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How to Shepherd Camels through the Eye of a Needle

Mariam Soliman on Unsplash

For the last decade, I have ministered in contexts marked by significant wealth. By that I mean the area was wealthy relative to the surrounding context, while being home to a number of seriously wealthy people.

I used to find people with lots of money intimidating, but God has been teaching me what it looks like to serve and lead them.

What follows are simple observations, but they’ve been learned through seasons of pain and frustration. Though I’m by no means an expert, I hope these 13 principles will prove useful.

1. Warn Boldly

When the Bible speaks of the rich, it does so almost exclusively in tones of stark warning. You don’t have to look far to find these passages. Don’t shy away from them.

2. Understand that Everyone Is Under Financial Pressure of Sorts

Everyone feels financially induced pressure. I know this sounds incredulous, but it’s true. For the poor, it’s the lack of wealth. For the wealthy—if they’re paying attention—it’s the responsibility of stewarding their wealth. If you stop and get to know people, you will learn that everyone is under pressure. Paul’s warning to Timothy is pertinent: “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. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10).

To love money, you don’t have to have lots of it: $5,000 can be just as great a snare as $5 million.

To love money, you don’t have to have lots of it.

3. Let Respect and Empathy Replace Reverence or Resentment

Wealthy people are used to these polar opposites. They are revered in service/delivery interactions, and yet they feel resented in the messaging of society at large. Both realities fail to adequately recognize their humanity. Wealthy people are not money machines, and they are not the root of all evil. They are sinners who need grace.

Churches can fall into the same trap when trying to engage people of significant means. We are tempted in one of two ways: to let them have total control, or to treat them with contempt.

I’m reminded of Jesus’s encounter with the rich young man. 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 neither revered nor resented the young man. He loved him, and he called him to walk away from the idol of his wealth.

Wealthy people are not money machines, and they are not the root of all evil. They are sinners who need grace.

Take the time to know these people. They likely have lots of folks either serving them or hating them from a distance. What they don’t usually have are people seeking to understand them and their unique burdens. They need people, especially pastors, who will listen to them and seek to apply the gospel to their hearts and lives.

4. Teach How Money Is Meaningless and Meaningful at the Same Time

I love how Psalm 49 speaks of this tension:

Be not afraid when a man becomes rich,

when the glory of his house increases.

For when he dies he will carry nothing away;

his glory will not go down after him.

(Ps. 49:16–17)

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. But if you only highlight money as meaningless, don’t be surprised if you struggle to get people to give it away in any meaningful way.

Money is meaningless if it exists for our comfort. It is extremely meaningful if it is leveraged for the kingdom.

Therefore, show how meaningful money can meet real, meaningful needs in the world: to fund church planters in your city or among the nations; to support the ministry efforts of churches in poor neighborhoods; or to train leaders ministering in underserved contexts. Money is meaningless if it exists for our comfort. It is extremely meaningful if it is leveraged for the kingdom.

5. Work Hard to Connect Faith, Work, and Mission

People spend a lot of their time attached to their work, looking to it for a good deal 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 compartmentalized Christian lives that are joyless and ineffective. So press into those areas of your people’s lives with sincerity and faith. Teach them to live with a singular focus in all aspects of their lives.

6. 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.

But . . .

Don’t only engage wealthy people when you have a financial need. Call 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 they don’t want to do, but last I checked, Ephesians 4 said the work of ministry is to be done by the members of the church. This means there must be meaningful ministry for them to do. Call them to that work.

7. Create Budgets that Look Like Rivers, Not Dams

If you want to teach your people how to be generous for the kingdom, one of the best ways is with your church budget. Show what it looks like to flourish through radical generosity. Show that godliness with contentment actually is great gain (1 Tim. 6:6)—through a church that’s content to throttle some of its own ministry wants in order to meet ministry needs elsewhere.

8. Teach Stewardship as the Principle

I love the beautiful tension of 1 Timothy 6. Paul issues a clear warning: “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” (1 Tim. 6:9).

But—lest we think riches are bad—he shows the way forward for those who are wealthy: “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” (1 Tim. 6:17).

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.

9. You Can’t Shepherd People and Want Their Stuff at the Same Time

While you may not be able to share wisdom on business deals and investment strategies, you are able to model contentment—and they need you to do it. This is an area where shepherds ought to be exemplary, and yet it’s precisely where many struggle.

It’s hard to lead someone spiritually while you desperately want their stuff. And you can’t call them to a different life if you secretly want the life they have.

I’ve had seasons of simultaneously trying to warn people in the congregation about the love of money and really loving money myself. It’s hard to lead someone spiritually while you desperately want their stuff. And you can’t call them to a different life if you secretly want the life they have.

10. Stay as Far Away from the Giving Schedule as Possible

This is more of a wisdom call, and one I recognize won’t be possible in every church.

Nonetheless, I was freed up to serve people differently—and better—when I didn’t have the burden of knowing how much they gave to the church. I found that knowing this information often led to the temptations of reverence or resentment that I earlier argued we need to avoid. Stay away from this knowledge if you can.

11. Strive for Discipleship, Not Just Efficiency

People with wealth are used to efficiency in every area of their life. Therefore, they will likely expect it with spiritual maturity—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 for a second time. 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. . . . 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 21st century, the aspect of our 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 instead to the long, difficult road of sanctification-in-community. Some wealthy people will fight you, because it cuts against the way they measure investment in the world. Do it anyway.

12. Fight for the Marvelous Mess of Diversity

So much of the New Testament assumes people of different means are in the same communities of faith. Slaves and masters are addressed in the same letters because they were in the same churches. I love Paul’s letter to Philemon, where he outlines the manner in which Christians ought to respond in relationships of mismatched financial power. The gospel transforms how we respond in such situations, and it shouldn’t look like most deals in the business world.

Additionally, wealthy people shouldn’t only encounter poor people when they take the occasional short-term mission trip. Those sorts of engagements often only exacerbate the power dynamic that the rich have over the poor. Instead, the wealthy should encounter the poor in their family of faith, united under the common bond of Christ’s cleansing blood.

Economic diversity is one of the toughest forms of diversity for a community to accomplish. It takes something remarkable to bring people of different financial means together. Something, say, like the gospel.

13. Remind Them of their Need for—and the Availability of—God’s Miraculous Power

All hope seems lost when the rich young man walks away from Jesus’s offer of eternal life:

“How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 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! 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.” (Mark 10:23–24)

In response, the disciples begin to wonder if there’s any hope for the rich in this world: “And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?'” (Mark 10:26)

Jesus’s answer is something that we must cling to, teach, and model: “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God'” (Mark 10:27).

Oh how grievous it is that this verse is often wielded as a promise in pursuit of earthly riches. But the context is clear: It is very difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom. Very.

Who can thread a camel through the eye of a needle? God.

But who can thread a camel through the eye of a needle? God.

We need faithful pastors to do the hard, slow work of shepherding camels. And we need to trust God to make them fit. That’s our only hope.

Editors’ note: 

A version of this article originally appeared at rosslester.com

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