forced to do anything in any of these exchanges. If the terms are deemed unreasonable (and I think the terms cited are entirely unreasonable) then you don’t book the speaker. Nobody is demanding anything and there is no coercion or force involved in any of these transactions.

    Jason Rennie

  21. Bill,

    A related issue is church financial accountability. Many churches do not make their accounts or audit reports publicly available, even to church members. Mine certainly doesn’t, and I would feel uncomfortable about asking.

    I think if churches were transparent about their finances there would be less concern about leaders using funds for excessive personal benefit, as in the examples above. This is particularly important because churches receive tax exemptions and therefore need to be accountable not only to their members but also to the community generally.

    L Ron Hubbard (Scientology founder) is alleged to have once said: Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.

    I’m not suggesting you should adopt his ideas 😉

    Michael Hill, Sydney

  22. Having now investigated the ‘Business Model’ of the contemporary Churches now for several years, I find it interesting that the defence given by Senior Pastors and adherents to assertions that Contemporay Churches on the speaking circuit ran a ‘second set of books’ not open to public transparency that were designed to remmunerate Senior Pastors in a tax-effective manner (eg. Houston’s ‘Leadership Ministries Inc’) was often “we are audited by KPMG etc – so that cannot be happening”…

    The Melbourne Storm fiasco demonstrates how such practices (as a second set of books) can be rife in an environment which is internally and externally audited.

    The “audit argument” is moot. It is the whistle blowers that should be listened too…

    Contemporary Churches are now in the greatest need of Theological integrity, authentic leadership, full transparency by any tax-payer who requests information and proper governance.

    Richard Mackenzie

  23. Bill,
    My “quiet achiever” pastor, Raf Shaw, has been on more overseas mission trips than I can remember. He has been the conduit God has used to bring healing and salvation to many.
    Raf recently asked God why he and other (often big name) preachers saw an abundance of miracles in these poorer overseas locations, but saw so few when he was home, or even when others came to Australia.
    I will paraphrase as best as I can remember:
    Raf said that God showed him the problem was largely finance related. When people minister in these many poorer countries, they do it freely, without charging. The same come back, or visit the western countries, to minister here and to raise funds for their mission work in other poorer countries. God reminded him of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple He told him that he/they could see many barriers to God’s work removed, and more miracles if they stopped trying to extract money from the people, and stopped merchandising the gospel. “Freely you have received, freely give.”
    Well, that was an interesting move, because I am the sound technician, and responsible for all the merchandise. We currently have 3 churches I am responsible for, and sales volumes were high, but not outrageous. It was suggested I cease production immediately but instead I decided to trust God, and pay for everything myself. We now give away all the CDs and books away for no charge, copyright free, and also on our website. Yes, the volume has increased five times, but the testimonies I hear back from around the country are more than worth it. I have purchased dozens of machines to duplicate these resources now. Yes, there is still always cost to provide resources and ministry, and now it is often borne by myself.
    I have found it a worthwhile challenge, even a privilege to rely on God’s provision. “Narrow and difficult is the way to life, and few are they who find it.”
    Bill, keep laying up treasure in heaven, unlike many who have taken all their rewards while here on earth. I honour you in doing (and sharing) God’s will with this matter.
    Daniel Shepherd

  24. Jason, you keep insisting that the money issue itself doesn’t bother you, because the money might be given to good causes at the other end.
    I have a problem with that though, because it sounds like redistribution of wealth to me. A fee needs to match the value of a service, regardless of how generous the person wants to be with the money he makes.
    For instance, I have a big problem with Bill Gate’s “philanthropy”
    First he makes his money in a questionable way by factoring into his product the need for in my book unnecessary constant updates etc and then he prides himself on being so generous and still remains the world’s richest man. That to me smacks of pride and though it is an example from the non-Christian world, I think, we can sadly find its counterpart among Christians.
    Integrity starts with the very smallest components of life and conduct.

    Ursula Bennett

  25. So many of us can see that we have to do something to stop the apathy and we do want to stop it, but the question is how? Prayer is obviously the first and most important step, but does teaching come into it too? Do we go to more seminars to “learn how…”?
    And can we do it alone, what part does community play in this and in what form? How do we practically apply John 13:35 and John 17:21? They both describe what we want to see as a result of evangelism. Where are the people of whom we can say like Paul “Be followers of me as I follow Christ”?
    Ursula Bennett

  26. “So many of us can see that we have to do something to stop the apathy….but the question is how?”
    My opinion:
    Obviously we need to look unto ourselves first, and prayer, of course, is to saturate everything we do. But I feel that an essential task for us today is to evangelize the toughest mission field there is: the church. So many church goers I meet are simply not saved, and this in what would be classed Bible-believing churches. They have never been regenerated, have no desire for or understanding of the word of God. There is no life in their prayer and little prayer in their life. They do not speak of Jesus and their thoughts and conversation are full of everything but the things of the Kingdom. They do not know Christ and often do not know that they do not know. And sadly I think that the same could be said of the ‘clergy’ in many cases. As a former minister and church planter it often astounded me that if you desired to speak of the things of God, some (ministers) would say “Let’s not talk shop! “Talk shop?!! Those who are born again can not help but speak of Him. And the time I heard a denominatonal leader tell a gathering of ministers that prayer is next to useless in building your church and no one seemed to find anything wrong with that statement. “God help us!” It’s no wonder that increasingly the church is leaving the churches!… but the religious faithless need Christ and I believe that true believers should not be blinded to the need of those bound up to an institutional idol, and as we have opportunity we should ensure that lost churchians hear the full gospel of Jesus Christ. Unsaved churchgoers will end up in the same Hell as the most blasphemous athiest.
    Glenn Christopherson

  27. Hey Glenn, I am with you on this one. I have written much lately about dead churches filled with dead believers run by dead leaders. 1 Peter 4:17: “It is time for judgment to begin with the family of God”.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  28. Hi Ursala,

    I guess I should clarify. The reason I said the money doesn’t bother me, is that it is a free transaction made between parties. If they think the speaker is worth that to book them, then they will pay it, and if they think it isn’t they wont. Actually that is true of all of the demands.

    I just didn’t have a particular problem with it because the speaker knows what his time is worth and charges accordingly. Whether we think that is right or wrong, ultimately there might be entirely good and reasonable reasons for the amount charged to be charged. We just lack enough information to know why they charge what they do. Given this lack of information and a willingness to give whoever it is the benefit of the doubt, I don’t have a problem with the price charged.

    I don’t think it is ideal, it does seem excessive but at the same time, who knows why it is the way it is.

    What really troubled me was the other requests, especially the last one. They speak volumes about the character of the person in question, especially the last one. If I was booking a speaker, that last one more than all of the others would make me discard the speaker as a self important prideful ass.

    Jason Rennie

  29. Running Churches and booking Ministers is an annual part of my work, we always ask if the Minister has a fee, the reason for such is because many do, the last thing I want is an argument from expectation that hasnt been met, so I ask as a matter of politeness and respect. I dont really want to judge the minister on if they do, or why they might, however, having said this, it most certainly does affect whether that minister is invited. Many desire to encourage the our congregations to give themselves, it is rare if we allow this as it can become ridiculous, and or they may not receive enough to ensure they themselves have been blessed as is right. We rather work out a price for the minister that they will be happy with, and get that out of the way so that we can get on with the job at hand. I do like to cover any costs and make it worth their while though, but many who come, avoid any conversation of money and simply leave it up to us, which is commendable and shows their faith in Christ, either way, i beleive this is an issue that each needs to be fully convinced wthin their own minds about.
    Dorian Ballard

  30. Just a small point Bill. Where it says that the Elder who does a good job is worthy of double honour does not mean he is to be paid.

    I have checked every time the word is used in the NT and in every other case, it does not mean money. As it is unacceptable to form a doctrine on one verse of scriputre and ignore the general revelation of scripture, making the word honour mean money is indefensible.

    Roger Marks

  31. Thanks Roger

    Given that I mentioned a number of other passages, I of course was not seeking “to form a doctrine on one verse of scriputre [sic]” and therefore it cannot be said that I “ignore the general revelation of scripture”.

    As to the Greek term in question, context of course determines its usage, and any Greek scholar you might consult will tell you that in this case the word’ timee’ has a double reference: honour and honorarium; respect and recompense. The Greek term is rightly translated “price” in a number of places. Indeed, it is clear from the context that a monetary value is the only sensible rendering of the Greek term in some of these texts. As but one example, consider Acts 4:34.

    But in this case v. 18 makes it absolutely clear that a payment of sorts is in view. There Paul quotes both the OT and Jesus, citing passages which speak of wages and the like. Even Jesus could appeal to the right of those working for the kingdom having a right to material compensation (eg. Matt 10:10; Luke 10:7). Thus both Jesus and Paul appeal to OT precedent in this regard.

    But as I said, that is not the only meaning of the term here. It seems that Paul has in mind both honour and the possibility of material recompense, which he was willing to forgo.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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