Should Missionaries Sell Bibles or Just Give Them Away?

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Our missionary team here in Papua New Guinea has taken a largely unpopular position in regards to the distribution of Bibles. Interestingly, our position is highly unpopular to North Americans and very popular amongst the national people.  What is that decision?  We charge for (almost) every Bible we distribute to people.  Honestly, when my family first arrived I was a little uncomfortable with the idea, but after following the suggestions of my fellow missionaries I have found that the decision to charge for Bibles is really wise.

This coin, like many, has two sides.  The first is the Don’t (never, never, ever) Charge For Bibles group and the second is the Sell For a Minimal Fee group.

Don’t Charge For Bibles

The core reasons for this group are:

  1. The Word of God should be freely accessible for all people.
  2. Even if initially uninterested, a free Bible has more potential to offer salvation than no Bible.
  3. It will hinder your ministry as it appears you are making a profit.

A year or so ago I received an email:

Dear Craig.  There is a lady who works for “x” company in Papua New Guinea.  She wants a Bible and I was wondering if you could sent her one.

I replied to this email by pointing out the following:

  1. Because this lady has access to email she must be in a top income category.  Internet costs about K10 per 15 min.  For perspective, K10 at minimum wage represents 10 hours worth of work for the average person – just for 15 min on the internet.
  2. If the lady works for “x” company she must be in good financial standing.
  3. The problem is the lady might be interested in the Bible, but she is not willing to give up anything to get the Bible.

I emailed the lady and offered her the Bible at our normal rate – K15.00.  I told her I would even pay for the shipping.  She never responded.  Did the money put a barrier in the way of this woman’s salvation.  Those in the Don’t Charge For Bibles group would yell – YES!

I don’t think the email was well received.

Distribute Bibles by Charging a Minimal Fee

Welcome to the other side of the coin.  This is the approach our missionary team has taken.  Here are the reasons why:

  1. Selling Bibles is a spiritual blessing to people because they have offered something to receive what they have. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:44-46 NIV
  2. Selling Bibles ensures those who get Bibles will use the Bibles.  Thus, it seems like an act of good stewardship.  It is a sort of filtering process between legitimate requests and illegitimate requests.  Want something free?  Sure.  I have a Book of Morman on my shelf just because someone gave it to me.  Never read it, but I have it.  There are a limited number of Bibles so we want to be sure those who get the Bible will use the Bible.

My Rules for Selling Bibles

  1. All of these rules can and should be broken if there is a legitimate reason.
  2. I always give an explanation of why the Bibles are for sale (typically read – Mt. 13:44-46).
  3. I always explain that the Bible is sold below cost (when you include the shipping).  While Bibles at the local Christian bookstore cost K120.00, we only charge K15.00.  This reduces the risk of appearing as though I am doing this for a profit. 
  4. I always explain that the money I receive for selling Bibles will be used to help the poor.  Last year when there were some storms that devastated the gardens of many local residents I took all the money I had collected from the sale of Bibles and gave the money as a contribution to relief efforts.  I give away 100% of the money I “make” from selling Bibles.
  5. I am always willing to give a Bible when someone has made a legitimate effort to collect the money but is unable.  In one circumstance a person willingly did a service project so they could get a Bible.

Final note.  There has not been a single circumstance where a person wanted a Bible where they were unable to work out something to gather the money.  The local people really like and support our policy for selling Bibles.  In addition, our missionary team does offer a lot of free Bible study material. 

So what do you think? Should missionaries give or sell Bibles?

Comments

  1. Cedric D'Hue says

    Really enjoyed the post Craig. I never thought about this issue before but it makes complete sense. It is true, where our treasure is our heart is also. It makes a difference when you have to pay for something versus getting it for free. If your mission was to hand out as many bibles as possible, most would agree with the Don’t (never, never, ever) Charge For Bibles group. But I think your mission is to introduce Christ to those who don’t know Him. A free bible gathering dust does nothing to make the introduction. A bible worth a day and a half of wages is more likely read, a soul more likely saved.

  2. kelliinkc says

    Another very good, thought provoking article. I understand both sides of the argument and see the logic in both. This is one of those cases where the arguments for each come out pretty balanced in my mind so the only thing to do would be to ask God for direction and go with the way you feel He is leading you in this place at this time. Sounds like you are being extremely fair here. The Bible is full of stories of what people gave up to get salvation so……….. Perhaps in your next assignment in a different culture He may lead you differently.

  3. Art Ford says

    As I understand it the Bible League sells Bibles. Their policy is to sell (again at a much subsidized price) to anyone who is willing to do a Bible Study program first-not sure but it may be 5 sessions. They have learned that they get used by people who both make a time and a financial commitment. I know those over here who help to provide the major cost are quite incensed by the policy, but I think it has some value.

  4. Gholmes says

    I trust that the missionaries on the ground would know what works best in the country that they are serving. The thought process you described sounds reasonable to me.

  5. Mark says

    I’ve never considered this before, but it makes perfect sense, even though it goes against the grain of our “Western” culture. Also, believing in the doctrines of grace, not for one second do I believe that the money placed a barrier in the way of that woman’s salvation (in the story you mentioned). God bless those people who are willing to sell what they have in order to “purchase the field.”

  6. says

    This is an inspiring article Brother! We as wholesale Bible distributors have given away many Bibles that sometimes led to us not being able to pay our Bible bills due to our publishers. I have learned through the years to pray about giving and now offer guidance as to how to purchase or raise funds etc. However this will equip me so much better in the future. What a blessing! Thank you and many prayers for you and each soul God sends your way! May God use you mightily for His Kingdom!
    By His Mercy and Grace, Annissa Co Owner Missions Bibles (Owner is our LORD)
    PS I am friends on facebook with the user ID Papua New Guinea …. if you dont know him, you should!! Here is a link (do you know him?) http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000009368305

  7. Scott says

    Craig- I’m also a missionary and while its nice for people to provide an offering for a bible they receive I believe its all about getting God’s word into every home who will take one. We never know when they, or a friend may pick it up and begin to read. We may have only one chance to be in a particular place to distribute bibles, and not leaving plenty behind because no one offered to pay for any puts up a manmade barrier. In all other things we distribute to the needy we now charge so there is some sense of earning and responsibility. But I see the Bibles as something completely different. We are blessed with the means to obtain and give them away, and commanded to bring the gospel to the world. Imagine a lost child seeking guidance in his life who lacks a Bible to look at because his mom or dad did not want to buy one when a missionary came around. Salvation is free… and the word of God must also be the same to learn about that salvation. -Scott

  8. says

    We also distribute Bibles–in Nigeria. We almost always sell them un-subsidized.

    First, we find that free is a very bad price. People generally appreciate what they pay for more than what they receive free. But when we subsidize, we also hinder those who are trying to meet the need by selling commercially. And we will never be able to give enough Bibles away to meet the need. The situation in Nigeria currently is that there are not enough Bibles, but those who would import commercially don’t because no one will buy at a fair price. If it weren’t for subsidized Bibles, the market would be flooded and there would be plenty for all.

    A cousin of ours in Bolivia told a story of the Quechua Bible when it was first available–he bought and subsidized them in his town, only to find out that another lady–indigenous– bought some hoping to sell at a fair price. But no one would buy them from her, and thought she was trying to cheat them. He had to work hard to correct the situation and help restore relationships and confidence.

    • says

      Craig,
      Thanks for sharing your experiences. It sounds like things in Nigeria are similar to our situation here.
      The Bolivia experience is also interesting because it reminds us that we don’t do what we do in a vacuums. Our choice will impact others.

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