Recently I attended a global Christian conference in Latin America. Shared rooms for the conference cost 750 USD per person for four days. That works out at nearly 190 USD a day.
As I sat down for a lavish breakfast, I felt very guilty. Had I too become part of a prosperity gospel culture? Should I even have been there? Would Jesus have felt comfortable in this kind of environment, especially when attending a conference of his followers?
It reminds me of a conference in India that I organised a few years ago. To make it as accessible as possible for people to attend, we used a Catholic seminary as a venue. In the end it cost 25 USD per person all inclusive. The rooms were comfortable but very basic. We had to use buckets for showers. When a missionary friend later asked whether our conference was missionary class, I said ‘No – it was bucket class!’
The next week, I attended a major mission conference in the same city. This was held in a five-star hotel and must have cost close to 200 USD per person per night. The contrast between the conference I had organised and the mission conference could not have been greater. I couldn’t help wondering: should Christian conferences be at five-star or bucket-class venues?
‘There is a danger that Christian leaders speak about concern for the poor and then demonstrate the direct opposite.’
Leading by example
In response to the questions raised, here are a few thoughts to consider:
1. Often Christian leaders who attend conferences at expensive venues are financially supported in their work by poor people. Could these leaders fall into the same trap as the teachers of the law who ‘devour widows’ houses’ for their own benefit (see Mark 12:38–40)?
2. By having conferences at expensive venues, Christians run the risk of showing their love of money, which in the end is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10). Christian leaders can stumble into the same materialistic culture that they might preach against.
3. Many leaders rationalise organising events at expensive venues on the basis that there are no better places to stay in a city, especially for larger groups. Quite often that is not the case.
4. We create two classes of Christian leaders – those (mostly from the West) who can attend the conferences with their own funding and those (mostly from lower-income countries) who receive sponsorship from organisers to attend the events.
Should I have cancelled my participation in the conference in Latin America? At one point I thought of doing that! I settled for making a complaint to the conference organisers.
But should we organise our conferences at bucket-class venues? My recent experience made me think that is where Jesus would have organised his conferences so that poor people could attend too, without being sponsored by the rich.
Finding a middle ground
Perhaps, though, there is a middle ground to be found. After all, there is value in a moderate venue providing a space for rest and refreshment of the body as well as the mind after a long day at a conference.
Cost and value need to be considered in a wider context. Does an organiser have a long-term relationship with a venue that helps to sustain local employment? Are they thinking about the treatment and payment of staff, or other ethical values such as environmental concerns? For example, Tearfund would be more likely to support an event where we can have big water dispensers and refillable bottles than one where we had to use a lot more plastic water bottles.
So in my opinion, it’s better to save some of the outlay on costly rooms and lavish meals. After all, we are stewarding God's financial resources. If those savings are spent addressing some of the local and ethical concerns outlined above or on making the conference more accessible to a wider group of society, then that’s a step in the right direction.
Find out more about international gatherings organised by Tearfund.