“So that was a friendly Christian person?”
After making that statement, one of my coworkers—a divorced, unbelieving, agnostic man working two jobs to pay child support—tossed a credit card receipt with a circle around the subpar tip he had received from a Christian individual sitting at his table. In fact, the tip was less than subpar—barely 10% on a $90 bill. I might have let his comments go in one ear and out the other if it was an isolated incident, but sadly it was not. I thought about ignoring him, but I have been attempting to share the gospel with this coworker for quite some time. “Not all Christian people treat others that way,” I said softly.
I have been serving tables at a restaurant for several years in order to support my wife and children and to pay my way through graduate school. Over and over again I have observed Christian people (or people who identify themselves as Christian people) come into the restaurant at which I work, pray for their food after acting rudely toward their server, leave a 10% tip (give or take a few percent) and a gospel tract with the check, and then leave.
Whether Christians are aware of it or not, a subpar tip left for a server (especially an unbelieving server) is a stumbling block in communicating the gospel. It causes unbelieving servers to think that we, as Christians, value money over everything and everyone else (1 Tim 6:10). So, my coworker, like many other servers around the country, interprets such actions (poor tips from alleged Christian people) as stingy-greed. Tragically, the result—though it may be unfair to some degree on their part—is that many servers have identified the majority of Christians as a contingent of people who care little for others. Why? Primarily because they hear Christians promise them that God is just and fair and that he is a generous King who is lavish with his mercy and kind toward others. Christians promise them that the gospel they preach is for all people right before they metaphorically clinch their money in their fist and tip poorly; refusing money to laborers who are worthy of their wages (1 Tim 5:18; Matt 10:10).
Now, to be sure, believers and unbelievers can leave poor tips; believers and unbelievers can leave fair tips. But, the Scripture teaches that Christians, more than all people, should be a people characterized by generosity and love, not simply “fairness”, because they were first loved even though they were most underserving (1 John 4:19). It seems that the deeper issue is not a knowledge of what is culturally fair or economically acceptable when it comes to tipping restaurant servers. Rather, the issue is a lack of recognition by Christian people that they have received out of God’s fullness (John 1:16); that they have received because God generously provided his Son for us and for our salvation (Rom 5:8; 1 John 4:9).
Poor tipping by Christians endangers the Great Commission
What Christians may not realize is that they are in danger of living inconsistently with the gospel they preach by tipping restaurant servers poorly. Indeed, poor tips are the equivalent of what Moses teaches in Deuteronomy 25—muzzling an ox when it is treading out grain (Deut 25:4 – later, the Apostle Paul would say the same thing in 1 Tim 5:18). It is relinquishing responsibility to the Great Commission because the gospel is about grace. Of all the people in the world, Christians should be a people who understand that they are unworthy to be recipients of the great mercy, grace and generosity shown them in Christ. Even an unbelieving person can tip fairly, but Christians should be more than “fair” tippers, they should be generously-fair because God has generously provided redemption for them through his Son, Jesus Christ (see the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Matt 18:21-35; Lk 7:47).
On another occasion, a local pastor came in with his wife to eat and left a 13% tip, which made his bill an even number. The question we should ask ourselves is, “Did his less than generously-fair tip compel this women to visit his church or believe the gospel he preaches when the laborer, whose wages he has kept back for himself, cries out against him (James 5:4)?” The woman I work with who served his table has been separated from her husband for over two years. She desperately needs the gospel, but she has identified the gospel that Christians preach with their stingy restaurant tipping.
Again, it seems that the deeper heart issue in a moment like this is that many Christians have deceived themselves into believing that this action is trivial and does not matter in the grand scheme of God’s providence. They believe that no one will ever see or know about how they defrauded another person. But that is not the picture that the Scripture paints—indeed, the Scripture teaches that Someone does see and hear and is paying very careful attention to all of the actions that we think do not matter in this life (Josh 7; 2Cor 5:10), whether one is a Christian or not. In an attempt to communicate that there is something far more cosmically significant at stake (i.e. the salvation of the server) Christians should tip their servers generously-fair.
For the Christian, generously-fair tipping shouldn’t be contingent upon the dining experience
When a Christian determines the tip percentage of their bill based on quality of service or uniqueness of the dining experience, they contradict grace and flirt dangerously with greed. They flirt with greed because they forget, at least momentarily, that underserved grace is shown to them everyday.
Recently, I have dialogued with a variety of Christian people whose argument on why it is acceptable to tip poorly—or less than generously-fair—goes something like this, “Servers understand that their job is to sell themselves to me so that I tip them well. So, if they fail to meet my dining expectations then I am not obligated to reciprocate with a fair tip after paying for the meal.” Though this may seem reasonable, it is precisely this desire to prefer the self (in this case, by preferring the dining experience) that must be crucified when it comes to tipping generously-fair, especially by a professed Christian person. When the patron, especially the Christian patron, prefers himself by preferring their dining experience he fails to communicate that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of grace, that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for people unworthy of its blessing (Jesus came to heal those in need of a physician, Mark 2:17), that because of the gospel of Jesus Christ there are things that are far more significant than a pleasurable dining experience. The real heart issue when it comes to poor tipping by a Christian is a lack of awareness of how great and vast the debt was that God generously and graciously forgave because he loves us.
Now, the reader needs to understand that I am not saying that patrons do not have the right to communicate that their dining experience was poor. I am saying, however, that leaving a subpar tip does not communicate that the dining experience was poor (unfortunately, it often happens, as in the two accounts mentioned above, when service was superb and when the patron had no complaint). Rather, the Christian patron should tip generously-fair and then notify a manager or supervisor of the lack of service. The Christian tips generously-fair for two reasons: firstly, they recognize that the importance of their dining experience is irrelevant when it comes to communicating the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ and, secondly, they recognize that they too have received grace upon grace though they were unworthy to be recipients of it. Regardless of the dining experience, all persons created in the likeness of God deserve a fair wage (Gen 1:27). For the server, tips are wages, not donations.
Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly: generously-fair tipping
So, what is a generously-fair tip at a restaurant?
Before I give a percentage on what seems to be the minimum tip that I think should be left for a server at a restaurant, the reader should consider at least two things: firstly, there are two types of people working as servers: Christians and non-Christians. Both deserve fair wages, just like any other person deserves a fair wage, simply because they are humans created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and, secondly, when Christians sit at a restaurant table they assume the role of a master or boss; the Scripture commands that they treat their slave/server justly and fairly because they too have a Master in heaven (Col 4:1).
For the sake of the success of the Great Commission among employees in the service industry, Christian patrons should understand that 18% gratuity is the new 15% in 2012. This is the reason that restaurants ask, for a big party, if the check should reflect an 18% or 20% gratuity (formerly, restaurants asked if you wanted 15% added to the check). Due to the economy and cost of living, 18% is considered a fair wage for a server now. Just as minimum wage increases every once in a while to accommodate for rising costs of living, so it is for servers and the percentage that is considered a fair tip. But again, fairness is a standard that anyone can provide—even the Gentiles do this (Matt 5:46-48)—the Scripture calls Christians to be a people who are generously-fair in hopes that through their generously-fair tipping, especially in circumstance when it is underserved, that they might declare the excellence of him who calls sinners out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9; Col 1:13-14).
Sadly, a large portion of the people that I work with have received less than generously-fair tips from many customers who have identified themselves with the gospel. As a result a significant portion of non-Christians working as servers have distanced themselves from the gospel preached to them by Christians. It seems that the only way to rectify this is if Christians recognize their position in Christ—they are the recipients of unmerited grace by a generous God—repent of their greed, refuse to cling to their money, store up their treasure in heaven and give generously-fair so that others may know that their treasure is indeed found in Someone else—Jesus Christ (Matt 6:19-21).