Money, Markets, and Ministry
Giving and Selling in the Mission of Desiring God
This booklet is a window into the heart of Desiring God (DG). John Piper wrote the original draft for the Board of Directors and staff of DG as a clarifying and unifying vision for how we ought to approach the giving and selling of our resources. In this edition we’ve collaborated together to make it most helpful for you.
We’re doing so because you partner with us in our mission or you may be considering it. And we want you to understand how we believe God is calling DG—especially in regard to how the mission ought to be financed.
This document is not primarily about what is right and wrong, but about how God is leading us through the dangerous waters of affluent American Christianity. We are not passing judgment on others, but simply describing our sense of call, not only to preach, but also to live and minister in a radical, God-centered, “to-live-is-Christ-to-die-is-gain” kind of way.
We certainly don’t do it perfectly. But as you read I hope you hear our heart and I pray that the Lord will unite your heart with ours in this vision for Christ and his kingdom.
Desiring God exists to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. We do this mainly by proclaiming and explaining the joyful truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, especially as unfolded in Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist.
The radical nature of what we are called to spread profoundly shapes the way we spread it. We are called to spread gospel-based passion for the supremacy of God. This passion satisfies the trusting heart and inclines it to renounce all sinful comforts and even many innocent comforts in this world so that it can give more freely, love more deeply, and display the infinite worth of Christ more truly.
Along with the content of what we teach, how we spread a passion for God is crucial for our integrity and authenticity. A radical message calls for radical strategies in ministry. God will, we believe, honor a risk-taking, God-centered mission-orientation in Desiring God. We tremble at the prospect of being or appearing like just another middle-class, comfortable, domesticated ministry which reflects the values of American consumerism more than the values of the One who had no place to lay his head and said, “Freely you have received; freely give.”
Paul’s Calling to Give Freely and Ours
One great danger hanging over our head in America is that we may look like we are doing the very thing the apostle Paul made every effort to avoid—namely, peddling God’s word. Since spreading a passion for the all-satisfying Christ is our first and overwhelming aim, we should learn from Paul how to remove every obstacle to this goal. In 2 Corinthians 2:17 Paul says,
We are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.
In Paul’s day, as in ours, many used the word of God to make money. They peddled it. Marketing was the strategy. Money was the goal. Paul was zealous to distance himself not only from this motive, but also from the appearance of it. This danger was a repeated concern for Paul. The issue comes up again in 1 Thessalonians 2:3–5.
For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness.
Paul was under attack as a flattering, greedy man-pleaser. He was so eager to be free from the charge of greed in his preaching that he called God to witness that he was not lying. He was not that kind of teacher.
But there were such greedy teachers. Paul deals with them in 1 Timothy 6:3–5. He says they act as though “godliness is a means of gain” (v. 5). Then he reminds Timothy that the faithful disciple of Jesus is content with food and clothing because he knows that we cannot take anything with us when we die. Therefore, we should avoid the snare and the appearance of having money as our treasure.
[These false teachers] are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. 6 Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, 7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8 But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.
Paul knew that his opponents were not genuine Christians, though some of them, during his life of ministry, even put themselves forward as “apostles.” What could he do to distance himself from these “super-apostles”? One of the things he could do was refuse to seek payment for preaching the gospel. This is the way he explains it in
2 Corinthians 11:5–12.
I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. . . 7 Did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God’s gospel to you free of charge? 8 I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. 9 And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied my need. So I refrained and will refrain from burdening you in any way. . . 12 And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do.
God honored Paul’s commitment to make the gospel free by inclining churches he had planted to help him make it free for others. In other words, his strategy worked. He won people to Christ by his authenticity and by not charging for the gospel. The result was that new believers supported this very strategy with their gifts. The gifts from other churches were not a reversal of Paul’s strategy, but a vindication of it. They were not paying for the gospel; they were enabling Paul to offer it to others without payment.
Paul was persuaded that the appearance of selling the gospel of free grace would put a stumbling block in its way. It would make it harder for people to see the true nature of the message and the Savior. This is the way he argues in 1 Corinthians 9:6–19. First, he affirms that he has the right to ask people to make contributions when he preaches:
Is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? 7 Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? (1 Corinthians 9:6–7)
But then in verse 12 he renounces this right for the sake of the gospel:
Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.
The issue for Paul is not what is rightfully permitted, but what is the most radically fruitful, as God helps him discern his situation.
Paul renounces “rights” in order to maximize his “reward.” Living by his rights would gain him worldly goods; living for reward will gain him heavenly treasure:
I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision . . . 18 What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. 19For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. (1 Corinthians 9:15, 18–19)
So we see three motives—or three ways of expressing one motive—that move Paul not to charge money for the word of God:
- To remove every obstacle to the gospel;
- To win more people to Christ;
- To increase his heavenly reward.
Paul’s burden to keep the gospel free is in line with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10:8,
Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay.
What is remarkable about this text is that two verses later Jesus says to the same disciples,
[Acquire] no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. (Matthew 10:10)
In other words, Jesus distinguishes between charging for the gospel (“give [the gospel] without pay”) and accepting free gifts for support in preaching the gospel freely (“the laborer deserves his food”). In another place Jesus calls the people who support his disciples “sons of peace.”
If a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. 7And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. (Luke 10:6–7)
In other words, don’t move from house to house looking for the best food and softest bed. Even when you are being supported, find a way to signal that comfort is not your aim. This means that both Jesus and Paul distinguished between demanding pay for the gospel, on the one hand, and receiving gifts of support, on the other (Luke 10:7-8; 2 Corinthians 11:9). Generosity from Christians who believe in the free preaching of the gospel is the means of making the gospel free, not an illustration of selling it.
If it was true in Jesus’ day and Paul’s day that the appearance of peddling the word of God hindered people from coming to Christ, it is probably all the more true in our day. The issue is not merely, What is permitted? But rather: What, in our situation, best magnifies the all-satisfying, all-caring, all-providing Christ?
How Shall We Think About Paul’s Strategy?
We should try to be clear in our terminology. The duty of people to support those who preach the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:6–14) is not the same as the duty of the preacher to demand pay for preaching. Therefore to jump from the right to receive support to the right to charge for preaching is a mistake. The fact is, Paul never charged for his preaching, nor did any other apostle, as far as we know. They obeyed Jesus command, “You received without paying; give without pay” (Matthew 10:8). The pattern we see in the New Testament is that the preaching of the gospel is never sold, but the converts to this the gospel support this kind of preaching.
This is what we saw in 2 Corinthians 11:9, and this is what we see in virtually all Christian churches, including Bethlehem Baptist Church. The gospel is preached freely. That is, no one is charged to come to the worship service. No one must pay to hear the gospel. Rather, those who love the gospel and want it to be preached freely support the church by giving tithes and offerings. This giving should not be called “paying to hear the gospel.” That would be misleading. The gospel is preached free of charge. No one must pay to hear it. But the laborer is worthy of his labor. So the lovers of the gospel support this free distribution by their own free gifts.
It is important to stress that even this general support is not strictly payment for services rendered. That also would be misleading also. It would imply a constraint that is not there. We see this especially in 2 Corinthians 9:7–8.
Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all contentment in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.
Thus Paul distanced himself from selling the gospel in a double way: 1) he refused to charge for his preaching, and 2) he treated the support of this free preaching as “not under compulsion.” He did not charge the audience, and he did not charge the churches. He preached for free and trusted God to put it in the heart of the churches to support him. (We should not bring in here the tent-making work of Paul as though that had some counterpart in Desiring God. If one of our friends worked off hours at Sears and donated time to us, that would be the way tent-making figures in.)
I’ve heard some compare those who preach for free and are supported by Christians to a man who refuses payment from his employer and then mooches off his friends. There are two ways that this comparison breaks down. First, those who hear the gospel are not in the position of an employer, and those who preach are not in the position of employees. That kind of contract does not exist between preacher and hearer, and the expectations attending it should not be applied to gospel preaching. Second, and most importantly, the “friends” who support the preacher do so, not because they are constrained by a moocher, but because they love the radical commitment to take risks in order to make the gospel free.
It distorts things badly, for example, to think of those who support non-charging, gospel-spreading ministries as “enablers” of mooching. Donors to missions are not supporting the bad habit of mooching. They are supporting the radical, risk-taking, counter-cultural vision of offering the gospel freely, which goes against the consumerist tide and a money-driven mentality. There are people looking for such radical gospel-spreaders to support. Partnering with them in the cause of making the gospel as free as possible is a beautiful thing.
It may be helpful to remember that the audience we seek to reach is not defined by any Christian commitment or church connection. We are spreading a passion for the supremacy of God to all who will hear and believe. Though most of the people we currently reach are professing Christians, we are trying to expand our reach more and more to non-Christians, nominal believers, and Christians who have not learned to magnify Christ by being radically satisfied in him. Therefore, we should continually think of making our message as accessible and free as possible and not think of our audience as well-to-do Christians who can afford and ought to pay.
God’s Call on Us to Depend on the Grace of Giving
How shall we depend on the grace of God? Shall we depend on his common grace through the ordinary market dynamics of a retail store? Or shall we depend on his grace through the spiritual dynamics of free giving that is typical of a church or a mission? Suppose we think of our message as food and ask: Are we a grocery store or a relief agency? Our answer: We are called to be more like a relief agency than a grocery store. We are aggressively seeking ways to get life-saving truth into the hands of people ravaged by the calamity of the fall.
What could Paul say to explain his choice in 2 Corinthians 11:8–9 to “burden” some churches with his support, while not burdening the very ones he was ministering to? He could only appeal to his personal sense of call. At that time, in that situation, it seemed good to remove every stumbling block and avoid every hint of appearing to peddle the word of God (2 Corinthians 2:17). This choice was not a divine mandate. It was a personal sense of calling and strategy that he discerned from God in that critical hour.
That is the way we feel about the position we are in just now in the American marketplace of evangelicalism and celebrity hype. We have the “right” to be primarily a store. We have the right to sell as much or as little as we want. But my conviction is that to think of ourselves mainly as a store which sells truth fairly, instead of a ministry that spreads truth freely, is not God’s call on our lives.We don’t believe that, for us right now, selling the truth is the way to protect the message of the all-satisfying glory of Christ from reproach. We don’t believe it is the way God will be most honored, and we don’t think it is the way the message will spread most widely.
Practical Implications for Selling and Giving at Desiring God
Here is my effort to discern God’s way for us to apply these truths in our situation:
1. In general, let’s sell what is packaged, and give what is wired. That is, sell books, CD’s, booklets, etc., but make all that can be read, heard, or downloaded over the internet free.
Rationale: I know that all choices about what to sell and give are going to be somewhat arbitrary. But this distinction between what is packaged and what is wired is not entirely arbitrary. We distinguish between paying for the gospel, on the one hand, and paying for material objects that contain the gospel, on the other hand. We would rightly stumble over the former but accept the latter.
As technology progresses and the gospel containers change, this particular distinction will eventually become obsolete. But the principle of not requiring people to pay for the gospel will continue to govern the way we finance our spreading strategies. And as we look to the future we are not looking for new gospel containers to sell but rather new, innovative ways to make the gospel more freely available.
2. In all our pricing, let’s think primarily of what the price communicates about our values, and secondarily of how the margin will fund the part of the ministry that is not covered by our supporters.
Rationale: This is necessarily fuzzy on both counts: 1) what the price communicates, and 2) how much of the ministry the margin will cover.
1) What I want to communicate by our prices is that we are a ministry, not a store. We are trying to make things as accessible as possible even when we sell them. We are not trying to get rich or to use precious spiritual things to pad our life-styles. We are committed to a wartime mentality.
2) The other part of the equation in pricing is how the margin is determined in relation to the expenses of the ministry. I said this is a secondary consideration. It is made difficult because the percentage of the ministry expenses covered by gifts is fluid and unpredictable. Here, it seems to me, we are cast upon the Lord for his help.
3. If Christian Hedonism is ice cream, let’s not think of DG mainly as a Dairy Queen, but an ice cream truck. Let’s drive our “truck” into people’s visual and auditory neighborhoods and ring our bell to attract attention to the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.
Rationale: Our mission is not simply to make our resources available. Our mission is to spread. This is where most of our aggressive energy should be invested: new listeners and new readers. We should strive against the mentality that we are here and others should come find us and buy or download from us. Instead our mentality should be to find more and more ways to reach more and more people with the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
4. Let’s continue our whatever-you-can-afford policy.
Rationale: This sends a loud message that underlies the whole ministry. We are here to serve and help and spread a passion for the supremacy of God. We will trust God to help us make up the “losses” (which are really gains) from ministering to the poor.
5. Let’s continue in the direction of increasing donor funding for Desiring God.
Rationale: I view each DG staff member who communicates to supporters as a kind of Epaphroditus for DG. Epaphroditus was the mediator between the Philippian Christians and the needs of Paul. The Philippian Christians supported Paul all along his missionary journey after he had planted that church. After receiving support from them through Epaphroditus, Paul wrote,
It was kind of you to share my trouble. 15 And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. 16 Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. (Philippians 4:14)
We don’t know if Epaphroditus was the messenger to Paul from the Philippians in those cases, but we do know he was the messenger from Philippi to Paul in Rome. Paul wrote,
I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Philippians 4:18–19)
In Philippians 2:25 Paul called him “your messenger and minister to my need.” In other words, Epaphroditus was the mediator between the Philippian generosity and Paul’s need. Paul was sending him back with thanks and said that the believers should “receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me” (Philippians 2:29–30).
This is the way we see the staff of DG. One calling on us is to articulate our vision and strategy so that people can freely decide if this is what they want to support. Each person on our team should be prepared to mediate between the ministry of Desiring God and the “Philippians” whose gifts are “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18).
Our future lies in God’s hands. Let us expect great things from God and attempt great things for God. Let us work hard and then say with the apostle Paul, “Nevertheless it was not I but the grace of God which is with me.” Let us stay ever alert to the deadly lure of the American consumeristic, materialistic, comfort-seeking, security-demanding, heaven-ignoring mentality in ministry and lifestyle. Let us remember that we are in a war and that the time is short and the stakes are high. Only the truth sets free. People are perishing and millions have little or no access to the truth. Dangers abound to lure us into a peace-time mentality and business-as-usual approach to life. May the way we do our ministry shout to the church and the world: DG must really believe what they say.
Jesus satisfies the soul forever and frees us for radical lives of love, so let us hold fast to that last great promise Paul gave to the Philippians:
And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19)