Moneychangers in the temple?

daveramseyThe Associated Press had a fascinating look Dave Ramsey, a finance guru. What’s the religion angle? Well, apparently one of his major markets is Christian churches. And he mixes Christian teachings with his message of living debt free and saving money. Jay Reeves penned the piece which is full of information, particularly for an AP piece. Here’s how it begins:

With the economy gasping for life last spring, about 1.3 million people gathered in 5,600 churches nationwide to behold the nation’s leading prophet of personal finance.

Televised live from a church in Edmond, Okla., Dave Ramsey’s infomercial-style “Town Hall for Hope” was a masterful mix of inspiration, humor, advice, marketing and the Bible from a man dressed in jeans, dark jacket and an open-collar shirt.

“Hope is a gift of the Holy Spirit,” Ramsey told a nationwide audience that included the Fox Business Network, available in 50 million homes. Later: “The Bible says the diligent prosper.”

At its core, the 90-minute show was a millionaire preaching to a struggling flock, and it raised anew the question of whether Ramsey’s hugely profitable, tax-paying business — which he describes as a ministry — fits with Jesus’ teachings.

The piece goes on to quote a variety of people but that central question in the paragraph above is never really broached. One man, for instance says Dave Ramsey’s business is an unholy alliance of business and church:

“It’s not a ministry. To me, it’s an insult to the word,” said [John] Hoffman, who lives near Logan, Kan. “It would be nice if it got out of the churches and got into the mainstream.”

Ramsey doesn’t deny mixing religion and business, and he doesn’t apologize for getting rich doing it, either. Business is a ministry, he says, and good ones prosper by serving people the way God wants them to.

“Worship is work-ship, so I don’t separate work from ministry,” Ramsey said recently at his headquarters in suburban Nashville, where he does his syndicated radio and cable TV shows. Bible verses, crosses and photos of Ramsey decorate the building.

Normally I love it when reporters just quote people and leave it at that, but I feel like both of these quotes could have used more context or explanation. For instance, it would be helpful to know why Mr. Hoffman thinks it’s an insult to describe Ramsey’s business as a ministry. I’m curious if he has the same view I have on the matter or if he approaches it from another angle. Unfortunately, it’s not explained.

And I generally think jargon should be avoided in quotes. The phrase “worship is work-ship” makes no more sense to me than its inverse — it would help if the reporter could explain it.

The article includes a lot of details about Ramsey’s business and his back story. Some of the religious details are incredibly helpful, such as when we learn that Ramsey is building off the financial teachings of John Wesley and adding a ‘no debt’ clause. But other times there are these quotes with too little context or substantiation:

“It was a way to make money instead of deliver a message,” said [T.J.] Graff, whose Internet-based business sells truck supplies. “I think it’s no different than the money changers in the temple if you want to go biblical.”

Again, and I say this as someone inclined to agree with this quote, it would be nice to know why Graff is saying this. And while there is a quote from two other laypeople saying they don’t mind his wealth (which we learn about in detail), a bit more from theologians would be nice. Not to beat a dead horse here, but this quote made me want to know more:

Alexander Hill, author of “Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace,” said churches can inadvertently become a tool for marketers as they try to help members through a tough economy.

“I think it’s fine for churches to provide services for the congregants, and that can be profit or nonprofit,” said Hill, president of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry based in Madison, Wis. “It’s the potential confusion that is a concern.”

Confusion about what? Whether the job of the church is to save souls or checking accounts? Or what? I share Hill’s concern so I want more meat on this quote. Even if I didn’t share his concern I would want to know a bit more about what, exactly, could be the confusion.

Still, even though I’m quibbling here, it’s a really interesting story and one of those that make you realize how much religion news may be missed by the mainstream media. You have tons of people who seek or follow Ramsey’s advice and yet there’s very little coverage. I don’t necessarily think it needs to be so adversarial to be interesting, but it’s a great topic for a reporter.

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  • Mark Byron

    Ramsey’s radio show is on one of the secular talk radio stations here in Lexington, and it wasn’t until I saw a flier for one of his seminars at our church that I knew he was an active Christian. It’s not that the show is ungodly, but he lowballs the Christian content when he’s speaking to a secular audience.

    In most of the other areas where I have lived (Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Florida), Crown Financial, the late Larry Burkett’s outfit, seemed to have a corner on the Christian financial advice market; I didn’t hear of Ramsey until I moved to Lexington

  • Bobby Ross

    Mollie, interesting post.

    Not sure if you consider Religion News Service the mainstream media, but I covered the actual event last spring and wrote a freelance piece profiling Ramsey on deadline for RNS. So my friends at RNS were about four months ahead of my former colleagues at The Associated Press on this particular story. :-)

  • Bob Smietana

    Ann Rodgers did a piece on Ramsey a while back. We did one in the Tennessean last fall, but it’s no longer online. He’s got the megachurch -preacher approach down pat, making his presentation entertaining/emotional/inspiring — kind of the anti Ben Stein.

  • Mollie

    Thanks for the links, guys. And we definitely consider RNS mainstream.

  • FzxGkJssFrk

    The primary thing that tweaked me about this article (and the RNS one) is the use of the word “prophet” in the lede. Strikes me as a loaded word when they’re trying to draw the megachurch-pastor parallel – particularly given that the Town Hall for Hope event was the first of its kind that Ramsey has done. As a longtime Ramsey listener/advisee, I concur with Mark’s assessment above – he doesn’t hide his Christianity, but he is first and foremost a financial adviser, and as the article mentions, the vast majority of radio stations carrying his broadcasts are secular. (Not to mention the Fox Business Network).

  • Mike Hickerson

    It’s too bad that more theologians and pastors weren’t consulted for the article. Alec Hill is a good start (and I don’t just say that because I work for InterVarsity), but the last 15-20 years have seen a proliferation of books, ministries, and writers looking at the idea of “business as ministry.” (IV’s last Urbana had a whole segment devoted to that idea.) It’s a complicated idea with many variations, which is difficult to convey in a short article. Mere quotes without context don’t do justice to either proponents or opponents of the idea. There’s a “history of ideas” behind the quotes that needs to be teased out.

  • Darrell Turner

    Rosa Salter Rodriguez, the fine religion writer for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, localized the AP story in a sidebar that accompanied it in the paper:

    This is a good approach for hometown reporters to take in connection with wire stories, seeing how they do or do not apply in the paper’s circulation area.

    Darrell Turner (former religion writer for the JG)

  • Andy

    I have to be honest, I get tired of the tedious “If you’re wealthy, you’re not an authentic Christian” articles.

    It would be much better to simply acknowledge that things like wealth, beauty, prosperity, success, etc are blessings out of God’s boundless grace, but if we lose that perspective, they also have great potential to lure one into moral danger and complacency by creating the illusion of self-sufficiency.

    From what I’ve heard of Dave Ramsey on the radio (it was a while ago), I get the impression that he’s humble in his acknowledgment that it’s by God’s grace that he is where he is, and because of that gratitude, he’s generous in his own giving.

  • Andy

    Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting a health & wealth gospel. ;)

    I just don’t think those things are necessarily bad.

  • Mari

    I’ve been listening to DR for a while and I notice it is the callers who more often refer to his work as ministry than he does and I just figured it was nothing. Also I attended the “Town Hall for Hope” in a coffee shop run by a church in a part that they use to have multi-media presentations. So it was geared more so to churches that have that sort of set up, not smaller venues where all the tech is on the church secretary’s desk.
    It would have been better if the article had quotes from churches that sponsor/host Financial Peace University, or a wider view marketing targeting the Christian market. The sad thing is the tone that makes DR seem like some schuckster. He is a finance guy who doesn’t hide his faith and he lets it invade parts of his business. But the tone of the article seems to expect him to be a charity.

  • Chris

    In reference to the comment, “he low-balls Christian content to secular audiences”, Dave ends every radio and fox business show with “There’s only one way to financial peace and thats through the Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus”. You can’t get any more straight forward than that. Everything he does is to share the gospel with those who haven’t heard it. Is that a crime that he makes money at the same time?

  • Gogo

    I share your sentiments exactly on this article. I couldn’t have said it better. I don’t know much about Dave Ramsey, haven’t read any of his books, watched him, or anything else, but I’d heard some of his ideas from Christians I know who were definitely fans.

    I read the article with interest and came away asking exactly the same questions you seem to be asking. In my mind I just hoped Mr. Graff wasn’t saying that the seminar should be less “just because he’s a christian, a minister” or anything else.

    I just found the whole article a bit disturbing.