The $0.00 Tithe: The Church in a World of Free


“And as ye go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.”
—Matthew 10:7-8 (KJV)

Recently, a few gripes have been circulating across the Web from plugin developers for WordPress. As an open source product, WordPress itself costs nothing. As hardcore GPL supporters, the company behind WordPress has even displayed a bit of ire that some designers of themes have insinuated links to pay sites in their free offerings. This made some theme developers livid because it threatened their revenue stream.

But the plugin developers’ complaints are new. They say that their free plugins, which often have notes added requesting donations (which I’m fine with, as the plugins are a lot of coding work), don’t even receive thank yous from users, only complaints.

Welcome to the world of free.

Recently, Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine, whose pontificating about “the long tail” captured the fancy of business leaders everywhere, released his latest book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. It expands on an article he wrote in 2008, “Free! How $0.00 Is the Future of Business.”

Anderson argues that unless a business is giving away important products for free, it’s doomed. The way companies will have to make money from free  is by offering some kind of “freemium” deal, giving away part but offering a paid whole so attractive that people will want to buy it in addition to what they are receiving freely. On some level, that makes sense.

As someone who takes advantage of free, I love it that good things are available without cost. My computers bulge with open source software, some of it outstanding. The time clock I use to track the work I do as a writer is a free Adobe Air application. And if I wanted to, I could dump Microsoft Office and go with Open Office. So free is good.

But I’m not a freemium buyer. If I have to pay, I tend to do without or find a source that offers similar functionality that is still free.

And this is a problem, because that inability to convert free users to freemium buyers is destroying some businesses. Google has managed to figure out how to do this, but few others have. The newspaper industry is a classic example of “death by free.” Free online news and free classifieds through Craigslist have gutted their business model. The New York Times tried to cajole readers into paying for access to online op-ed pages, but with everyone in the world having an opinion, no one bit. Only The Wall Street Journal has had any success with free and freemium, and even they’re losing money.

What’s bad about this is that free is a genie that won’t easily go back into its bottle. Too many people expect to get something for nothing now. And many of them are like me: “No thanks on the upsell.”

When I ponder free and freemium, I consider how they will affect the Church, especially in the West.

Last year, the Church of England lost £400 million due to investment wipeouts in the world’s economic turmoil. They had to seriously curtail spending as a result. Other denominations face similar shortfalls.

Attending church, on one level, is technically a free activity once the cost of driving to a church meeting is excluded. But then again, it’s not. Some churches demand a tithe. Others don’t, but they still rely on the generosity of attendees to fuel pastoral salaries and the increasing costs of educational materials and programs. And lately, has anyone checked the church utility bill? Yowza!

But with more and more people believing in the gospel of free, where does this leave the Church?

For 13 years, I was part of a megachurch  noted for its drawing the unchurched or those dissatisfied with prior church experiences. Throughout the history of that church, a low expectation existed concerning asking people in the seats for their money. As a result, that church, despite many thousands attending, faced nonstop cashflow issues. Too many people showed up, partook of all the costly services the church offered, and gave $0.00 in return. In the end, that church had to radically alter its perspective on asking the people for money, and even instituted a membership program (freemium?) where none had existed before.

I believe what I saw at that church was the cusp of the problem the Church in America overall will encounter with this idea of free.

And so I wonder…

In what ways are the thought processes of church attendees being affected by this notion of free?

How will free alter the way the American Church operates?

Is there a freemum option open for churches?

How will companies that serve the American Church adapt to free? Will they go the route of newspapers?

Will free ultimately make American Christians more stingy or less?

I look at the Book of Acts and I see a model of free that is totally at odds with the way we American Christians live. Nothing we do in the Church here is free. If free genuinely catches on and the business world manages to make it work, I think the Church faces some radical problems it has not bothered to prepare for.

In the wake of lost investment monies, Westernized churches around the globe are reporting budget shortfalls and subsequent program cancellations or staff reductions. Church buildings, staff salaries, and programs ain’t cheap. A world built on a cost of $0.00 poses enormous challenges to Western churches grown used to watching stacks of money pour in from the faithful.

Honestly, I think a world of change is needed—and quickly. What do you think?

14 thoughts on “The $0.00 Tithe: The Church in a World of Free

  1. We pay more for Starbucks coffee than we give to church, and Heaven forfend a fellow churchgoer ask for financial help when laid off. I want to think something’s right with the American church, but with our priviliged, private, phariseeism (mine, too), I worry we will be spit out.

    And even as I complain about it, I know I don’t measure up to my own gripe.


    • Rich,

      My son has been begging for a Wii. And since he has so few items that other parents cave on and simply give their kids without a second thought, I’m having a hard time finding reasons to turn him down that don’t make me look like a stingy, heartless dad.

      Now couple that Wii with the fact that we have a 13″ CRT TV. See the problem? Hello, flat panel widescreen! And if we do that, we almost have to buy an AV receiver to handle all the connections. Costs: $250 Wii + $100 Wii Mario games + $600-1,000 TV + $250-$350 for AV receiver. I see all that and find it hard to justify those expenditures when people are losing their homes or cannot pay for medical care. And as someone who tries hard to put genuine value on what really matters in life, I think of spending $1,500 like most people think of spending $15,000.

      For too many people it’s just buy, buy, buy.

      I’m trying desperately to measure up to my own gripe, too, and it is monstrously difficult. Our culture simply does not support living lean. When you add the idea that more people will be looking for free on some things, it seems that the correct value of everything is out of whack.

      • David

        I think it has to go back to what the reasons are for desiring a Wii…It’s not the cost in money, it’s the other costs, human, spiritual, personal. Money is transitory. If you have determined that the personal cost of having a Wii is too high, that won’t change if tomorrow you are handed a check that would cover the cost of the Wii, games, flat panel and AV sound system. You could say “praise the Lord” and hand the money over to the food bank without a qualm.

      • Don

        I’ve had similar discussions with my kids who want a WII because others have one. It didn’t help the argument when our former church purchased a couple for the kids ministry.

        We still don’t own a WII. We also don’t go to that church any longer.

      • Ask him to pray for a Wii. My friend’s son wanted a DVD-VCR. His mother worked two jobs and could not justify the expense. I told him to pray. My older brother gave me his old one, which I had planned to give my friend’s son, but God had other plans. The boy’s mother won a door prize at a company party: a DVD-VCR. To God be the glory!

  2. David

    I think people who consider what they are getting in return for their tithe are missing the point of the tithe. Everything we have we received from God: The air we breathe, the home we live in, the food we eat, the clothes we wear. Tithing gives back to God in acknowledgment of what He gives freely to us.

    I can already see how the concepts of “free” have affected the church, from our expectations of music to the coffee in the foyer. The last church we visited gave away “free gift bags” to visitors, with a pen, some kind of candy or cookie, and the usual church flyers. We all expect something, and judge the giver by the merits of the gift.

    “Freely you have received, freely give” is a misunderstood concept. What was freely given? Salvation. Heal, cleanse, raise up, cast out. None of these cost us anything. They all come from God. There is nothing we could possibly give that is ours to keep. So “freely” becomes a bit of a moot point.

    But we think not it terms of the Kingdom, but in terms of ourselves. “What will this cost me?” affects everything we say and do. I invited a person to church and I could see the wheels turning as to what cost was involved: In personal time, in preference for company, in desire for style of worship. I’d imagine even the distance involved and how much gas would be used.

    God’s economy doesn’t involve money in the same way we think it does. Witness the woman breaking the alabaster jar of perfume and the reaction of Judas. There is no limit to God’s treasury, so why do we count out the tithe? Why do we measure “this much, and no more”?

  3. Don

    I was just reading a related tidbit in Charisma Magazine last night:

    “What they’re also drawing, however, is an “entertain me” mindset. The Hartford study found that nearly 45 percent of those who attend a megachurch never volunteer at the church, while 32 percent give little or no money.

    “The ethos of the megachurch is to say ‘You can’t just sit there and spectate, that’s not enough, you’ve got to do this or do that,'” said study co-director Scott Thumma. “But a lot of people said ‘I’m perfectly happy coming here and doing that.'”

    I know that you’re not particularly talking about the megachurch, but it helps to illustrate your point.

    • David

      When my wife and I get tired of “doing” we joke about going to the local megachurch so we can relax and not think about others…

  4. May I play devil’s advocate here, in a hypothetical sense?

    If we’re having a hard time with utilities, why not ask why we need a dedicated building? Houses worked in the first century, and they still work in China.

    If we’re having a hard time with salaries, why not ask why we have a paid worship leader when there are probably a half-dozen people in our church capable of picking a set list and singing. Likewise for other musicians (My church has a 7 person worship team and it’s all volunteer; we have another 4 or 5 understudies). Or why are we paying a Youth Minister as if their job description requires a high level of education and exclusive skill sets? Or why is our pastor able to afford a better car than most or all of the congregation?

    If we’re having a hard time with program expenses, why not ask why we’re paying so much for Sunday School material? We’re not talking Th.D. classes here; surely someone in the congregation could develop a simple curriculum. After all, we’re led by the Spirit, not the publishing company.

    I have no problem with any of the above things if a church can afford them. But I think it’s kinda hypocritical to preach about stewardship when the church itself is wasting large quantities of money on things that, somehow, churches survived for 1900+ years without. Personally, my church does without most of this, and we’re doing great. No salaries but the pastor’s (which is little as it is), no programs other than volunteer-operated ones with no overhead, etc etc. And somehow, we come out in the black every year. No abundance, but always enough.

    None of this excuses an unwillingness to give, I’m simply pointing out that the “establishment” should look at itself first and ask why it’s so dependent on money. IMO we’re so ethnocentric that we don’t realize how alien most of the stuff in our churches that costs money is to the overall idea of Church.

  5. merry

    I agree with Chris. I see a difference between tithing to a megachurch which spends their money on building bigger buildings, etc, and tithing to my tiny little church which uses that money to help its members out with financial situations. If we are to be good stewards of our money, wouldn’t it be good to know what the church is planning to do with our hardearned money before we “give it to the Lord?”

    My family has always viewed tithing as not so much giving to the church, I think, as it is giving to the Lord. This means we spread out our “10 percent” between our church, as well as charities, organizations, radio programs, etc, that we feel are doing the work of the Lord. I feel for us and a lot of other Christians it’s not so much “what will this cost me?” but “how will this help the work of the Lord?”

    As far as the “free” aspect of everything, our church has always given things away for free to each other and the community. We are in a somewhat poor community, and the response has always been appreciation. I don’t know what your situation is, but I haven’t seen as much greed so far as just genuine gratitude.

    As for the non-tithing in the megachurches, I’m really wondering if it’s just the psychology of having so many people in a group that everyone thinks everyone else must be tithing, so they feel they can get out of it? I certainly felt that way when the short months that I attempted to go to a megachurch. I should say that I’m just not a fan of the megachurch model, plus I had a bad experience with one trying to raise $13 million for an even bigger building, which resulted in the pastor giving sermons on the splendor of Solomon’s temple, and how the church members needed to sacrifice more money to the “cause.” Um, no thank you…. 😉

  6. Personally I believe in tithing. I think it should be taught sensibly and encouragingly with compassion, not demanded.

    Tithing is the one material exercise that enables the individual Christian to develop a relationship with God around material things in general and the budget in particular. Tithing faithfully, under all circumstances, establishes a relationship of trust both ways, us with God and God with us.

    How the money is spent is another study completely. If one church spends it irresponsibly or not to your liking, find another. The are plenty to be found and a great variety.

  7. Sulan

    I believe in tithing, but I do not give to a church. I support two ministers on TV, and one whose newsletter I get monthly — but not with my tithes.

    I set my tithes aside, and ask God who needs them — and I walk along with them until He tells me. I have done this for years.

    I also believe that all I own belongs to God, it is within my hands until He tells me where to give it.

  8. Actually Sulan, I can respect that approach. I use my tithe to support the ministries of my church but the important thing is that God is honored and it sounds like you do that.

    Many people have become discouraged with the “bigger and better” mindset among churches. Churches have often missed the point of why they exist and have ignored opportunities to make a financial difference among the poor.

    I wouldn’t, however, say that mega churches are the worst. They often win large numbers of people to Christ where small churches never even get started. Larger churches will often admit they are missing something while small churches think they have arrived. Neither is exactly right but one is better than they other.

    The “Me First” thinking among churches, especially the big ones is changing. They are beginning to see and feel the desperation of the needy. Francis Chan is an example.

    When small churches wake up to this fact they will have done so little to teach and encourage a practical approach to fiscal responsibility there will be very little to draw from for any good cause.

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