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Would Jesus Drive a BMW? A Conversation with Tony Campolo

In purely quantitative terms, we are told, Jesus logged more words about money during his three terrestrial teaching years than he did about most other subjects—eternal life, heaven, hell, hypocrisy, church discipline, sexual purity, you name it.

Sometime during the last couple decades, Tony Campolo picked up this detail in the Gospels—with a vengeance. Money, usually the lack of, is the thread that connects most of this sociology prof’s duties these days. He is founder and president of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, which conducts social programs in less-developed countries as well as with at-risk children and youth in urban America. He is minister at large for the Seattle-based World Concern. He is author of two dozen books, many of which take Christian readers to task for selling out to the modern American self-indulgent surfeit: Wake Up America! Answering God’s Radical Call While Living in the Real World (HarperSanFrancisco), 50 Ways You Can Feed a Hungry World (InterVarsity) with Gordon Aeschliman, andEverything You’ve Heard Is Wrong: There’s a Better Way to Win in Business and Life (Word). He’s penned several environmental books, too, and more articles than you can shake a $10 bill at.

Tony is also director of evangelism for the Christian Environmental Association and an associate pastor of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia.

And the ardent subject of this interview about money. And, no, Tony never did tell us what year car he drives.

Youthworker: In a recent conversation your name came up as the guy who said you can’t own a BMW and be a Christian. So what’s the deal with you and money, anyway?

Tony Campolo: Money is more dangerous than most things because it molds consciousness more than anything else. You tell me how much money a person makes, and I can make a pretty accurate guess about how he voted in the last election, what his views on Clinton are, what denominational affiliation he has, what he believes about the Second Coming and about the Holy Spirit. Money influences all of those factors.

Few things control our behavior more than our economic status. Jesus was aware of that—that’s why he said to the rich young ruler, “You’ve got to sell what you have and give it to the poor.” Not because the poor needed the money, but because the rich young ruler needed to be freed from the way in which money was conditioning his whole perspective on life.

John Wesley, who was winning people to Christ out of the lower socioeconomic strata of English society, found that converts stopped boozing, gambling, wasting their money, and instead became diligent and hardworking. Little by little, Wesley observed, they crept up the socioeconomic ladder. The more successful these new converts became, the more they turned away from Jesus and the more they thought foolish the doctrines that Wesley preached. “What shall we say then?” he wrote. “That they should not save their money? That they should not be industrious? No! We should say it is the duty of every man to work as hard as he can, to make as much money as he can, to spend as little as he can, so as to give away all that he can.”

Giving away money became for Wesley a protection against losing evangelistic zeal.

Youthworker: Then having money always affects behavior in a negative way?

Not absolutely. It’s just that Jesus said, “Not many rich and not many powerful and not many wise of this world end up being my followers.” Christianity is a religion built around a man who was rich and became poor, and I think that’s the first thing that must be said.

Youthworker: So—can you own a BMW and be a Christian?

Think of it: Here’s a car designed to do 200 miles per hour on the German autobahn and corner at 150. Why would anybody in the States, where the speed limit’s 55, want a BMW? The answer’s simple: The BMW is not a car, it’s a statement—a symbol of an individual’s status. The question for a Christian is this: In a world where there are such incredible needs, can I spend $60,000 on a status symbol? In the face of hunger and need and suffering, would Jesus say, “Hey, more important for me is buying a BMW”? If he were living today, I’d have a hard time believing he would do that.

Youthworker: You recall that Jesus not only sat down and ate with anybody, but he feasted with them. Yet it’s never recorded that he said, “I can’t eat this food. There are people out there starving.”

Jesus was a gentleman.

Youthworker: So he feasted against his better judgment?

It was simply that he knew how to enjoy things. He knew, with the Apostle Paul, how to abound and how to be in want. In short, Jesus could enjoy the good life without being seduced by it. I don’t think he would buy a BMW, but he would ride in one—and he wouldn’t rub the noses of those who had BMWs into the dirt.

There’s a great line by Saint Augustine: “Love God and do as you please.” The more you love God, the more the things that please you will change. The point is not whether you should have a BMW. The point is, what is it about you that makes you want this car? The issue is not so much spending $60,000 on a car; the issue is why you get pleasure out of that instead of getting your pleasure out of ministering to the poor and the oppressed.

Youthworker: Owning the right things used to appeal to kids. But like the Bo Jacksons and Barry Bonds, today’s kids are no longer into what money will buy or do. Simply having money is the greatest value for most kids. How do you deal with kids growing up in a culture that says the trappings of wealth may be important, but not as important as simply having money?

We blame a great deal on the culture in general which we ought to blame on parents in particular. It’s not so much that the kids are demanding a lot, as it is that the parents are pouring the stuff on them. Kids are often embarrassed by the money and things their parents inundate them with. When I take kids on mission trips, I’ve found that they get a lot more happiness out of giving stuff away in response to the needs of others. They seem to get more enjoyment out of this kind of giving than they do getting all their parents want to give them. Parents have done a terrible disservice to kids by pouring wealth onto their children as a guilt payment for not having done right by them in other ways.

I’ve also noticed a hunger among kids for something that far transcends this whole affluent lifestyle—they just don’t know what they’re hungry for. They don’t know the options. The failure of the youth leaders is that we have not presented the attractive, fulfilling alternative to the lifestyle that is being prescribed by the wealth of our time.

We’ve been saying to kids, “Live a sacrificial life for Jesus.” We shouldn’t put it in those terms. Living for Jesus is a very attractive alternative, with meaning and significance, and it presents kids with dreams and visions that the affluent lifestyle doesn’t offer.

Instead of condemning the affluent lifestyle of the dominant culture, we ought to be talking about how much following Jesus leads to ecstasy and significance in life.

Youthworker: So outline for us a letter to parents that explains how they can steer their kids into kingdom values regarding money.

Let me answer with a story. We run an inner-city program that requires around 300 young men and women to stay in Philadelphia with no pay and to live like slum dwellers, working for a summer among the poor. Once the kids’ applications start coming in, so does a barrage of phone calls from parents wanting to know one thing: “Isn’t it dangerous for my child to live among those black people in the slums, with those Hispanics in the ghetto?”

I ask them back, “Don’t you think it’s even more dangerous for your child to spend the summer out there in affluent Newport Beach where you live?” There’s always a pause on the other end of the line before the parent says, “I see what you mean. This is a dangerous place for my child.”

Most parents, even as they drop the wealth on their kids’ heads, are wise enough to see what it’s doing to them, and they wish there was an alternate way of showing love to them. But it’s the only way consumer-oriented individuals know how to show love—and they truly want their kids to know that they love them. Once a parent visualizes the alternative—giving her child an opportunity to serve the truly needy—the parent always ends up saying, “I think it would be a good thing if my teenager came to be with you for the summer.”

Youthworker: How do we help kids properly evaluate their self-worth when they learn from our culture that one’s personal value is based on income and possessions?

But can we blame a kid for thinking that her wealth determines her identity? Picture a kid who’s not doing well in school. The parents and the youth worker and the pastor all say, “Don’t drop out. Stay in school.” The kid asks the obvious question: “Why?” The answer’s going to be, “So you can get a good job.” The kid asks why, and the answer is “So you can get a lot of money.” If the kid asks why again, the answer is “So you can buy all of these things.” We even mobilize our athletes to go on television and urge kids to complete school for these reasons.

And what’s behind our mania for education? Getting jobs to make money.

When is the church going to stand up and say, “Stay in school. Get a good education in order to be better equipped to serve Jesus Christ and to serve those who are in need.” The minute that’s said, it breaks the satanic hold of materialism because the kid will stand back and say, “That’s right.” Only a handful will rebel against it.

If you do begin to say these things, however, you may face opposition from parents.

Youthworker: Which could put a youth worker out of a job.

But it’s about time that we acknowledge something. Contrary to books by Christian publishers that say how Jesus makes for wonderful family life, Christianity does not necessarily promote family solidarity. Instead it sets mother against daughter, daughter against mother, father against son, son against father. “Whoever said that I come to bring peace?” Jesus asked. “I come to bring a sword.” You cannot call kids to responsible Christian living without at times setting them at odds with their parents.

Parents usually hear “Make Jesus your choice and you’ll drive a Rolls Royce” theology in church, while their kids often hear sacrifice-and-service messages from their youth worker. To remedy this conflict, I suggest that parents have monthly meetings in which youth workers explain themselves, their values, and their biblical rationale. If you’re going to imbue the kids with a counter cultural value system, parents at least ought to be informed about it. Sure, some may pull their kids out of the group—or they may push you out.

Yet I sense that most parents worry about what a materialistic culture does to their kids. Even though they nurture their children into it, they’re scared of it.

Youthworker: But mixed messages from parents can confuse kids about the value of money. Teenagers begin to wonder if they should eschew money altogether.

Making money is a wonderful thing. The problem is spending it wisely. I go back to Wesley’s statement—we are supposed to make money so we can give it away. USA Today said that the disposable weekly income of an American teenager amounts to $70 per week. That means that young people are in a better position than adults to give money to meet the needs of the poor.

I was at a convention of 1,500 kids when they took up a $3,000 offering for the hungry in Somalia. “I can’t believe the sacrificial nature of all of you,” the emcee said in tears when he announced the total. The kids cheered like mad. But I’m thinking, That’s two bucks apiece. For lunch that day, most of those kids spent five dollars for pizza without blinking an eye. I believe kids can do better—want to do better—than pop two dollars apiece for the poor.

Instead of worrying why adults buy BMWs, we ought to be wondering what right a Christian kid has to buy a $95 pair of Nikes.

We ought to challenge kids to do something significant with their money for the kingdom of God. As it is, they give very little and then want accolades for doing it. In my opinion, it’s even questionable to raise money for a mission trip, if it is simply a new teenage adventure thing—”Hey, man, what did you do this summer?” “I went to Haiti and saw poor people.”

Youthworker: Isn’t it a step in the right direction?

I guess so. It can be the first step in sensitizing them. When they come back from those trips, they can at least be in a position to rethink what they do with their money.

Seldom do we challenge kids to do anything Christian with their money, but we fret about how to break money’s hold on young people. I’m not convinced it has that much of a hold on them. I have a feeling that they’re the way they are because churches—and specifically youth workers—have not presented to them a viable alternative, an attractive lifestyle that makes sense in the kind of world we live in. If we don’t challenge these kids to think seriously about money, we can’t talk to them about other forms of discipleship.

We think we’re going to make kids into disciples by starting Bible study groups and prayer groups. Not so. Let me quote Jesus: “You tell me where your money is, and I will tell you where your heart is.” He doesn’t say, “First you got to get your heart right.” When I was growing up I heard, “If people’s hearts were right with God, we’d have enough money to pay the bills in this church and support our missionaries.”

The preacher had it backwards. If we had their money, we would have their hearts.

Youthworker: There goes the youth pastor and the senior pastor out the door now.

Yet that’s exactly what the Bible says: Your money doesn’t follow your heart; your heart follows your money. Money controls consciousness much more than we are ready to admit.

Youthworker: So you advise youth workers to devote a good portion of the discipling they do in their groups to stewardship?

Yes. Please understand that when the rich young ruler came to Jesus, the first thing that Jesus dealt with was his money. Now, you would have thought that he would have dealt with sex, knowing how important that is to young people. Or peer pressure. Or obedience to parents. But Jesus’ first confrontation was with his money. The rich young rulers of our age are no different.

Youthworker: The most mundane expression of giving is the church offering. What kind of an offering would you like to see taken in a youth group?

One of the worst things to tell kids is that they should give money “to the church.” Most kids are uptight about the way churches spend money. They’re not particularly thrilled with the new carpet, the new tile on the roof, the new addition to the sanctuary—

Youthworker: Not even the new quarterlies.

Most kids see that not only have their parents bought into an affluent lifestyle, but the church has, too.

Start with widows and shut-ins. Ask the kids, “Would you like to give money so that this woman can have somebody come and clean her house and bathe her once a week?” Take them to an AIDS hospice and say, “Would you like to give your money so that this person can afford to pay for the television that he likes to watch in his room?” I think we have to let kids see how their money can be used to meet real needs in the community. “Would you like to pay for this kid’s teeth to get straightened?”

The church youth leader must be sensitive to what’s going on in the community and has to be constantly responding to those needs. Go down to the police station and find out who has been robbed. Ask the cops about the situations. “Oh, here’s a little old lady…” “Fine. We’re going to go to her house, and we’re going to drop off some money. We’re not even going to sing a song or introduce ourselves.”

I think the giving has to be done biblically. I’m sick and tired of youth groups who show up at Christmas with a Christmas basket and toys, and this poor, humiliated family has to sit there while they sing Christmas carols at them. The Bible is quite clear: When you give, make sure your left hand does not know what your right hand is doing.

You have an obligation to sneak up on the back steps, slip the money under the door, go to a telephone, call, and say, “There’s $500 under your door. It’s for you. This is God,” and hang up. Because then who gets the credit? To God be the glory.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS. 

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