Free vs. Paid Content in the Church


Whether you are aware of it or not, there is a raging battle going on about the concept of free vs. paid content on the internet. Big names in media like Rupert Murdoch have drawn the line in the sand– they are going to make people pay for news content. Others have embraced the Google model of an advertising-based system of free content. Last week Seth Godin took the debate to a new level. He is firmly in the free camp while Malcolm is in the the paid camp. Of course, most of Seth’s income comes from consulting, speaking, and book proceeds– so Seth may be in the free camp for some things, but his paycheck comes from paid content too.

Inside the church the same debate has just begun. And all of these questions lead back to the same two central questions that newspapers are wrestling with, “Since creating content isn’t free, who is going to pay?” “In a world of free content, where is the ethical line?

Two Sides to the Content Coin

1. Gospel-oriented content should be freely available. As someone who has successfully started an internet business in the last five years I know the power of free. Ask Tim Schmoyer. Ask Ryan Nielsen. Nothing draws traffic to a youth ministry website quite like free. In the youth ministry world there is an expectation of free content. There is a righteous indignation when you question the ethics of free, too. No one cares that it costs me thousands of dollars to create, host, and market “free” content. There is a general consensus that stuff about youth ministry should be free and you shouldn’t expect anything in return for free lessons, videos, music, etc. “Don’t ask me to click on an ad. Don’t ask me to sign up for a newsletter. I need something free because I don’t have budget to buy stuff.” I’ve gotten nasty emails from folks who insist that all content about ministry should be free. These same people often are in paid ministry. So they want to get paid for using someone’s free content. Talk about wanting your cake and eating it too! Sheesh.

2. Gospel-oriented content should cost something. Of course, the ironic thing about the free thing is that the people who think ministry content should be free want to get paid by their churches, ministries, or non-profits. If I told you that you shouldn’t get paid for being a youth pastor you’d get angry with me! There is a certain immaturity to the free thing. At the end of the day there is no such thing as free content on the internet. Someone sits down to write something, they save it as a PDF, they post it on a website, and they offer it for free to anyone who wants to download it. It seems free when it isn’t. That computer cost you something. The education that powered your thoughts cost you something. The time you spent creating it… was it for work you were being paid for at the church? If so, does that content even belong to you? If it was your free time, isn’t that time worth something? If you don’t think your time is worth something why should I use your stuff? When you posted it somewhere on the web, who paid for that server space? If it’s on a well-known site, who is paying for the building of that site/brand? Who is paying for maintaining it? If you added graphics to the content, who paid for that? If you had someone proofread it, who paid for that persons work? That doesn’t seem free to me.

There is no such thing as “free” content, even Gospel-oriented content, so people should expect to pay something for the works they use. The real question is, “Who should pay?” In the old media world the user was expected to pay for the content. You subscribed to a newspaper to get the content and the profit in the model came from advertising. You wanted a book so you went to a bookstore and bought it. In the 1980s and 1990s most of us in ministry would have thought it immoral to copy books and give them to friends, copy cassette tapes and give them to students, etc. But now there is an expectation that advertising will somehow pay for all the content I want/need. That’s the new media age. Free to me, let advertisers foot the bill. Wouldn’t it be funny to see a pastors salary supported by advertising? He’d preach in an outfit that resembled a Nascar driver’s suit! It’s always funny to think about real world applications of stuff we do on the internet everyday, isn’t it?

Digital media has created an ethics dilemna for people in ministry, hasn’t it? There seems to be a feeling that the parable of the talents can’t possibly relate to actual money. People who advocate for free content will concede… “It’s OK to break even, just don’t get rich!” So if content cost me $500 to produce a lesson… why is it wrong to want to return $1000? (Like the parable) Don’t you remember the parable… Jesus called the man who just broke even a wicked and lazy servant. What then would Jesus say to people who intend to invest $500 in content and give it away? Super wicked and super lazy?

We would never walk up to an auto mechanic and expect him to change our oil for free simply because we are in ministry. We would never go to the dentist and insist that he give us free dental. We would never go to the grocery store and expect the grocer to pay for the pastors food. And yet we have no problem with this when it comes to Gospel-oriented content. Something is out of whack, isn’t it?

As with all things that seem to leave us in a quandry– I am wondering if there is a 3rd way. Is there a way that is both ethically satisfying and free? Is there a way that is both affordable for ministry folks and pays for itself?

Chime in. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. If you’re in the paid camp– speak up! If you think everything should be free, give me a counter-punch.



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21 responses to “Free vs. Paid Content in the Church”

  1. Brit Windel Avatar

    Great posting! even tougher question! i don’t think it is a blanket yes or no statement. my rage is this! why would you pay $50 for a Banana Republic shirt but want a free (when it cost $10) youth group t-shirt, why would you pay $500 for your child to go to a sports camp for two days but complain to pay $450 for a two week mission trip!

    I think with people becoming more aware (or in some cases less) of where their money is going or has gone people want to know. the problem is the church hasn’t been cost affective or great stewards with Gods Money. found this great bible verse in 1 Corinthians 9. 7Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? 8Do I say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? 9For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.”[b] Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. 11If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

    But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. 13Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? 14In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

    there is a lot here, and culturally different from our day and age! is your action in it for making money or proclaiming the gospel? God knows the heart of those ‘proclaiming’ his kingdom.

    I think it silly to think everything can and should be free, this world cost’s money to survive. our current culture has found a way for ministry to profit those doing it allowing people to devote the entirety of their life to the cause…now if people take advantage of that… i’m not surprised they do it in the world as well… maybe we should be different and just not pay anyone anything ever and see how long the creativity and survival rate of ministry happens

  2. Gman Avatar

    I think there has to be a balance. I think the heart of guys like Tim and Ryna wanting to help youthworkers but knowing there is some cost out there.

    It is wisely managing your money, time and talents. The problem is too many want FREE or too many churches don’t have the resources or will invest in the things that matter. I knew a lot of ministries I worked in – the youthworker was strapped for cash. In some churches – youthworkers are poorly paid, poorly reimbused, and poorly outsourced and yet they expect them to be just like MEGA A Church down the road.

    And yet in some churches

    Giving is up and yet some budgets declined.

    Is there an answer? I don’t know.

    I use the web to communicate and let people know where I’m at and doing.

    YES … I get paid to be a pastor, but the other side of the coin, is I enjoy what I do; but not content in it because there is always more to do.

  3. Joel Mayward Avatar

    Perhaps we want gospel-oriented content to be free because the Gospel is free. We’d likely condemn the idea of paying money for the free gift of the Gospel, so when it comes to ministry content, we expect that to be free too. I’m not saying it’s right, but perhaps it’s a reason behind the desire for free content.

    I’ve been to conferences where the content was ridiculously overpriced and left me frustrated that I had to dish out hundreds of extra dollars to download one presenter’s talk. I’ve also been willing to pay quite a bit for ministry tools and conferences that were genuinely enriching. It all depended on the cost of the content vs. the quality of content.

    Adam, I’m not sure I’m following with your ideas from the parable of the talents. The workers were using the gifts given to them by the master so that they could give back to the master, not so they could make a profit for themselves. The servant was condemned because he didn’t invest at all and was lazy, not because he only wanted to break even after working hard. Investing by offering free quality content without trying to make a huge profit has led to other blessings in your life, right? Hasn’t free quality content opened the door to more opportunities than if you had charged everyone for every article, review, video, or lesson?

    Clearly, your post has got me thinking, as this is one of the longest comments I’ve written in awhile. I’m wondering if there’s a 3rd way too, where a worker is worth their wages (1 Tim. 5:17-19) but we’re not solely seeking financial gain (1 Tim. 6:17-19).

  4. adam mclane Avatar

    @joel- great thoughts. Not sure I have all the answers… or any! But I do think this is something we all need to be thinking about. There is quickly coming a point when “free” is going to run out. Even look at the quality of the free content out there… you’ll get my drift. At the end of the day someone is going to work harder for something they could profit from.

    @gman- I should clarify. I think what Tim/Ryan do is totally noble. I know them both pretty well and they know I’m not questioning their motives or even the ministry they provide. My point is simply that they are providing a band aid for a problem. Maybe the solution will never come to fruition?

    @brit- See, I think you are getting the ethic part of this. By offering something for free we are saying it has no value whereas a person thinks nothing of paying for cable. We expect church content to somehow be amazing AND cost nothing to create or deliver. But a cup of coffee from the corner gas station is worth $1.29— there’s an ethic there.

    My point is that there is a certain ethic to free and there is a certain ethic to rewarding systems that may or may not ever profit.

  5. Brian Steele-Sierk Avatar
    Brian Steele-Sierk

    Adam, I think you have interpreted the Parable of the Talents incorrectly. The Master in the parable called the servant wicked and lazy, the master is not directly referred to as God or Jesus. The point of the parable is that doing the right thing ( burying the talent according to the Talmud) will get you punished now, but you need to del with the punishment because Jesus is returning soon.

    I also think that online content should be an open marketplace. The problem is not with a lack of ethical base in youth workers, but an oversupply of content (and how) and an undersupply(to put it mildly) of funds. Therefore, we have a lot of free stuff floating around the inter-tubes.

    I realize we’re all churchy,and we tend to examine the moral dimensions of everything exhaustively, but the market for heretical didactic material is not excessively stilted or exploitive. No one is being forced to produce material.

  6. Kim Avatar

    I like what does with music–you pay what you want and/or pass on the music to 5 people. That way, the musician gets money and/or publicity for their work. I think I’ve paid at least $5 for every album I’ve purchased through the site because I don’t mind. My friends know I don’t send them emails unless I think they’ll actually appreciate the content, I get new music, and the artist gets some money.
    Now, I have no idea the “cost” for running the site or any of that, but I like “paying what I want.” I have no idea if that’s a possibility when it comes to ministry materials. I know it worked for Radiohead when they released an album online, or it at least got them talked about quite a bit and made people notice.
    I’ll trade a Mt. Dew at the vending machine for a quick and easy game when I’m in a crunch any day, when given the option. I won’t pay $10 for an untested game, though. But $1? Sure. I don’t like the tip jars, though, on websites. I’d rather make a specific contribution rather than a generic one.

  7. Keith Avatar

    Nothing is free. Even free stuff costs someone something. It’s simply a matter of how the cost is covered.

    Paul went from city to city preaching the good news about Jesus. Often he paid his own way by making and selling tents. Other times his needs were covered by the Church. The point is that cash was shelled out to keep the operation going.

    So, I’m not so concerned about how the money is acquired so long as the means of doing so is morally legitimate. And yes, that can include selling items for a profit.

  8. adam mclane Avatar

    @brian- I’ll freely admit that I changed the metaphor of the parable back to money. Obviously, it’s about spiritual things primarily.

    I’d also like to delineate between an ethic and morality. I don’t think free vs paid is a right vs wrong question. I just think it presents an ethic. It goes back to the peace corp question, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”

  9. jeremy zach Avatar

    In the Dark Knight, the Joker makes this brilliant statement: “If you are good at something, don’t do it for free.”

    I find myself in the “paid camp”. I think if someone has worked hard and spent a lot of energy preparing something they need to be paid. Let’s be honest, we live in a capitalist market and we are under their authority. Yes I know we are suppose to rebel against these principalities, but we still have to pay taxes and still have to provide for our families.

    I honestly think if something is free the quality will be in jeopardy. Plus, there are psychological implications when something is free.

    In the end nothing is free.

    Back to your ultimate question:
    Is there a way that is both ethically satisfying and free?

    I want to say no because I don’t have a clue on how to balance these two variables in a market-capitalist economy. Everything is about marketing, people need to get paid, and publishers are more concerned with profit than people.

    Fund raising sucks. Why make the president spend majority of his/her time pitching their organization and product to VPs?

    So… just charge and save everyone the headache.

  10. Gman Avatar

    Not all publishers are concerned with just profit than people …they do need to survive and pay their bills though. I see publishers like YS more concerned w/ people than making a profit … and yet in some ways that has hurt them …not their image, just them financially at times.

  11. adam mclane Avatar

    @gman- I totally agree with you. In fact, I’d say about 99% of Christian publishing is about the content and not about the money. It’s one of those things I’ve been pleasantly surprised about as I’ve got involved in Christian publishing.

  12. Robert Armerding Avatar

    Let me suggest that the first question is the will of God. It seems that so few even begin to understand the will of God, yet Jesus Christ made it the most important matter to grasp. If a person ignores the will of God, why should God show them anything about what He wants. As result, we see many creating their own man made ministries. Of course they want to be paid, why not. When a ministry is in God’s will, the financial part is way in the background. Everything in God’s will is a gift, nothing that God has for Christians is for sale, otherwise, grace is void.
    So many are concerned about the freeloaders. They have been around for millenniums. The ratio even in the life of Jesus Christ was very small, mostly more freeloaders, free lunches were very popular, but that did not seem to stop Jesus Christ because He was able to find the few and that is all He wanted.
    Jesus taught His disciples to first learn how to minister without any money, and without a purse. The dual concept is to not use money, and not collect money, nothing to put it in. The Bible records that this lesson took place at least twice. Then Jesus asked them if the had their needs met. They answered that they “lacked nothing.” Only after His disciples had mastered that lesson did Jesus allow them to take money.
    So many church leaders get caught in the expense trap, starting with buildings and property. All that comes out is a major distraction and a financial drain.
    It is interesting that we do not question the florist industry. The vast majority of flowers are given as gifts. The recipient never is asked to pay, not even for the delivery. Yet, we do not worry about them valuing the gift. How much more the Rose of Sharon? We need to let people know the true value of the gift that comes to us through Jesus Christ. Putting a price on it cheapens it.
    When Simon offered to pay Peter for the gift, Peter was fresh off a commercial fishing boat, Peter totally understood the value of money, yet he had some strong words for a young Christian.
    Let me wrap this up where I began, when we walk in the will of God, when walk in the power of the Spirit, when we walk arm-in-arm with Jesus Christ by our side, financial matters become very dim.

  13. adam mclane Avatar

    @robert- I appreciate your comment. I’m not sure I agree or disagree with you. Clearly, your ax to grind is about money and the church. Really, this discussion isn’t about whether or not the two should mix… because they do whether we like it or not. The discussion is on the ethics of paid content vs. free content, who pays, and the value system that creates one way or the other.

    In this discussion, it is assumed that creating content costs someone money, time, talent, etc. I’m not trying to re-invent the church institution as a cashless one.

    I do 100% agree with you about churches and property. I see owning property as a churches #1 hindrance to being a movement that changes the planet.

  14. ED... Avatar

    I suppose this is the tension between “your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” and “The labourer is worthy of his hire”.

    Anybody’s primary aim in producing “content” as you call it, must be to serve Jesus. The ultimate question is not an ethical one, therefore – the activity of serving the church through work is ipso facto ethical if it is done in imitation of Christ’s humility – but it is practical, in that we live in a world in which work may not continue in the absence of pay.

    The real issue is one of justice. A righteous person disadvantages himself to benefit his community. Where people are unable to afford what they need and you have to give, the righteous thing to do is to disadvantage yourself to the extent that you may, in so doing, meet their needs.

    “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices,
    and when the wicked perish there are shouts of gladness.”

    “By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted,
    but by the mouth of the wicked it is overthrown.”

  15. Robert Armerding Avatar

    Let me bring in another perspective. The one ingredient that is so vital to Christian ministry is an agape love for the Lord Jesus Christ. If that love exists, it is usually easy to see. In action, it looks like the Good Samaritan, “whatever it takes, add it to my bill.” That is the one lesson that Jesus taught that is so loaded with money it is scary.
    We can either love the Lord Jesus Christ, or we can love money. The word that Jesus used should really have a capital m, i.e., Money. Money is an American god. Money in ministry is a trap. So much can be done without it, yet many think they can do nothing without it.
    The ethical issue is a bit more complex. A lot depends on which perspective, or philosophy you want to follow. From my perspective, every tiny part of the Christian ministry is a gift from God. If God had not given His Son, we would have nothing. As a gift, charging a price makes it no more a gift. That is an ethical issue, as I see it. Everything in the Christian ministry should reflect that gift.
    Are we doing God’s work, or man’s work? If we want to do God’s work, then we must do it in God’s way. Otherwise, we are unethical. We are saying one thing and do another.
    I would rather encourage my fellow Christians to develop a serious love for the Lord. He deserves it. Then everything else takes care of itself. We are eager to deliver the content that God gives us, as a gift of His love.
    God holds the original copyright on the Christian message. That message is to be shared freely. Putting a price on the message violates God’s copyright. Every part of the ministry reflects that copyrighted message.
    God owns the performance rights to the Gospel. Charging a price to perform ministry violates God’s rights. He says to perform without price.
    If something that God wants to be done takes money, He promises to provide all that is needed. Asking for more money is a slap in the face.
    Turning God’s work into a commercial enterprise is unethical, from how I see it. Abraham would not do it. Elisha would not do it. Peter would not do it. Paul would not do it. Why, because they all had a deep love for the Lord first. They were serving Him and had no interest in anything thing that looked like they were serving anyone else. If you want to be paid money for your content, then, let’s face it, you are serving Money. When we serve God Almighty, in His will, He provides everything we need.
    As Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” That is the question of the day. The response, “feed my sheep.” Not fleece them.
    The real measure is, how much do you love our loving Lord Jesus Christ. Let it show.

  16. adam mclane Avatar

    ED/Robert- I need to do some moderation here to steer the topic back on target. (Something I rarely do on the blog.)

    You are both steering this conversation in a direction that is not on the table to be discussed. This is not a question of morality as this Gospel-oriented content is already being commoditized. So whether you agree or disagree that it should be commoditized is another discussion for another post or blog entirely.

    The discussion here is whether or not this already commoditized content should be offered for free or if it should be offered for sale. I invite you to comment on the topic at hand. Thanks. 🙂

  17. ED... Avatar

    Adam – I’m entirely on topic.

  18. Tim Schmoyer Avatar

    Adam and I have talked about this even before he started working at YS. His experience with YMX and mine with my blog are very similar: youth workers expect many things to be free, and, generally speaking, do nothing to give back to the community we’re trying to bless.

    The more I do free content, the more and more I feel pulled away from it. In fact, I’m working on a non-free resource right now. They take-take-take and sometimes throw a little fit if you stop feeding the freebie machine.

    My tension is that I benefit greatly from the open source community. Without tools like WordPress and Audacity my site would not be in existence in the first place. Additionally, I do not pay for most content anymore. I’ve never bought a newspaper to actually read it, I let my magazine subscriptions expire because of Lifehacker and other blogs, and I generate most of the content I need for my youth ministry.

    Although I’m still committed to ideas being spread freely (like my ebook and blog posts), I don’t think everything should be free and am moving more that direction myself. The trick for me is still blessing the people who genuinely need something and cannot afford it.

    BTW, if you want something for free that’s not free, pirate it from a bittorrent. 😉

    (j/k about that last comment, but that definitely has a bearing in the wider scope of this discussion. Hope ministry content doesn’t get there one day…)

  19. adam mclane Avatar

    @Tim- Great thoughts. Yeah free = traffic. But people looking for free stuff aren’t always the best traffic!

    The open source community is an interesting example of a 3rd way. Even still, I can imagine that the developers of WordPress, Audacity… the ones who truly work the code magic… feel like their audience is a pain in the neck! For every contributor there may be 100k users! That ratio was likely much less when they got started, but now they have a freebie ethic in play and everyone– even major news agencies– is using their platform and not buying anything.

    Google is really wrestling with this now that Wall Street has expectations that Adwords can’t fulfill.

  20. Tammie Avatar

    @ jeremy zach – As far as quality goes, I’ve had equally poor quality materials from both paid and free sources. Your chances of getting quality are way higher for paid resources, but are by no means guaranteed.

    I have worked/am working in newspapers as my “tentmaker” gig while doing youth ministry in one form or another. Back when the newspaper started its first web site back in the late 1990s, we had discussions somewhat similar to this as we decided how much of the newspaper content we would put up for free. In the end, we decided to put certain elements of the paper up but others were available only by buying the actual newspaper. Personally, I don’t think that model is going to hold out too much longer, but since we are a small, weekly community-based newspaper it works for us for now. But that’s more related to the state of newspapers than anything …

    Maybe a similar arrangement would work for content? Certain items are offered for free to give youth workers a taste for the quality/scope of the material while other items are paid. If I were to download a lesson or series from a site for free and found it to be high quality, I would be more likely to use limited budget money to purchase other lessons/series from that source.

    Or, to throw a different spin on it make the items free for a limited time before becoming paid items. The Worship Together web site does this now by offering a free song each week. If you get it that week, it’s free. Wait a week and you pay for it.

    The only other thought that comes to mind is the model that seems to have the support of the church community to offer the items for free.

    This is probably a different thought for a different post, but once Youth Pastor X created materials for the First Church of Wherever’s youth group using his talent but the church’s time and resources, who “owns” the content and would righfully receive the pay?

  21. Ken Rawson Avatar

    What a GREAT topic! On the one hand, it’s nice to be paid for work you do on the side. On the other hand, it’s great to get free stuff.

    My attempt at a 3rd way: Make it cheap!

    now…anyone got a link to a free “Minute to win it” countdown clock I can use this Sunday? ;^P

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