overtheologizing and overspiritualizing confuses me

I love free. I love to give my time and money away for free as an expression of faith, generosity, serving others, loving neighbor, etc etc. There’s a lot of altruism and theological and biblical reasons supporting my practices. And I demonstrate it here on my blog by keeping it advertising-free. [disclaimer: while the blog itself is ad-free, there are ads on the web pages here and affiliate links for some books etc]

So this blog is free to the readers and truly & purely free, brcause it is freely given by me without financial support by 3rd party donations. Its “sustainability” rests on my life, as long as God gives me life and breath, and does not depend on an organization or donors. It does depend on my finding other sources for financial support, since I am not financially independent, and in Christian-jargon, “tentmaking” or maybe akin to “tentblogging” (?).

I’m often confronted with the question of how a non-profit org / ministry / business / higher educational institution could possibly sustain itself if they are giving away its content for free? There are some great orgs that do give away free content, like Desiring God and Lifechurch.tv . What’s confusing and elusive for me is how they can afford to do that, to explain the sustainability question.

I am personally comfortable with the truth of God providing when we serve others well by doing something like free content. But being an ideas-guy, I need help translating that into everyday reality in an organizational context. The answer I’ve heard is that the foundational theology and biblical truth and primary principle is that “God will provide” and we should be generous. So how does that actually work? Seems like overtheologizing and overspiritualizing if that’s all that’s taught and said.

In 1 conversation where I’m asking how their org gives so much away. The guy kept firm on the importance of biblical truth and theology, and yet, that’s where I’m stuck. That answer is NOT helpful. After some tenacious pursuit for the truth behind the truth, the guy finally relented and briefly said that they’re supported by donations from donors. Sigh. Can we be real, please?

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8 Responses

  1. your thoughts ring true, especially in the context of online. it’s almost impossible not to indirectly “profit” from anything you do online, either for yourself or for some other larger institution. sometimes it’s explicit and sometimes it’s very very hidden.

    take for example wordpress.com … millions of bloggers “give free content away” daily but they directly (or some would argue indirectly… same difference) support the financial bottom line of a well-oiled enterprise, Automattic, the parent org of WordPress, through billions of pageviews and use of their flagship product, WordPress blogging platform.

    do most people know that they are doing that? probably not, but the point is the same: someone is profiting from your use of online technology.

    another great example is twitter. we “tweet” for free but is it really “completely” free? or how about facebook?

    and even ministries do it “accidentally” even if they don’t mean it… all of the free content that lifechurch gives away is great SEO for their ministry and other “paying” portions of their ministry… (i say “paying” as in online giving and tithing, etc).

    fascinating, right?

    • djchuang says:

      John, thank you for stopping by and leaving a most extensive and insightful comment! 🙂 I’m honored to be visited by the tentblogger.

      Yes, there is some kind of financial cash flow underneath the whole internet infrastructure. I suppose even as it was being started back in the 60s under the confines of the government and military, the internet was funded by our tax dollars at work.

      For the average joe, or John in your case, when the user and recipient of online resources don’t have to put out $ for it, it’s free to us. Though someone else pays and/or profits, it’s not essential for the said generosity to happen, and more of it at that.

      Aside: You’re way more financially literate than I … 🙂

  2. Jason Smith says:

    DJ,

    They give it away for free, but it still costs them something to produce what they give away. Right? They are dependent on streams of income that any non-profit organization is dependent on. Donations and profit from things they do sell. For example, I would assume Piper has made some agreement to give 100% of his royalties to DG? I don’t know that, but like others before him, he has probably decided he will live off of his modest salary as preaching pastor at Bethlehem and profits from books will go to the ministry of DG. With Piper’s popularity, I would imagine that is extremely helpful!

    I think it is, at least in the minds and hearts of those involved in the ministries and the people like Piper, a vision thing. They have a theological and biblical reason for doing this. And that drives the purpose of the organization. They believe they are supposed to be doing things the way they are doing it because of the conviction they have developed.

    In the case of Lifechurch.tv I would think it operates somewhat like the ministries with Television outreach did in the past. TV programs and radio programs cost a lot of money, but the churches felt like that was something they were “called” to do, so they spent parts of their budget on those things. The generosity of the church went into the free content and the “ethos” of the church was attractive to people with the ability to be generous. I think it’s the same with churches like LifeChurch.TV. The generosity of the church members allows them to do what they do.

    Just my take on it. My church, wouldn’t be able to do either, because I’m not John Piper and we don’t have money coming out of our ears.

    Jason

    • djchuang says:

      @Jason, thank you for your detailed explanation that is way more helpful and understandable than I’ve ever heard it explained in a ministry context. The 2 examples are rare exceptions, unfortunately, so the financial side was elusive and mysterious. Hearing good theology, and purpose, and philosophy, is a good thing, but not the complete picture. without that, and just punting to faith, I have heard many more examples of ministries and non-profits waiting on faith that God would provide, and the debt runs up, people are hurt, and a huge mess is at hand.

      • jason smith says:

        Thanks,

        Yeah, I think this is really hard from those on the outside looking in, because we say, “man, I really want to give stuff away and do good and be like these ministries.”

        But, a lot of success came before they could do it for free. Like Dave Ramsey says, “It took me 15 years of really hard work to become an overnight success!”

        I do love how Crossway gives away the ESV on Kindle and stuff like that though. I wonder why Zondervan and other publishers have to be so stingy. I get it in my mind, but I think Crossway gets something that translates into book sales and bible sales. Something clicks with me and I want to support what they do, but I don’t really like the translation for everyone. It’s not accessible to my folks.

        I think Focus on the Family use to have a model like that, but it was mixed. They would say we will give you our resources, but ask for a donation if you can give it.

        DJ, this is a really interesting topic. Do you realize that some churches, in the 70’s and 80’s were making hundred’s of thousand’s of dollars off of their preaching tapes? And that is gone. That stream of income is completely gone! Now, you have to offer it for free. No one pays for their pastors sermons. But less than 20 years ago, a pastor had a stream of income every week. Many pastors in charismatic churches got a piece of that pie. That is, part of their income was based on what the sales were on their sermon tapes/cds. Gone! The music industry changed and had a big impact on this. It would be an interesting topic for some research probably.

        Jason

      • jason smith says:

        It would be really interesting to see some actual numbers to some of the really popular tape ministry preachers, like Charles Swindoll, John Wimber, Derek Prince. I mean, people were ordering those peoples tapes from all over the world.

  3. Shane says:

    I created an interactive piece that allows the viewer to “see” the Gospel in a unique way. It’s the gospel. Simple. TheVisualGospel.info
    My long term vision is to get these printed into other languages and give them to missionaries for free to share with people all over the world. But I have spent a lot of my own money to get them developed, so I don’t have the opportunity to give many away right now for free, unfortunately. So in the beginning of this new venture, I have to sell them.

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