When I was at Desiring God and we were implementing the vision of posting everything online for free, this was a common objection.
I think the people who make this objection are very smart. Further, they have some good evidence for their thinking. For example, who hasn’t returned home from a conference with a huge pile of free books that they are not interested in and might actually just throw away? Or who doesn’t get annoyed by marketers trying to stick them with “free” stuff as they walk by.
And I have to say that one of the most annoying things to me is websites that try to promote their newsletter or other stuff by putting FREE in all caps, as if we are dogs programmed to salivate at any idea of “free” and as if we don’t have enough to do already. My question whenever I see that is always “who cares if it’s free; will it actually add value to my life?” Much of what is “free” actually takes value away from you by taking your time and creating hassle.
In other words, “free” is often a value vampire.
Of course, though, the problem here is that in these cases, we really aren’t dealing with free at all. We are dealing with low-value stuff that imposes a cost on us — the cost of time and hassle, all in the service of the marketers aims, not the recipient’s aims. By definition, that is not free. That’s called taking. It’s taking in the guise of “FREE.”
Back to something like abundantly free online sermons (like at Desiring God) or even the case of free books. The fact is, sometimes we do value free stuff — and sometimes we don’t.
You can’t just make a blanket statement that people don’t value free stuff, or that they do. Experience constantly contradicts this.
For example, think of your favorite TV show (if you have one). If it’s on one of the major networks, it is free to you. Does that make you value it less? For years my favorite show was Lost, and I didn’t value it less because of the fact that I didn’t have to pay to watch it. Likewise, just because I do pay for an episode of something now on iTunes doesn’t mean I am going to value it more. I value it based on how much I like it, not based on how much it cost me.
The biggest factor here of all, though, is the issue of salvation. Salvation is fully free (Romans 6:23). Does that make us value it less?
Of course, based on the behavior of some Christians, some people might actually argue that the answer is yes! But we know that can’t really be the case, for God would not set things up such that the way he grants the right to heaven is intrinsically flawed so as to make us devalue it.
I think the answer is this. People value free things when those free things meet immense needs or enable them to invest in things that matter.
In the case of free online sermons, if a person simply has a consumer mentality, they might not be valuing those free sermons the way they should. But the free sermons aren’t there for such people. The sermons are there for the people who want to take what they learn from those sermons and invest it into their lives and into other people.
Note that in these cases, the person is actually doing a lot of work. But the work is not to earn the right to the free items (in this case, sermons), but in learning from them, applying them, and living them out. That is very demanding, and causes people to value the sermons very much. (I’ve spoken to pastor after pastor, for example, that has remarked on how they use the sermons in their research as they are preparing for their own sermons.)
And that’s why making something free does not necessarily diminish its value. Sometimes, it actually enhances its value by enabling the person to focus on the real purpose of that which is free — namely, putting it to use.
Why distract people from that purpose by putting up additional barriers?