by Ramesh Richard
Searching for worship music and sneakers on the internet, a young man started noticing a strange occurrence. Several Christian pastors wore rather expensive sneakers in the pictures on their church websites. The shoes ranged from $600 to $3,000. This trend alarmed him, and he asked a question, “What is OK as far as optics … as far as pastors wearing hype or designer clothing?”. His Instagram post started a blaze of comment from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times and several other media outlets.
Public criticism is an occupational hazard of Christian leadership. It’s nearly as old as the poverty-modeling founder of the Christian faith, the one who had “no place to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20, NIV) but who also did not prohibit the “wasteful” spending of expensive perfume by a doting follower (Matt. 26:7-13) as justifiable preparation for his upcoming burial.
So where should we land on our evaluation of pastors and possessions? Since the matter is more than mere optics, concerned colleagues sent me the relevant links and suggested I provide applicable instruction.
Years ago, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) distributed an article I wrote on the matters of money and ministry. Current events prompt me to add to that guidance. I am an itinerant proclaimer of God’s Word regularly must navigate between geographies of deprivation and opulence, and balance the optics for poor and well-endowed audiences across the world. I am sending off this article after lift off from Rwanda having just addressed well-to-do opinion leaders and economically deprived pastoral leaders. Whether I should even write on this somewhat superficial matter of “sneakers and preachers” after visiting the Kigali Genocide Museum this morning causes a heaviness of heart. How lightweight can insensitive leaders and heavy-handed their critics be?
And yet this newsy matter is noisy enough to share a few principles for level-of-lifestyle decisions among Christian leaders who receive their compensation from donors?
Your Audience’s Sensitivity
“God is not a respecter of persons,” a friend mentioned in passing, “but people are.” Therefore, I avoid judging by external appearance but recognize that the external does matter to most. I try not to embarrass my primary audiences, either by over or underdressing, or by indulging or rejecting luxury as intrinsically good or evil. Last Sunday, my Rwandese hosts preferred I wear a suit, white shirt and cravat to address a pre-Christ audience of government, military, and business professionals. I pay attention to what matters to them, so “by all means I may save some” (1 Cor. 9:22, NET). The rest of the week, while speaking to pastors, I left off the jacket in the mornings, and took off my tie in the afternoons.
Only those who serve a specific audience best know the sensitivities of that audience—no journalist or outsider does. Only we and God can truthfully answer if we use externals to initially impress others in order to reach them. So we must ask what God thinks of what we are doing. He knows if we are sincerely reaching out to people with our behavioral choices or stage-managing their public responses. He knows if we are serving psychological deficiencies in our self-view or social efficiencies for better communication.
Know your audience then. As you bear fruit in evangelizing and discipling them, be aware of their sensitivities, and adjust your lifestyle as you are able. Do not worry about self-authorizing faultfinders. Turn their projectiles into a spiritual advantage, as veteran missionary E. Stanley Jones remarked, “My critics are the unpaid guardians of my soul.” Only as you carry the cross of criticism in daily leadership, are you, like your Lord Jesus, being prepared for your burial and worthy of the extravagance any few might pour out. So consider what only you know with honest rigor: are critics pointing out the expense of the occasional alabaster perfume or the wretchedness of your hidden but constant mentality of entitlement?
Your Sense of Identity
Pay strong attention when those critics who normally disagree with each other agree on a matter against you. That agreement should tell you something is amiss in your assessment of external relevance. Perhaps you have developed a mistaken sense of the Self from a wrongly identified source of self-identity.
If you need luxury to feel better about yourself, then you are ignoring God’s unconditioned acceptance. And if you feel free to ignore everyone else’s opinion about your chosen lifestyle, then you have disregarded how to love your neighbor well.
Temper the truth of having nothing to prove to God with the reality that you do have to prove something to people. Don’t be overly concerned about your image; you are already accepted among the beloved. Do be concerned about your reputation; it reflects inner strength and affects God’s glory through you.
When it comes to money, possessions and lifestyle, always evaluate your levels of contentment and gratitude. The former is not passive. The latter is the strongest of all emotions. They will help you make better spending choices and deprecate any ownership claims over your belongings. Follow your Master’s sacrificial approach to ministry as you seek to discern (by all means with your spouse) your standard of living under God.
Not long ago, I visited the pastor of the world’s fastest growing, mega-church—100,000 people in five services in just a dozen years. He lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment attached to the stage of a massive arena. “God has cured me of desire for luxury,” he said, “I am missionary at heart and by practice.” Although high-living by a mega-church pastor could be tolerated or even reasonable, his choices show godly contentment. Do yours?
The apostle Paul notes that our hard work is worthy of double material honor (1 Tim. 5:17) from those who receive God’s Word from us (Gal. 6:6), but we shall never demand that deference. Why? Because we live off the voluntary generosity of others. This dependence on donors is both amazing and humbling. Like many of you, I have received beautiful gifts from God through friends to enjoy (1 Tim. 6:17). It is also humiliating at times. No other profession I know feels more the conflict of keeping motives pure than those who wish to altruistically serve the very people on whose gifts they depend.
Spiritual maturity requires regular affection-management, of setting “your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2, ESV). Just because your income goes up, your lifestyle does not have to keep rising. Instead, your giving can.
Your Ministry Sensibility
Importantly, though often missed, these level-of-lifestyle decisions call for a ministry sensibility, a mixture of love, humility, wisdom and courage. They fall into the larger and deeper issue of “questionable” issues. God’s Word is clear on matters such as Gospel content and sexual immorality. Those issues may be questioned (what is not questioned these days?) but are not questionable. The Bible leaves other matters, such as styles of church buildings, worship music, and preaching shoes without clear prescription. The latter fall into the class of questionable issues.
While personally nauseous and culturally hideous, no biblical absolute governs preacher fondness for $600 sneakers. Rather the Bible expects that maturing believers will disagree about preferences in behavior with openness and without bitterness. Our tendencies toward legalism (behavior to gain favor with God) or license (the freedom of grace without denying ungodliness, Titus 2:13) factor into these penchants too. The only clear direction about any questionable matter, personal and public, is that we live by biblical values and faith-filled conviction toward our preferences.
Biblical values framing “questionable” issues exhort us to avoid becoming a stumbling block to a weaker believer (Rom. 14:21), or letting anything gain control of us (1 Cor. 6:12). God’s Word also requires a faith-filled conviction about our choices, since “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23, NRSV).
Although you might manage to rationalize anything you want, the more you find yourself defensive with God, Scripture and loved ones about a level-of-lifestyle choice, the more likely you are rationalizing your love of lavishness. I can convince myself to deserve anything I really want, yet the only thing I deserve is eternal damnation.
Shall we empty ourselves to follow Jesus’ unentitled, servant model, voluntarily releasing use of our rights so that we might seek and save the lost? In these ways, we will build rather than weaken the faith of others; we shall attract unbelievers (I Pet. 2:12) rather than repel them.
Oh, one more matter of audience sensitivity to consider: if freed in your self-identity to tie on those sneakers, ministry sensibility in some cultures obliges you to remove all footwear as you approach the podium to honor the greatness of the God you worship and represent. Indeed I submitted my free right to wear shoes for the joy of preaching at that fastest-growing, mega-church. Hearers were not distracted, new converts did not stumble, and mature believers all embraced God’s Word.
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You can click here to obtain a free downloadable PDF, Who Giveth the Increase?, to find more of Dr. Richard’s “thoughts,” on developing a biblical mindset on money, growth and ministry.