Like many authors and teachers, I provide a great deal of teaching for free.
I also provide in-depth teaching which takes a lot of time to create. And since the teaching also comes with 1:1 email-based coaching, it's real work.
This type of teaching, even though most of it occurs online, also incurs significant out-of-pocket expenses, including: fees for video hosting, email sending services (huge), website services, blog, music licenses, professional photography, and additional tooling such as video editing software, graphic creation tools, and software for my quizzes (assessments) such as my Spiritual Gifts Quiz (I dislike the term "quiz" but it's the most commonly used term).
I currently do not cover my costs.
Still, every once in a while, someone will write in to tell me how unhappy they are that I charge for these in-depth courses.
The goal of this post is to start the dialogue: I would love to understand why they believe their point of view. To date, no one ever gives sound reasons why I should work for free. They simply express that they are unhappy, disappointed, or that doing so isn't "Biblical."
I did receive one good response, however, from someone who said that paying for teaching is fine; but he was concerned about the manner of promotion. This felt fair, and I address that point as well later in the post.
I wish all folks who shared this sentiment would engage as he did. He brought up his concern, he replied to my questions for more details, and admitted that it was one opinion, not dogma.
Anyway, this post is for those who bring up those concerns about their needing to pay for my teaching. At least they can hear my thoughts and then, hopefully, respond to them in the specifics, as well as providing their own reasoning.
If you really do care about the fact that I charge for teaching and can engage in a conversation based on sound reading of Scripture (which I hope you do), you should read this post in full. Consider this my thoughtful response to your comment and the start to a mature dialogue between believers.
I do not expect you to pay for my teaching after reading it. But my responsibility as a teacher is to clarify a position in ways that, hopefully, also edifies you.
By the way, I am also open to hearing your reasoning and to changing my own position. "Iron sharpens iron" means both parties should be able to exchange a calm, clear, thoughtful response resting on the foundation of truth.
Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people's hearts, and they will learn the truth. (2 Timothy 2:25)
The verse above applies to both of us -- it applies to me, and it applies to my readers.
Those who listen to instruction will prosper; those who trust the LORD will be joyful. (Proverbs 16:12)
Why do people expect Christian content to always be free?
Let's start with the first assumption.
The unhappiness seems to come from the starting assumption that, by virtue of being Christian, Gospel-based content, the teaching should be free.
Most of the time, people don't actually provide a substantive reason for why charging is wrong.
It appears that it comes down to personal preference: they want it all for free. In part, this is understandable. Don't we all want something for free?
It's also an outcome of the fact that churches provide their primary services for free. The church service, for example, is free -- as it should be. Child care during service is also free. Parking to attend service is for free.
This makes sense: the goal of these services is to spread the Gospel to people who do not know Christ. There is no reason to charge for knowing about a saving grace given freely.
Paul writes as much in 1 Corinthians 9:18:
What then is my pay? It is the opportunity to preach the Good News without charging anyone. That's why I never demand my rights when I preach the Good News.
In this way, church services do not discriminate against those who are poor. Here's what James writes about treating people who come to a church service in James 2:2-4.
Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes. And suppose a poor man in dirty old clothes also comes in. Would you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes? Would you say, “Here’s a good seat for you”? Would you say to the poor man, “You stand there”? Or “Sit on the floor by my feet”? If you would, aren’t you treating some people better than others? Aren’t you like judges who have evil thoughts?
So the practice of not charging anyone to attend church services, as well as removing as much as possible any economic barriers to attending, makes sense. The problem comes when that foundation is extended by believing that, if any content is about God, it should be free.
That appears to be the only possible reason for people upset they need to pay.
The argument seems to come, however, from people who are not unbelievers, but who are believers. They, therefore, have not only already heard the Good News, but already believe it. So surely they cannot be limited in their knowing faith by my charging to deepen their maturity in Christ. My asking for support of the teaching doesn't stand in their way of hearing the Gospel.
The problem with this perspective worsens.
If the foundational premise that my teaching should be free is because all Christian content should be free, my first question would be: have you asked your pastor whether his seminary was free?
Tuition at Dallas Theological Seminary, for example, is $16,352 for Academic Year 2018-2019.
That doesn't seem free to me...far from it. I imagine and hope that all of the teaching at seminary is about God and the Gospel. Based on the premise that Christian teaching should be free, all of seminary should be, as well.
Okay, if that doesn't work (and if not, please let me know why), I would broaden the topic to books. Have you ever paid for a Christian book or Christian CD?
Books and music are no more or no less "Christian" than teaching people how to get unstuck through God's power or fulfilling their purpose through their spiritual gifts.
In the end, if the argument that teaching should be free because Christian content should be free, it would need much more substantiation. Please let me know in the comments below.
Here's the reason why you want it for free
There is a legitimate reason to want something for free.
It's because you don't want to pay for it.
Which is fine. I know not everyone in the world is going to be interested in what I have to offer. There are probably many things you do pay for other than my teaching and on top of the basic, such as food, clothing and shelter: Coffee? A movie? A song on your iPhone? A snack? A drink? A vacation? A new watch? Teaching by somebody else (except it can't be Christian-based, since those have to be free 😗)?
If you're willing to pay for something other than mine, it's because you don't prioritize my teaching as highly as that which you do pay for.
You choose not to pay because you don't value it.
If you want it for free (you're upset it's not offered for free), then you value it at $0.
But...if you don't value it, then I shouldn't make it available to you.
In other words, if you are grieved that you cannot access teaching which I believe could strengthen you, edify you, and help further your transformation in a world conspiring to conform you to its own values, then it doesn't make sense for you to access it in the first place.
And if it doesn't make sense for you to access it in the first place, then it equally makes little sense to make it available it to you -- including offering it for free.
Here's what Jesus writes in Matthew 7:6:
Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.
For the record, I am not saying you are a dog or a pig. I am quoting Jesus. He, however, is advising his followers to not give away the Gospel to those who don’t value it.
Jesus says, in effect, "Don't offer that which is valuable (in the specific case, the Gospel) to those who do not value it."
Because the Gospel, however, should have nothing stand in the way, He can't charge people to hear it. A saving faith shouldn't restrict anyone. But if the audience doesn't want to hear the sometimes difficult truths about the depths of our sin and our need to be rescued by Christ, the Savior, Jesus also says, in effect, to not bother.
The litmus for interest is different for other topics of teaching. By requiring payment, only those who value it have access. And those who value it at $0 (who expect it for free) would, naturally, not have access.
Despite this, I still do offer things of high value for free. Why?
Offering something for free is far better than offering nothing for free. People give money, which has value, freely to people in need, for example. There is something good in charity and generosity, and we are all called to do so.
So I provide Gospel-centered teaching for free to anyone on the Internet. On the off-chance that someone who does not know Christ stumbles upon my free teaching, I have an obligation to make much of it accessible and focus on the foundation of the Gospel.
If someone is already a believer, the free teaching allows them to test the content, which I invite all to do:
but test everything; hold fast what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21)
And if what they see is good, now there's a firm foundation for them to believe in its value. Since they value it, I make it available to them....at a nominal (compared to secular equivalents) cost.
I believe that the issue of charging or not charging for Christian teacher runs deeper than this.
If it were just a matter of those who want it for free shouldn't have access since they don't value the teaching in the first place, then fine. But it's not.
Why the "It Must All Be Free" Thinking Damages the Gospel
There's something much bigger at stake.
Having wrestled for a long time over whether a teacher can take any kind of compensation (and I actually disagree with many of the common arguments and Scriptures used to support my own position), I looked at the bigger picture.
And my litmus test for most things is fairly straight forward:
- Does the action align with and obey God's Word (Scripture)?
- Does it reflect the work of Christ's Gospel in me?
- Would a non-believer be drawn to the Gospel if I do it/say it?
The biggest goal for everyone who is a Christ follower is advocating for the need to follow Christ to the broadest number of people, especially those who are unbelievers. The two ways to best do this are: first, strengthen existing believers in their walk to live a bold faith that desires to save others; second, to reach the unsaved.
I am so disappointed with those who say that teachers and service providers who, by virtue of us incorporating the Gospel/Scripture/God into our content, should make it free.
Because that stance would rob the marketplace of doctors, writers, musicians, therapists, entrepreneurs/tentmakers like Paul himself who share the Gospel and God's truth as part of their vocation.
Let's tease this apart.
According to those who complain that any Christian content should be completely and always free have now given talented teachers and service providers two bad choices:
- Continue to provide their services for free till they inevitably go bankrupt and, as a result, stop providing the service altogether; or
- Strip away any reference to Scriptural truth in their teaching and become completely worldly and secular in order to make a living.
I don’t know if it is intentional or not, but this attitude is going to leave the world bereft of God's Word reaching as many people as possible.
Under this world view, there would be no more Christian authors because you have to pay for a book. After all, very few books can be free, because printing, shipping, advertising and editing costs money. There would be no more Christian musicians because their music isn’t for free. No more faith based businesses because can't dare change customers as a result of incorporating their faith.
I structure my teaching very clearly as an exchange: the "tuition" supports the continued creation of free teaching that reaches a global audience; in exchange, supporters receive access to in-depth teaching.
The alternative could be donating with nothing in return, which is also great. I support 10 young children to attend Christian schools -- 5 abroad and 5 in the poorest part of San Francisco. So I am all for donations.
But why would you want to stop God's virtuous economy? Paying for teaching and other services for which we need more of, so that more people can be reached? And, in exchange, deepen your own walk and become an even more effective ambassador of Christ?
I can't see the downside.
But, for those who disagree, please let me know your counter-point.
Silence is far worse. It means one of the following things:
- You made the critique without substantiation in God's Word, in which case your point is not edification or even Godly rebuke, but a complaint and accusation. Yet you still hold to your point of view without following in the footsteps of the Bereans of Acts 17:11: "They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth."
- You agree with my point of view and have a change of heart. But you aren't willing to engage in the discussion to share that.
- You still disagree, but aren't sharing your counter-points as we both are called to do based on the two verses from Thessalonians and 1 Timothy I shared earlier.
Let me know, at this point, what you think of these points below this post.
I am open to new, substantive perspectives, even to the point of changing my own mind.
But the counter-points must be grounded, both in the specifics of Scripture and the bigger picture of the grander calling all Christians share: spreading the Gospel to unbelievers and building the body.
While most people who express their concern have yet to provide strong foundation for their disagreement, I had one who engaged in an appropriate way.
He actually agreed that some teaching should be supported financially. When he clarified (I almost always reply to people to hear their perspectives), he said that my marketing tactics were too "worldly."
Here's how I am addressing his legitimate concerns and am grateful for his input.
Marketing Tactics are Too "Worldly"
I am going to address his point in three parts.
- Clarifying what I see as off-limits in marketing
- Describing why I believe applying modern marketing is legitimate
- Sharing some of my tactics and my reasons
The first is to define what type of marketing I don't engage in. While this list includes common worldly practices, it also includes tactics that some Christians apply, as well.
Fist, the obvious: no lying, inappropriate language, deception, inciting unwarranted fears, creating jealousy or envy, inciting people to stumble in their faith by debasing the truth of the Gospel. Those are table stakes and make every effort not to engage in this way.
This also means that we do not state or imply that one needs to pay for grace, salvation, or reconciliation with God. No work of man, including payment, can bring about the redemption of our sins that Christ, alone, as Son of God fully pays for at the cross.
This also means that payment cannot bring about God's blessings, favor, supernatural events, miracles, or anything of the sort. So, yes, while in-depth teaching is not always for free, grace is. It's the central point of the Gospel, so any marketing which contradicts this would be...well...wrong.
So this subset of behavior is off-limits.
The original question didn't imply we were doing any of the above, but references the "worldliness" of more specific tactics. I will next talk about why I believe modern tactics should be involved (as long as they don't cross the line described above) and then highlight the ones I specifically use.
Having Impact Does Mean Some Marketing
Because "marketing" is, for some people, a catch-all for anything sleazy and spammy, it seems a logical extension that anything which draws people to the message of Christ must, by definition, not use marketing.
We need to first look at the higher-order bit: what is our goal?
According to 2 Corinthians 10:5:
We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
In a modern age, to "take captive every thought" is a tall order. To capture someone's attention, I compete with every Facebook ad, every television commercial, every distraction that tries to get people’s attention.
In this environment, I think anyone trying to take thoughts captive for Christ should apply an appropriate level of "shrewdness" when trying to reach people.
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
Given the playing field, I believe it's reasonable, if not expected, to be able to "market" with modern tools. Here are the ones I use:
Collecting emails and following up
I collect email addresses and send a few emails to follow-up. I don't send very many. I don't send particularly great emails. I actually believe I could do a much better job by increasing both the frequency and quality, but I also know that hardly anyone really reads emails these days, so this is perhaps a much greater challenge.
I use deadlines. Let's face it: humans like to dilly-dally. Isn't that the story of the Ten Virgins?
And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. (Matthew 25:1-13)
Some will say this is spammy. But why? My applications to seminary, for example, have deadlines. I have to make a decision by a certain date. Deadlines help quicken one's thoughts. I recognize that "fake" deadlines seem manipulative. After all, it's an artificial deadline.
But if the teaching or service is, in fact, something you need, the deadline just helps to ensure a decision is made. Many people, myself included, will put off for tomorrow what can be done today.
Deadlines help us decide. It does apply some pressure in the sense that, if someone doesn't enroll by the deadline, they will need to wait for the next opportunity. There's no real penalty. There's no stigma.
Showing social proof
When people sign up, I have a little pop-up on the screen indicating that someone, somewhere has joined my teaching. So while it is a technique used by modern marketers, I don't see something intrinsically wrong with sharing this.
Writing Long Form Letters
I'm not entirely clear why this would be a problem, but I wanted to highlight it. Many of my pages have long-form letters which continues to teach while also explaining my in-depth classes. The format is always around highlighting the patterns that someone may have, and the consequences of not changing those patterns.
"Spammy" sites also use long form letters. But because we share the same form-factors doesn't mean we share the same intent.
What matters is not so much the cosmetic form factor. What matters is the content.
Paul wrote compelling and convicting letters to the church. While I write substantively worse than Paul did, I believe the process of writing at length in an age of Twitter-esque messages and no-words-required images on Instagram, long form is a plus, not a minus.
That said, as video becomes a more popular way for people to consume media and, therefore, for modern marketers to communicate, I'll also adapt video. Adapting the message to the audience is what all great teachers and communicators do.
Paul, when speaking to the Jews in the book of Hebrews, used appropriate visuals and imagery for that particular audience. When addressing the Romans in the book of Romans, he wrote differently, in a way to best connect with that very different audience.
So that covers the specific tactics.
Now the bigger picture: what's really at stake here, and why am I so concerned at the reaction of trying to be in the marketplace as a teacher of God's Word?
Why We Should Embrace the Marketplace Workers
There’s a substantive gap in the two world-views. The first perspective, which belonging to those up-in-arms for my in-depth teaching tuition, believe all Christian teaching like mine should always be free.
The other view, the one that I hope more people can begin to see, is a vision of more and more paid work communicating the Gospel.
The first perspective limits the impact of Christians in the marketplace.
By definition, not being able to charge for services like teaching and coaching means you are not playing in the marketplace. By demanding all of services, if incorporating Christian truths, be delivered at no charge, those of the first perspective cut-off all marketplace workers at their knees.
Would any of those who expect Christian teaching to be free ever call their phone company and request that, because they are Christian, they not need to pay their monthly bill?
No. Yet, by expecting teachers to offer their skills and talent for free, yet not offer a solution to help those same teachers to pay for the services they need to deliver their own services to others seems….I don’t know, unrealistic at best.
But here’s what makes this perspective far worse: it misses an opportunity to advance the Kingdom.
How great would it be if Christians teachers, writers, authors, doctors, therapists, coaches all felt empowered and supported to make their vocation a vehicle for the Gospel? Rather than hampered by those critics saying that Christian-based services must now be free, they would actually be applying God’s word in the marketplace to reach and change others.
Christians would finally be able to have a counter-point to the worldly cultures. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of secular of teachers, coaches and therapists who are never once criticized for charging clients, yet these same teachers are advocating a world view which runs counter to God’s law.
Yet, my critics remain silent. Have they once ever gone to a secular teacher to limit the scope of their teaching? That would be advancing the Kingdom far more than hindering true workers in the field.
However, as soon as someone like myself actually teachers against the secular, industrial-sized “self-help movement” and offers teaching that says, as Jesus said, “self-help is no help at all,” I am criticized for charging.
In one fell swoop, these people both empower those who teach a perspective counter to Christ’s teaching and bless them to charge, enabling them to advertise, market, and expand, while at the same time crippling those of us spreading God’s truth.
Someone please help me understand why this makes any sense.
The true Kingdom-oriented heart would, instead, recognize that God’s virtuous economy can be set into play. Financially supporting in-depth teaching that both spreads the Gospel for free while equipping believers to strengthen their walk, embolden their faith, and counter the prevailing culture plants real seeds that yields fruit.
Yet, for some reason, it appears some would rather dismantle this cycle with an opinion which yields nothing, advances nothing, helps no one, edifies no one.
This is how I would respond to those who disagree with a position of charging for in-depth teaching to support broad free teaching.
But perhaps I am wrong.
I propose continuing the discussion here in accordance with Paul's words:
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (Colossians 4:6)