Guest post: You can’t “prophetically” challenge comfort whilst aspiring to be comfortable

This is a guest post by Dave Williams, minister at Bearwood Chapel in Smethwick, W. Midlands.

The other day I read an article asking whether we should pay pastors in poor areas poorly. The gist of the article is that pastors, planters and missionaries who go into poor areas may be tempted to embrace a life of poverty in keeping with the people they go to. The article responds in two ways:

  1. This is counter productive. The author cites an example of a worker who did this, living in a poorly built house without electricity. Those he was living amongst thought it strange. Why would he choose to do this? They would not live as they did if there was a way out and so he changed his practice.
  2. We should be encouraging generosity among believers. We should encourage generosity by showing appropriate honour to our teaching elders.

First of all, I agree with the principle that churches should be generous. This should include support for gospel workers, mission partnership and care for the needs of the congregation. Personally, I have been blessed by the support of a local church that have been consistently generous to me, above and beyond the call of duty.

The problem is that the author moves beyond a general principle of open-handed, open-hearted generosity and, in my opinion, confuses this with a pastor being entitled to expect a certain status and lifestyle. In his context this included, for example, access to private health care and good quality schools. Indeed, he suggests it would not be illegitimate for a minister to move to a ministry in the suburbs to acquire these goods if his poorer church wouldn’t provide them for him.

But this flies in the face of being called to serve God alongside people in their community and share life with them. Indeed, the same arguments could be used to justify any church member using the opportunity to escape life in a hard to reach area. Bearwood is not in one of the most deprived areas. In fact, it is a meeting point between social classes and ethnic groups. However, that also means that our members don’t live in one of the more fashionable postcodes and, by the same argument, a number of our members can legitimately move out to more desirable areas for better schools and better job prospects. But the point is, they chose to stay and make their home here because of their commitment to the gospel.

My greatest concern with the article was its engagement with prosperity gospel teaching and teachers. It betrays a certain envy of the prosperity preachers who are able to motivate their congregations to give. The writer argues that whilst they may achieve this by exploitation, it shows that there is money even in poor areas and we can encourage our congregations to give more.

I think that argument is alarming in tone and content.  It is dangerous because:

  1. We must guard our hearts against the high risk of envy, especially towards those who preach a different gospel. We can be envious of their numbers, apparent success and – yes – their apparent comfort. We can easily be tempted to ape them.
  2. It is exactly because prosperity preachers are happy to exploit that we must eschew their values and methods. It is likely that our churches will have people who have been burnt by prosperity teaching and prosperity teachers in them. We don’t love them well when we ape the practices of those they have (rightly) left.
  3. We need to wise up. To be sure, there are wealthy prosperity pastors living in mansions, flying private jets and using medical insurance to give an appearance of faith based health.  However, I’ve met my fair share of pastors who believe the message but are pastoring small congregations in decrepit rented premises and themselves rent damp bedsits. You see, the prosperity gospel is nothing more than a spiritualised form of pyramid selling, a glorified ponzy scheme, where only the men and women at the top are really doing well and everyone else is just trying to keep up appearances.

Stay well clear. It is so easy to denounce prosperity preachers whilst imbibing their values and practices unwittingly. And that is what is at stake isn’t it? How easy it is for me to condemn certain values in others when I have absorbed them into my own life and excused them for my context.

There has been much said in the past few years about the gap between the middle-class and working-class church. Harsh words have been spoken about the middle-classes yet this article sought to justify the pursuit of the very priorities those same people have loudly condemned. That’s a problem for me.

As I said before, I have no problem with pastors enjoying generosity, there is no guilt in that. However, I do have a problem with those who present a hair-shirt-wearing image to the church on the one hand whilst enjoying a very different lifestyle in practice. I have a problem if we “prophetically” challenge the comfort of the church whilst, in fact, pursuing and enjoy that same comfort. I have a problem with a situation where we protest and complain about middle-class values in church when, in fact, we cherish and actively pursue those same values.

I find myself coming back to the example of the missionary asked, ‘Why are you choosing to live like us? We would escape this life if we could!’ Surely, rather than opting for the more luxurious lifestyle, the missionary would have done better to say ‘because I am compelled by a greater love and motivated by a better hope.’ Shouldn’t that be the view of those of us who have gone to deprived communities too?