“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” – Mark 10:31a
For the last ten years of my life, God has seen fit – in His wisdom – to have me ministering in contexts that are made of up of a diversity of people, but contexts that were wealthy compared to their surrounding and contexts where there were a number of seriously wealthy people. There are a few caveats and clarity points to that statement, of course. Firstly, many will wonder if it was by God’s sovereign hand or my personal preference and I am fully willing to wrestle with that tension, although I would add that the difficulty of ministry in these contexts would mean that it wouldn’t actually be my preference, and yet that is where God has me. Secondly, no context is uniform, and so while I have previously and am currently ministering primarily amongst the wealthy, that is not to say that there isn’t diversity of financial means in the context. There definitely is, and as you will see it is an outcome that I hope for and drive towards in a healthy local church, but as the title suggests these are majority wealthy contexts. Thirdly, wealth is obviously a relative concept and that is well understood. I am defining wealthy people as those who have more wealth than is typical in the rest of their immediate and semi-immediate contexts (there is obviously a broader conversion that would put all of these contexts as wealthy relative to the rest of the world and I understand that). Perhaps the simplest way to view that, is that the last two ministry assignments I have had have met in gathering spaces in the wealthiest neighborhoods in their relative cities. The people most likely to gather there have therefore been people who are wealthy relative to their surrounding city and suburban contexts.
With all that said, I would like to submit a few things that God has been teaching me about what it looks like to faithfully shepherd wealthy people. I used to find people with lots of money intimidating, but God has been teaching me over time what it looks like to serve them and lead them. These are simple observations, but ones that I have learned through pain and frustration at times. My hope is simply to be a faithful minister where God has me, and these are some of the principles that simple faithfulness requires of me in this context. I am by no means an expert on the topic, and I am sure that I am missing many things, but I hope that God will continue to make me a faithful shepherd of the people who are in front of me. 13 principles – in no particular order – if you are the county type.
When the Bible speaks of the rich, it does so most commonly in stark tones of warning. You don’t have to look far to find them. Don’t shy away from this.
Understand that Everyone is Under Financial Pressure of Sorts
Everyone feels financially induced pressure. For the poor, it is the lack of it, and for the wealthy (if they re paying attention) it is the responsibility of stewarding it well. If you stop and get to know people and really understand their lives then you will learn that everyone is under pressure. What you will also realize is that many of the people in your midst are nowhere near as wealthy as they appear to be. Many are leveraged to the max in debt and actively pursuing a lifestyle that they cannot afford. Don’t assume, rather get to know.
Let Respect and Empathy Replace Reverence or Resentment
Wealthy people are used to receiving messages of either reverence or resentment all the time. They are revered in service delivery interactions and yet they feel resented in the messaging of society at large. Both of these messages fail to humanize them adequately. Churches can fall into the same trap when trying to engage people of significant means. We either are tempted to let them have total control or we are tempted to treat them with contempt and to make them feel deficient in their image bearing value.
I am reminded again of Jesus’ meeting with the rich your ruler. Jesus looked at him and loved him (Mark 10:21) and then immediately reminded him that he wasn’t the center of the universe. Jesus didn’t revere or resent him. He loved him, and because he loved him, he called him to walk away from the idol of his wealth.
Take the time to know your people. They have lots of people either serving them or hating them from a distance and not many who are walking with them, understanding them, empathizing with them and their unique burdens and then walking with them to greater faithfulness.
Teach How Money is Meaningless and Meaningful at the Same Time
I love how Psalm 49 speaks of this tension.
16 Be not afraid when a man becomes rich,
when the glory of his house increases.
17 For when he dies he will carry nothing away;
his glory will not go down after him.
18 For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed
—and though you get praise when you do well for yourself—
19 his soul will go to the generation of his fathers,
who will never again see light.
20 Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish.
Money is meaningless in that it is temporary, and money is meaningful if we attach it to the right things and use it for the right ends. If we only highlight it as meaningless, then don’t be surprised if you struggle to get people to give it away in any meaningful way. It would be very meaningful to fund church-planters across your city and around the globe. It would be very meaningful to be able to support the ministry efforts of churches in poor neighborhoods on the other side of the city. Money is meaningless if it exists for our comfort. It is extremely meaningful if it is leveraged for the Kingdom!
Work Hard to Connect Work, Faith and Mission
People spend a lot of their time attached to their work and look to it for a lot of their sense of purpose and meaning. We do people a tremendous disservice when we fail to connect their faith with their work, and expect them to engage in mission that has nothing to do with what God may have wired them to do. This leads to the very sort of compartmentalized Christian lives that are so joyless and ineffective. Press into those areas of your peoples lives with faith. Teach them to live with a singularity in all spheres of their lives.
Ask for Money, and Make Sure to Ask for More Than Just money
Don’t be afraid to ask for money. Don’t. Look people in the eye, explain what it is you need it for, sell the vision and make the ask.
Don’t only engage wealthy people when you have a financial ask. Ask them to serve sacrificially in the church in ways that don’t just involve their money. They are used to paying people to do things that they don’t want to do, but last time I checked, Ephesians 4 said that the work of the ministry is to be done by the saints in the church. This means there must be meaningful ministry for them to do. Ask.
Create Budgets that Look Like Rivers and Not Dams
If we are wanting to teach our people how to be generous in order to make Kingdom impact, then one of the best ways you can do that is with your church budget. Show them what it looks like to flourish through radical generosity. Show them that godliness with contentment actually is great gain through a church that is content to throttle some of its own ministry wants in order to meet the needs of ministry elsewhere.
Teach Stewardship as the Principle
I love the beautiful tension of 1 Timothy 6. It issues a very clear warning in verses 9-10 when it says…
9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
And then it shows the way forward for those who are rich in verses 17-19…
17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
The goal isn’t to be poor. The goal is to store up treasure in heaven by being a good steward of what you have on earth.
You Can’t Shepherd People and Want Their Stuff at the Same Time
While you may not be able to give your people wisdom on business deals and investment strategies, you are able to model contentment to them, and they need you to do it. This is an area where shepherds ought to be exemplary, and yet it is a space where many struggle. I have wrestled in seasons with simultaneously trying to warn people in the congregation about the love of money and really loving money myself. It is very difficult to lead someone spiritually while you desperately want their stuff. It is very difficult to call them to a different life if you actually secretly want the life they have.
Stay as Far Away from the Giving Schedule as Possible
I don’t have a verse to justify this stance and I know there are a variety of opinions on this and it won’t always be possible in every size church, but I was freed up to serve people differently when I didn’t have the burden of knowing how much they gave to the church. I found that knowing this info often led to the temptations of reverence or resentment that I said we need to avoid in an earlier point. Stay away if you can.
Strive for Discipleship and Not Just Efficiency
People with means are used to efficiency in every area of their life, and will expect it with church community and then wonder why they don’t grow. I was deeply convicted recently when reading Eugene Peterson’s masterful A Long Obedience in the Same Direction again. In his opening chapter on discipleship he says,
“There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”
He goes on,
“I don’t know what it has been like for pastors in other cultures and previous centuries, but I am quite sure that for a pastor in Western culture at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the aspect of world that makes the work of leading Christians in the way of faith most difficult is … today’s passion for the immediate and the casual.”
Fight the urge to provide entertainment that is immediate and casual. Push to the long and difficult road of sanctification in community. Your wealthy people will fight you because it cuts against the way they measure investment in the world. Do it anyway.
Fight for the Marvelous Mess of Diversity
So much of the New Testament assumes that people of very different means are in the same communities of faith. Slaves and masters are addressed in the same letters in the same churches! I love Paul’s letter to Philemon, where Paul outlines the manner in which Christians ought to respond in relationships of mismatched financial power. We ought to respond in a whole new gospel mode of relationship which is based on a bond of brotherhood that is secured in the gospel.
Wealthy people shouldn’t only encounter poor people when they take the occasional short-term mission trip. Those sorts of engagements often just exacerbate the power dynamic that the rich have over the poor. They ought to encounter the poor in their family of faith, united under a common bond of Christ’s shed blood. Economic diversity (I am becoming increasingly persuaded) is one of the toughest forms of diversity for a community to accomplish. It takes something remarkable to bring people of different means together. Something like the gospel.
Remind Them of their Need for and the Availability of the Miraculous Power of God
All hope seems lost when the rich young ruler walks away from Jesus’ offer of true eternal life. Jesus issues the stern warning…
23 …“How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
In response this this, the disciples begin to wonder if there is any hope for the rich in this world.
26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?”
Jesus’s answer to this is something that we must hold onto and teach and model.
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
Oh how grievous it is that this verse is so often used as a promise in pursuit of earthly riches! Jesus is clear. It is very difficult for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom. Very. But, it is possible with God.
We need good shepherds to do the hard and slow work of pressing some camels and we need to trust God to make them fit. That’s our only hope.