The Message for Sale: Church Merchandising

Brethren are now doing something that they did not do in times past.  They are charging money for programs done in the name of, and as a work of the church.  I never recall brethren doing this in times past.  I recall brethren on TV and radio when offering tapes, CD’s, tracts and books telling the listeners, “This is offered complimentary and without cost to you.  It is paid for by the free-will offerings of members of the church of Christ” and even, “we are not like other religious groups, you need not make a love offering to receive this material.”  However, brethren now are charging for: (1) marriage enrichment programs done in the name of the local church; (2) Ladies days and men’s retreats; (3) and even lectureships.  Somehow I don’t think this is how Jesus, or the apostles did this.

God’s inspired word tells us where the money is to come from to conduct the work of the church.  It comes from free-will offerings (Acts 4:34-5:4; 11:29-30; Romans 15:26: 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 8:12; 9:7).  Dave Miller once wrote, “All funds utilized in the work of the church are to be contributed by its members based upon their own inventory of personal finances.  This means that bake sales, bingo games and on-the-air pleas for viewer contributions are unauthorized, inappropriate, and unacceptable to God” (Article: The Fund Raising Furor, Firm Foundation, July 28, 1987).  Brother Miller wrote this in reaction to the practices of televangelists and denominations.  However, the truth equally applies to the current practice of some brethren.

Do we truly love souls?  Consider the example of Martin Luther.  He translated the Bible into German in 1522.  It may have been his greatest accomplishment.  Philip Schaff, the historian, wrote, “Hereafter, the Reformation depended no longer on the works of the Reformers, but on the book of God, which everybody could read for himself as his daily guide in spiritual life (History of the Christian Church, Vol. 7, p. 341).  What did he receive for his work?  “It was from beginning to end, a labor of love and enthusiasm while publishers and printers made fortunes, Luther never asked a copper for this greatest work of his life (ibid, p. 354).  Now, I am not suggesting that it would have been wrong for Martin Luther to have received income for his work.  “The laborer is worthy of his wages” (Luke 10: 7; 1 Timothy 5:18 cf. 1 Corinthians 9:7-11).  However, he did what he did freely out of concern for others.  He wanted the Bible in the hands of the people.  Do we have such live?  Or are we turning the message into just another opportunity for gain?

Let us point out that there is a big difference between a laborer charging for his labor and the church charging for its services.  The church has three areas of work: evangelism, benevolence, and edification. Biblical authority comes from direct statements, accounts of action (examples), and implication.  Please tell me where in the Biblical record does the church have authority to charge for something that is within its area of work?  There are no direct statements or accounts of action which authorize such.  Is it implied?  If so, how?

Here are some common attempts to justify the practice:

1.       It is just a nominal fee to cover materials.

 If the materials are so important, can the local church not provide it?  What is the first day contribution for, if it is not to fund legitimate works of the church?

Do those attend have the option of not purchasing the material from you?  Or is this automatically a part of the cost of attending?

Bible students need Bibles.  Should the church start selling Bibles?  How would such look?  John spoke of missionaries going forth “for His name’s sake, taking nothing from the Gentiles” (3 John 7).  “Gentiles” is referring to non-Christians.  This does not imply that the church can charge individual Christians for its services.

Personally, I have given away thousands of dollars of Bibles, books, CD’s and other materials over the years out of concern for others.  Can local churches not do the same?

2.  We offer scholarships.

Even so, the issue is still one of authority.  Where do you find your authority to charge for a work of the local church?

Moreover, are you really expecting one who cannot afford your nominal fee to humiliate himself by telling you that he can’t afford it?  Give me a break.

3.  We give out far more free material than the amont we charge to attend.

Can a person attend for free without taking any of your “free material”?

If you are not raising money, or selling material, what is the purpose of your fees?  Give me a break.

4.  It cost us something to rent this facility.

Okay.  It cost us something to cool and heat the building each first day of the week.  Should we charge for such?

Can a church or multiple churches not work together to cover the expenses without charging the individual?  How were things done during Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons at the Ryman Auditorium ( N.B. Hardeman preached in 5 such meetings: March 28 – April 16 1922, April 01- April 22 1923, March 18 – April 01 1928, October 16 – October 31 1938 and  November 01 – November 08 1942)? Was admission charged? Absolutely not. In Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons, Volume 1, we read: “The brethren were all agreed that if the work should be undertaken it should be done by local congregations cooperation with each other… The advertising campaign set a new precedent among the churches of Christ. …About 100,000 blotters announcing it were distributed; 65,000 personal invitation cards were sent out; large illuminated signs were erected along the car lanes; a half-page ad appeared in both daily papers on the day before the meeting opened; and also a page or two of the city telephone directory was assigned to different ladies in various churches, who called everybody in Nashville that had a telephone and gave them a personal invitation to attend the meeting… On Tuesday night, March 28 (1922), the great Ryman Auditorium seating 6,000 to 8,000 people was packed, and it is estimated that 2,000 were turned away.”  All of this was accomplished without admission fees! How? “Forty congregations in the Nashville area agreed to combine forces for this effort to ‘preach the word, to convert sinners, and to edify the saints, and to quicken the evangelistic impulse of the church'” (Earl West, The Search For The Ancient Order vol. 4, p.157) Brother C.M. Pullias was considered to be the speaker but was later asked to lead the singing for the event. He agreed saying ” I will be glad to sweep the floors or render any other service, to make possible the proposed meeting” (ibid, p.102). What a marvelous attitude!

5.  We charge a nominal fee to cover refreshment cost. 

Did Jesus or the apostles do this?  I don’t recall where they did. 

I understand that there might be some expense.  Can the local members not absorb these expenses?  Can you not provide the option of a person not eating your food?  Must it be included in the cost of attending?

6.  Charging for this course causes those who enroll to attend more regularly and take the class more seriously. 

This is probably true.  The same would be true of Bible classes.  Should we charge for Sunday morning Bible class?   How about Biblical advice on marriage?  How about Biblical information on money?

7.  Universities charge for their classes. 

True.  However, isn’t there a major difference between a private university and the work of the church?

8.  You buy books. 

True.  However, isn’t there a major difference between an individual publisher, and the work of the church?

9.  Times have changed. 

Truth doesn’t change.  Where is the authority?  We used to criticize the denominations for such practices.

10.  The economy is bad.  

This is an excuse.  If you don’t have it, you don’t have it.  Do not resort to unauthorized practices.

Can not churches work together as they once did in N. B. Hardeman’s day?

Brethren, please, let us not give the appearance that the church is just another money-making machine!

About Bryan Hodge

I am a minister and missionary to numerous countries around the world.
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6 Responses to The Message for Sale: Church Merchandising

  1. Morris Fraser says:

    I agree with the tenor of this article. Particularly and stating it another way, the only way a congregation should obtain money is through the contribution on the first day of the week. I hold to this so strongly that I disagreed with my father, who certainly knew more about the Bible than I do. I felt that churches should not receive interest from money placed in checking accounts, a new concept some 40 years ago. My father thought it was OK. I would never agree to a paid workshop or selling study books. I have created classes with material that we asked each student to pay for, as a way of reducing the charge on the congregation, but is someone couldn’t or didn’t want to pay, they still got the book. But pay for lunch? Or for a teacher’s time? Never.

    • Bryan Hodge says:

      Thanks for your interest and comment. We certainly do not want the church to look like another money-making endeavor. The issue to me is how has God authorized the church to raise money to support its legitimate work. It seems to me that such should be funded by the first day of the week free-will offering of Christians. ~Bryan

  2. John Henson says:

    One guy I know runs a program for people in debt. He charges churches (and many of them pay) for his seminar. Helping people get out of debt is nice, but is not the Biblically authorized work of the church!

    • Bryan Hodge says:

      Thanks for the thoughts. I beleieve that the Bible has much to say about money, debt, and stewardship. I think that it is appropriate to teach what the Bible does on this subject. However, We must be careful not to add to what God`s word teaches. Example: While the Bible sets forth general teachings on money, it does not specify how our financial portfolios are to be arranged – the percentage in stocks, bonds, precious metals, or real estate – and other such matters. Such specifics are clearly beyond the work of the church. Best reguards, Bryan

  3. Steve Harbottle says:

    Well written Bryan I attend a congregation of 45 rather than 200 that push their marketing and work very hard at it.

  4. Steve Harbottle says:

    The Bible says go Matthew 28:19. We as Christians should be the best marketers in the world for Christ. Exodus 25:1 The Lord spoke toMoses saying 25:2 bring Me an offering. From everyone who gives it willingly with his heart you shall take my offering. Verse 9 God said according to the pattern and freewill offering is part of God’ plan. 36:3-7 more than enough was given freely for the work. New Testament 2 Corinthians 9:7-8 God is able to make all grace abound towards you, that you always having all susufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work. This is very similar to Exodus 25:2 and 36:3-7. So the pattern to fund Christ church is freewill offerings not use Christ church to sell books,seminars, tracts, CDs, sermons, banners, television programs, or periodicals. If one wants to sell books ect. why not have a business that is not using church assetts to promote their work? The pattern of Christ church is being compromised ,by adding to freewill offerings other income sources,which is adding to scripture making it a false doctrine.

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