This article was initially released as a blog post on the Desiring God blog.
There has been a good discussion on my article “Make It Free” over at Joshua Blankenship’s blog. It inspired me to address some of the main objections I often hear against my perspective that media ministries should post everything online, for free, without requiring registration, in a maximally usable interface.
Objection 1: People value what they pay for. Therefore, if you make all of your online sermon audio and other online content free, people won’t value it.
Response: This is the least powerful objection for a media ministry, in my opinion, simply because the gospel is free. Does that lead us to not value the gospel? Of course, some people will want to say, “Yes! Look around!” But surely God does not think so, because he is the one who made the gospel free. (As an aside, I would argue that when we don’t value the gospel properly, it’s because we’ve failed to recognize the depth of is freeness and have actually fallen into the mentality that we need to earn it “just a little bit.” When we truly begin to recognize that justification is completely apart from our works, that’s when we really begin to see the surpassing value of the gospel.)
Theological arguments aside, observation shows the premise to be false that “if it’s free, people won’t value it.” My favorite TV shows are 24 and Lost. They are all “free” to me—I watch them without paying a cent, and even skip the commercials. Yet I do not value them any less than if I had to pay for them. In fact, I have paid for episodes before on iTunes, and I didn’t value those any more than the ones that were free. Many other things in life are free and yet very valued.
The value that you place on something is often a reflection of the intrinsic worth of something or the cost someone else paid for it, rather than its cost to you. Further, in regard to resources like a sermon especially, the response we have to it may be costly to us in our actions. We may realize we need to start living this way or that, or do this or not to do that; or we may just be encouraged to stay a difficult course. Sermons bring this incredible after-the-fact cost; let’s not hinder that from happening by imposing a before-the-fact cost.
Objection 2: It dishonors the staff and volunteer hours and other work that went into producing the media, and the pastor’s time in preparing and preaching the sermon.
Response: You have the wrong people on your media team, and the wrong pastor in your pulpit.
Bottom line: When it comes to resources for edifying the church, the aim is not to preserve honor for the work in this way. The aim of the sermon is to edify and serve the church and the world. Christ calls us to sacrifice good things—in this case, the honor that comes from financial recompense for the work—for the sake of greater things. I wouldn’t deny that financial return for a resource bestows an honor on the work of all involved. But that’s not why they are doing the work; this is a good thing to sacrifice for the much greater goal of the work itself, which is to serve and spread. I would argue that, ironically, sermons and the creative efforts surrounding them are most honored when they are set free to spread and serve, without hindrance. This honors them most because it is most aligned with the purpose and nature of the sermons in the first place, which is to spread truth.
Objection 3: Do you think that making a profit is antithetical to serving others?
Absolutely not. Milton Friedman, the great Nobel Prize winning economist who brought capitalism back to life among academics in the latter part of the 20th century, is one of my heroes. I am fully on board with free market capitalism, for example, which has as one of its main implications that serving others in your work and making a profit are not at odds, but are ultimately the same pursuit. Further, I recognize that ministries that do charge are not doing so to make a profit per se, but to earn more money in order to produce more resources.
What I’m saying is that ministry work is in a different realm. While it is acceptable to charge for ministry resources, this also brings with it significant trade-offs that do not exist in the for-profit world. For example, it can create the appearance of peddling the word of God. It demonstrates God’s grace and generosity less fully, in exactly the realm where demonstrating generosity should be the fundamental guiding principle. And, as I argue in the original article, charging for online resources short-circuits the effectiveness of the work by creating a barrier to spreading.
The production of Christian resources is unique in that it is not mainly an artistic endeavor or profit-making service; it is a service per se, done for the good of others, at cost to oneself. The core of our message is that Christ gave of himself that through his sacrifice we might become rich; in ministry we imitate that best when we are willing to pursue the good of others at cost to ourselves—in this case, without receiving rightful remuneration.
But most vividly, this thinking cuts off creative thinking. The desire for security—often cloaked unintentionally in the mindset that “we have to charge so that we can keep making more resources”—covers up the flame of great thinking with the doldrums of boring, easy business models. As ministries, we are non-profit, and I think we mean that for real—it is not just a tax status to us. So let’s take advantage of that. Let’s do radical, risk-taking, great endeavors that simply could not be possible if we had to focus first on survival and the bottom line. If we go broke, fine. What a way to go out. Survival is not enough, anyway.
Objection 4: Do you disagree that ministries should be financially healthy?
Again, no. Usually. There are cases where we must sacrifice to our harm when there is a compelling reason of service that cannot be accomplished any other way. But as a usual course, it is best for ministries to be financially healthy. One of the things I’m saying is that charging online for resources is not very effective at doing this, and that if you make them free you spread your message further and will likely see more funding.
Also, keep in mind that I am speaking very specifically about the resource side of things, and in particular online resources. There are missions organizations, for example, that consist of running full-fledged businesses that sell commercial goods. Those ministries should not sacrifice financial strength in those areas. I am talking about the very specific matter of Christian resources, which are a unique case because of their unique nature and aim.
Objection 5: Most ministries don’t have the financial backing to offer things for free.
Offering things for free is a great place to start when seeking financial backing. It gives donors a compelling vision to give to. In other words, I think this objection has the order wrong. Second, this objection seems to assume that a ministry would make decent money from selling content online. I have my doubts that this will ever happen, although I grant that I could be wrong. The biggest obstacle, then, is finding the money to post the content. For that, see the first sentence of this paragraph.
Objection 6: Are you saying that charging is sinful?
No, I’m saying that it’s not a good idea for online media ministry resources. It undercuts effectiveness. This is not about right or wrong—do what you want. It’s about what will be most effective, what serves, and what is great.
Objection 7: But isn’t it good for the profits from one sermon to fund the cost of creating another resource?
I’m not against the concept of seeing content generate revenue so you can produce more content. I’m saying that there is a much better model for this than charging. Offering it free, no strings attached, will result in more funds if people that want to go deeper with the ministry are given the option to get involved. And it avoids the appearance of peddling the gospel and is an acted parable of the grace of God that is proclaimed in the sermons.
In the end, what I want to say is: “Who cares if we’re making money from sermons when such an intention seems by its very nature to reduce creativity and effectiveness?”