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The Ministry of Free

The Ministry of Free

I recently attended a one-day conference for people in full-time (vocational) Christian ministry. During the conference it was advertised that the talks would be available for purchase as an audio and video package—$45 conference special ($55 post-conference). I sent an email to the people producing the talks, asking if I could just buy a single talk in MP3 format, instead of all the talks and videos on DVD. I received this response:

“We don’t split packages or sell individual speakers because it’s just a logistical nightmare for us. We used to do it 20-30 years ago, but it was all too hard – takes too much labour, staff and administration time.”

This response confused me. Every week at my church we record the sermons by the preacher. The software we use is free. After the sermon we chop off any extra that has been recorded, and upload the sermon to the church website. From the time the service is finished, to the time the sermon is available on the church website you would barely have enough time to go to the bathroom. The only costs incurred by the church are those to maintain the web server and uploads/downloads (approximately $50 per month).

So why was I getting charged twice—once to attend the conference, and a second time to hear the talks that I had already paid to hear?

Should we charge a fee for people to access sermons or conference messages? Let’s take a look at three models of distributing sermons that I’ve encountered.

1) The “You want it, you pay for it” model

In this model, you can purchase a sermon online and you can either download the sermon to listen to on your computer, or be sent the sermon on CD in the mail.

The main argument ministries use in favor of the ‘you want it, you pay for it’ model is that charging for some resources enables the development of other resources, and supports the continuation of the ministry. For example, Ian Carmichael from Matthias Media explains that “in pricing, we try to recover not only our direct manufacture costs, but the costs of improving the sound quality (and for audio CDs dividing the sermon into tracks). We also have significant overheads (rent, salaries, etc) which we like to contribute towards through audio sales.”

Yet numerous ministries that charge for their products are receiving their income from elsewhere. The preacher who sells his sermons is supported by his church. Their generous giving enables him to continue his ministry. That is, they could offer these resources for free, and still continue the ministry.

2) The “Buy some, get some free” model

In this model, some resources are provided for free, but additional resources, or higher quality resources are made available for a fee. This model is less restrictive, and by making the sermons available but charging a premium for extra features or higher quality, the sermons are still reasonably accessible.

There is however, a third, and in my view, superior model.

3) The “Put away your wallet” model

In our society, free is a rare and beautiful thing. Everything costs money. You even pay to use public restrooms in some countries. Free is a great sign to unbelievers of the grace that has been revealed to us in Christ Jesus. During the last school holidays my church ran a holiday club for kids in the local area. It ran for 3 hours for three afternoons. I had a conversation with a mother who was new to the area and who wasn’t a Christian. She just couldn’t understand why it was free. She was genuinely perplexed. I explained that we think kids are important and that running activities for kids is something we enjoy and think is worthwhile. I’m not sure if she would have come if we had charged money. What a witness our pricing model was.

These ministries are great models of making sermons (and other resources) freely available:

Mitchelton Presbyterian Church in Brisbane, Australia offers a large resource archive (with sermons, text and Bible studies free to download, with the invitation to make a donation.

Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland similarly offers all their resources for free, with a link to “Give to support the resource library.”

Mars Hill Church in Seattle provides all their talks in multiple formats (MP3, video, vodcast, podcast) along with other ministry resources, such as video biographies of famous hymn writers.

The mother of them all is Desiring God. This resource library includes articles, sermons, books, study guides, biographies and much more. It is a massive collection, all offered at no charge.

5 reasons not to charge for your content
It has probably been obvious from the outset that I am passionate about this last model of making sermons available. Here are the five main reasons why:

Profitability isn’t our purpose.
As a Christian ministry, your purpose is to make Jesus known. I fear we’ve forgotten this purpose, and are slipping into models of ministry that value profitability more than the urgency and joy of proclaiming the gospel.

Payment is a barrier to access.
Or to put this into the positive, removing the requirement for payment opens up millions of opportunities to get the message out there. Take for example Mark Driscoll, who received approximately 10 million downloads of his sermons in the past 12 months. If the average price of his sermons were, for example $2, would his sermons have been downloaded as many times? It is very unlikely. Regardless of whether the price is $2 or $36, charging for resources presents an obstacle to those resources being listened to and distributed.

Don’t risk greed and false motives.
When we charge people to download sermons, there is the potential for speakers to become cash cows. For example, “let’s get Speaker X to come to our conference next year because we will l make lots of money when people download the talks afterwards.” The motivation might be to get a speaker who is likely to generate a lot of buzz to keep the returns coming in, not necessarily one who will most effectively communicate the gospel to the particular audience. We need to remove the potential for these attitudes and accusations.

Generosity should be encouraged rather than commanded.
In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul doesn’t command that the Corinthians be generous. Rather, he reminds them of the privilege that it is to give and all that Jesus has done for them. He doesn’t guilt them, nor does he force them. Let us provide our resources for free, and pray and encourage (but not command) people to give to support the ministry. Desiring God ministries speak of the tremendous generosity people have been inspired to as a result of benefiting from the free resources.

Don’t underestimate your audience.
You might argue that the people who want these resources are able to afford to pay for them. However this argument is driven by a misunderstanding of your potential audience. The internet has made available (and searchable) resources that could never have been accessed before. This year I’ve listened to numerous sermons and conference messages from the other side of the world. The audience for your resources is almost limitless, and particularly as more of the developing world comes online, there are great opportunities to use the internet to share the gospel with people in these countries.

Demonstrate grace.
Matt Perman from Desiring God puts it so well: “Salvation is free and without charge. Paul and the other apostles proclaimed the gospel for free and without charge. To make all of your content available for free says something great about God – it is an acted parable illustrating his incredible generosity and grace.”

Let me urge and encourage churches and other Christian ministries to make good use of the opportunities the internet provides. Rather than using the internet as a means of income generation, let’s harness its power to grow greater fruit for the kingdom.

The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is glorious. Let’s make Him known to as many people as we can.

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