It was Saturday night, hours before I was supposed to preach, and I had nothing. I prayed, read my Bible and prayed some more. Sometimes when I'm preparing, God supernaturally empowers the process—almost like He's inspiring every word. Other times, it's as if He doesn't even exist.
Panic. Desperation. God, where ARE You? PLEASE, give me something worthwhile to share!
Then I did it. (For years I had heard of those who did, but I never had.) I listened to a Rick Warren message, made my own notes and preached it the next day. To my surprise, God blessed it and used it. I wasn't surprised that God used Warren's message. I was shocked that He used it through me. I (suddenly) learned to lean on those who had gone before me.
Not to sound overly dramatic, but Rick Warren and Bill Hybels saved my early ministry. I was doomed to fail, and both of these humble giants spoke directly into my life and into the lives of everyone who was attending LifeChurch.tv in its infancy. Most amazing, these guys didn't even know. Certainly their messages ministered to me, but that's not what I mean—I listened to these men, borrowed from them, made their messages my own and then preached "our" messages.
I've never met Warren. But just listening to him taught me how to draw simple truths from the Bible that would meet people's needs and apply directly to their daily lives. Hybels taught me how to reach people who were not yet Christ-followers, while still challenging believers. Both men taught me how to organize my thoughts and how to communicate in ways that change people's lives.
When I inevitably discovered Fellowship Church and Northpoint Church, Ed Young and Andy Stanley each opened my eyes to different ways to do ministry. Their insights taught me how to harness my renewed mind and how to be creative spiritually. I borrowed their titles, phrases and points—and then used them at my church to reach more people than I could have on my own.
Many of the great communicators openly invite ministers to use their messages. During the early years of ministry, I benefited countless times from others' hard work. Standing on the shoulders of great communicators and leaders, while submitting to God's fresh direction, empowered me to reach more people than I ever dreamed possible.
Several years ago, I heard that some pastor in another state "copied" one of my message series. I was so pumped. What a gracious honor! Did I really produce something someone else could use? Was it possible for other preachers to benefit from my studying, as I had benefited from theirs? I prayed, "God, please use me to help other pastors the way You've used other pastors to help me."
Have you ever asked yourself: What would happen if churches really worked together? Instead of being jealous, territorial or easily threatened, what if we became dangerously generous with our resources, ideas and ministries? Like some, I grumbled and I griped because few truly practiced kingdom generosity, but I never did anything about it. I'm basically selfish. I wanted others to be generous and helpful, but I wasn't. God's Spirit began to change my heart.
Having learned from others, I wanted to pass along the help. As our church grew, more people asked for our ideas and support. We found ourselves devoting unhealthy amounts of energy running down small and time-consuming requests to help other church leaders. If we didn't change how we assisted others, our own ministry would falter. We wanted to help—we just didn't know how.
One of the most common things churches asked was to buy our videos, artwork and creative elements.
We tried everything we could think of to get them helpful materials quickly and inexpensively. We asked churches to cover just the shipping costs. Some sent "thank-you" offerings. Others insisted we name a fair price for our time and labor. Still others expected us to cover all the costs.
As demand increased, we were tempted to use our gifts to increase revenue. More money means more ministry—certainly nothing's wrong with that. Every church I know that sells their messages and creative content uses any profits to reach more people. They have massive organizations, with overhead and employees, providing valuable, affordable resources.
But we didn't have sophisticated logistics or bottomless resources. Like other churches, we wanted to help other ministries around the world, but launching a dedicated division to do that didn't fit our vision. We prayed, "How can we partner with other ministries, without wasting Your time and money, to advance Your kingdom?"
Eventually a crazy idea lit us up—one that just might work. To our knowledge, no one was doing it. What if, we asked idealistically, we just gave away our creative content—for free? We had some hard discussions.
Clearly, God was calling us to take this faith leap. Although building the systems, supporting the bandwidth and managing the site would cost something, the investment was minuscule compared to the potential spiritual dividends. Lifechurch.tv/Open was born.
Wikipedia defines "open sourcing" as "the act of releasing previously proprietary software under an open source/free software license." This concept came from a few computer companies who started sharing their in-house software with anyone who wanted it, trusting (hoping) that others would follow.
You share some of yours, I share some of mine. Everybody cuts costs, everybody wins. In other words, open sourcing is giving away the rights to use what already exists. In the ministry world, we could define it as giving away what wasn't ours in the first place. (It all came from God, anyway.)
As your library of ministry material grows, you may consider doing the same thing. Or not. You could sell what you have with integrity. And that might be the right way for you to go. With any proceeds, you could dig wells for the thirsty, build homes for orphans, pay for your television outreach or plant churches.
Or, you may consider something completely different, maybe only recently possible because of technology. Maybe you could take what you've already created—spend just a little more—and make it available. Then give everything away.
If you choose to open-source your material, here's what I believe will happen:
You'll help pastors do better ministry. It's thrilling. Pastors from around the world in churches of every size have contacted us to say they're benefiting from what we've already created. With no advertising whatsoever, in the first month, we had more than 10,000 pieces downloaded by more than 1,000 churches in 11 countries.
You'll develop kingdom partnerships. We're making friends with leaders we wouldn't have met otherwise. Our friendships are growing into working together to find staff, to share ideas and even to partner with existing churches, planting new campuses and churches.
You'll model effective stewardship. You'll extend the useful life of something that already exists. If you preach a sermon once, it's used once. If you give it away, it might be used 50 times. If 500 people attend your church, and you spend $500 on staff and equipment time to make a video, then that video's effective cost is $1 per person.
But if just 10 other churches use that same video and each has 150 members, then you've dramatically reduced the per-cost use to just 25 cents per person! Any pastor will tell you: God honors that kind of sensible faithfulness.
You'll encourage others to radical generosity. Almost immediately after launching LifeChurch.tv/Open, several other churches followed suit. Most were already considering doing the same thing. Once they saw it, they jumped in. Taking that risk yields an exponential increase.
God will bless you with more creative, biblical content and ideas. When you give, God gives back to you. As we've shared the ideas God has shared with us, He's sparked even more. Who's more creative than the Creator?
Kingdom unity emerges. When we share our innermost thoughts, the things that divide us become less important. We see into another person's heart, and we recognize ourselves. We all share our humanity, our fallenness. When we see others being real about who they are, we are drawn together, more likely to help each other, more likely to share our other resources.
You can't imagine what will happen. Only God can see the whole picture. Just like a certain message, a certain song, a certain turn of phrase, can surprise you by sparking life-changing power in people, we often don't know what God's trying to do until we take a risk. If we truly believe that we are His people, that this is His world, and we trust in His concept of eternity—not ours—then what do we really have to lose?
Maybe you're not ready (or able) to share messages, videos or other content online, but you still want to help other ministries reach people for Christ. Here are some ideas you may prayerfully consider:
Free CD and DVD ministry. Some churches offer their weekend messages free to anyone who will give it away. It's relatively inexpensive, and can spread the word to people and/or other ministries.
Shared buildings. Does your church have a nice building that goes unused on Saturday nights (or some other time)? Maybe you could offer your building free to a church-plant that meets on Saturdays. Or the new church-plant might buy you a new sound system or video projector in exchange for using your building. With careful planning and good communication, everyone wins.
Free pulpit supply. If you believe in the power of video teaching, here's a great idea. Say a church loses its pastor and is struggling to find another one. Your church could let them use your video messages during their search. (A couple churches are using ours now, and we're honored to help.)
Take up an offering. When another church in your town (or even in another state) undertakes a building project, receive an offering and send it to them. Your church can model kingdom generosity and help the family of Christ.
Partner in missions: Instead of all 400,000 American churches trying to do separate mission work, consider partnering with another church (or two, or 20) to make a difference in one significant place. Instead of your overseas trip not filling up and canceling, maybe it will overflow and you'll have to book a second.
Partner in ministry. Maybe your church can't afford a full-time singles pastor. Consider bringing four or five churches together for monthly combined singles events. All the churches can minister to their single-adult crowd, maybe reach some new people. Some might even thank you when they find godly wives or husbands.
Send people to other churches. One weekend, I promoted 10 other churches. I gathered all their brochures and told our church, "If you aren't making a difference or growing spiritually at LifeChurch.tv, try one of these." Then I explained some of the strengths of each one. Many people took me up on it and later wrote "thank-you" notes. We cleared some needed seats to reach more people, and the churches in town were grateful.
Merge ministries. We've partnered with three churches that decided to become a part of LifeChurch.tv. Across the country, many ministries are realizing they can do more united than they can divided.
Do a series together: Our church and three others decided to do the same series simultaneously. As pastors, we prepared the messages together. All our churches prayed for one another. We played videos of each pastor and reported what God was doing in each church. All our people loved it and grew together in an awesome way.
Adopt a church: Find a church that could benefit from what you're doing and adopt them. What does that mean? I'm not sure. You prayerfully decide. How can you help? Maybe your leaders can mentor theirs. Maybe you can give them your old choir robes or church van. You might help them find the worship leader they're looking for. Whatever it means to you, do it.
Our church leaders are asking, "What do we have that other ministries can use?" and "How can we get it to them quickly and inexpensively?" We have some unusual ideas. I'm considering conducting Internet mentoring with groups of pastors. We've hosted small and "almost-free" conferences.
We plan to offer our "all-staff" leadership talks to any church or ministry, free. We plan to make bylaws, church policies and workflow charts available to those they might help. Some of my pastor friends are talking about writing e-books to distribute free, instead of always for a price.
The bottom line isn't about dollars. It's time and impact. Wisely using time is more important than profit. You can always find or raise more money. You can't find or raise more time. We refuse to burden our staff with helping 1,000 churches, one at a time. That would be foolish. Instead, we plan to continue building systems using technology to help 10, 100 or 1 million. If we can save time, lose money, but have bigger impact, we'll take that any day.
What if our churches worked together and became drastically generous? Instead of always charging for services, products or our time (and certainly we often will), what if we asked if it's possible and wise to offer things for free?
Some pastors and leaders who visited our site offering free creative ministry material seemed overwhelmed that we didn't charge them. It's too good to be true. One of our staff members who oversees the site posted this. It captures the heart of ministry open sourcing. "If 'free' seems too good to be true, it's not. Isn't that why we do what we do anyway?"
What can you do? More than you think.