The Christian Commons is a core of discipleship resources released by their respective owners under open licenses. These licenses permit the unrestricted translation, adaptation, distribution, and use of the content by anyone, without needing to obtain permission beforehand or pay royalties. The concept of a Christian Commons is not new—it is profoundly Biblical, being rooted in Old Testament principles and lived out in the New Testament church . The Christian Commons provides the necessary content and legal freedom for believers from every people group to openly collaborate in the completion of the Great Commission. Because the content is open - licensed, speakers of any language—even those with the smallest numbers of speakers—can legally translate and use the content without hindrance.
“You have ten minutes to solve the problem. Begin!”
The tension in the room was palpable as each team started working through the word problem they had been given. A few minutes before, the faculty at our college had divided up the students from all the student leadership teams and given each group a sheet of paper with a problem to solve. Now, with the clock ticking down, we were in a race to be the first team to successfully solve the problem.
As the time continued to count down, a nagging sense that something was not right began to creep in. We read and reread the problem we had been given, but no matter how hard we tried, we could not solve it. It was as though we did not have all the pieces to the puzzle… So we started again and reread the problem once more.
Thankfully, it appeared that all the other groups were encountering the same problem. Quizzical looks and animated conversations suggested that our competitors were also struggling. Which, given our frustration and confusion, was good news—if we couldn’t solve the problem, at least they couldn’t either.
There was something else going on that was strange and a little distracting. The faculty who were moderating the competition kept walking around the room, between the various groups of frustrated competitors asking, over and over again, “How big is your team?” At first, we tried to ignore them, but it became increasingly difficult to do so. “How big is your team?” The clock ticked down to three minutes left. “How big is your team?”
Suddenly, it dawned on us. Our suspicions were right! We did not have all the information we needed to solve the problem we had been given. It was a complicated problem, but we had assumed that the solution could be correctly deduced from the content of the story problem we had each been given. We thought all that was needed was for our little team to try harder. This seemed logical—how else could you run a competition to see which team was fastest? Now we were starting to wonder if the other teams had different information than we did. Maybe they had something that would help us solve our problem, and maybe we had information that would help them…
Almost as if on cue, leaders from each team took their word problem and ran to the middle of the room where we spread the papers out on the floor. Sure enough, we had each been given the same word problem, but each team had a different set of information about the problem. No one team had been given enough information to solve the problem by themselves. Solving the problem required every team to share the information they had with the others. Only by being able to freely use the sum total of all our information, could the problem be solved. Either there would be no winner, or all the teams would win together.
We had not realized that when the faculty divided us up into teams before the competition, they had not actually said we were in teams. In fact, they had never even said it was a competition. They had merely put people in different parts of the room and handed them a word problem to solve. Our natural predisposition to competition and our default tendency toward an exclusivistic tribal mentality did the rest. We assumed that this was just another competition where there would be one winner and many losers, like all the other competitions we had experienced before.
It was this predisposition toward competition that resulted in our failure. We were so narrowly focused on solving our own problem and “winning” that we were unable to take a step back and answer the game-changing question: “How big is your team?” Everyone heard the question, numerous times, as we struggled with our own little problem. But we never took the time to answer the question, until it was too late.
By the time we realized that we were only groups of people with limited information, that the actual team was comprised of all of us together, and that the competition was not against each other but against time, it was too late. We ran out of time and failed to solve the problem. We had been given what we needed to arrive at the correct answer, but because of our inability to move beyond a “competition” mindset, we failed.
Toward a Christian Commons
The exclusive rights afforded to a content owner by copyright law can tend to foster division and a mindset geared toward competition. It does not always do so, but it does make my content exclusively mine and your content exclusively yours. By default, then, what I have is locked up behind my legal wall, for use by me, and what you have is locked up behind your legal wall, for use by you.
It is when adequate “unlocked” discipleship resources do not exist that the spiritual growth of the global church is hindered. The “walling off” of the garden (the sum total of discipleship resources in a given language) tends to segment the Church. This, in turn, tends to keep the various elements of the “team” disconnected and, effectively, in competition against each other.
The solution is not a mandatory redistribution of wealth. This is unbiblical and not what is proposed here. That said, the solution does involve sharing with those who “have not”. This should not be alarming, however, as it is a profoundly Biblical concept and the sharing that happens is only ever a completely voluntary choice on the part of those who “have”.
In the remainder of this chapter we will look at the specifics of the Christian Commons, the Biblical basis for it, new models for creating it, and its end result.
What the Christian Commons Is
The Christian Commons is the sum total of every Christian discipleship resource, in every language of the world, that is released under an open license, like the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Every discipleship resource in the Christian Commons is made available under a license that grants to anyone the irrevocable and unrestricted legal freedom to use any means—including commercial—to redistribute the work as-is and remix (create derivatives from) the work, including the creation of translations, adaptations, and revisions. Anyone who encounters content in the Christian Commons is legally pre-cleared to use it in any way, for any purpose, immediately, and without any hindrance.
These are the specifics of the Christian Commons itself:
Content – The Christian Commons is comprised of content, specifically discipleship resources. It is the common pool of open-licensed Christian teaching, content, information, knowledge, songs, and other resources intended to bring people to salvation and spiritual maturity. It does not include other forms of Intellectual Property, physical property, or digital tools such as the source code for software.
Christian – The Christian Commons is comprised only of content that reflects and teaches established Christian doctrine. The content may reflect the views of any Christian denomination in secondary or peripheral matters, but is necessarily in agreement with orthodox Christianity in matters of primary doctrine. Thus, content in the Commons may express a variety of viewpoints on the topics that have historically been viewed differently by various Christian denominations (e.g. the mode, means, and age of baptism; the nature and function of the Lord’s Supper; the order of events in the end times; etc.). All content in the Christian Commons agrees on matters of foundational Christian doctrine (e.g. the sinfulness of man, the holiness of God, the deity of Christ, His atoning sacrifice for sins, salvation by God’s grace through faith, etc.). Content that that does not adhere to the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith is, by definition, not part of the Christian Commons.
Pre-cleared & unrestricted – In order for content to be included in the Christian Commons, the copyright holder must release it under a license that grants anyone unrestricted and irrevocable permission to create derivatives (including translations and revisions) from the content, redistribute, and use it. These freedoms are granted proactively, without the need for anyone to specifically ask permission first. Content in the Christian Commons is not encumbered by “non-commercial use only” or “no derivatives” restrictions. An ideal license for content in the Christian Commons is the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License, for all the reasons listed in chapter 9.
Decentralized – There is no central repository or governing authority that determines what is in the Commons and what is not. The Christian Commons is decentralized and “fluid” in this regard. Repositories and collections of resources in the Christian Commons will facilitate access to existing content, but there is no single arbiter of what content is in the Christian Commons and what is not.
Instantaneous – A discipleship resource that is released by the copyright holder under an open license that grants the permissions listed above is automatically part of the Christian Commons. There is no formal induction process beyond the release of the content by the owner. The resource may be obscure and not easily found by others, but at the point that it is released under an open license, it is in the Commons.
Voluntary – All content that is in the Christian Commons is there by the voluntary choice of the copyright holder. There is no mandate or compulsion for any copyright holder to release any or all of their content into the Christian Commons. If they own it, they are free to do with it as they choose. The only exception is for content created from other works that are released under a license that includes a condition requiring any derivatives to be released under the same license (like the Attribution-ShareAlike License). Such works are required to be “shared alike” using the same license under which they were released.
Multimedia – Content in the Christian Commons is comprised of multimedia resources as well as text. Christian audio and video resources are of immense importance for the equipping of the global church, the majority of which is primarily oral in their means of communication.
Multilingual – The Christian Commons is comprised of content in any language. Although most discipleship resources currently exist in only a handful of languages, the translation of discipleship resources in the Christian Commons will hopefully extend to every language of the world.
What the Christian Commons Is Not
Not a redistribution of wealth – The Christian Commons is not a mandatory taking from those who have to those who do not. Instead, it is based purely on the generosity of those who have discipleship resources and voluntarily choose to release them under an open license for the unrestricted good of the global church.
Not a revolution – The Christian Commons is not a revolution that attempts to overthrow the traditional paradigm for creation and distribution of discipleship resources. It peacefully co-exists with traditional models for equipping the global church. The “open” ethos of the Christian Commons merely provides another approach to meeting the same need, doing so in a way that leverages modern technology to accelerate the process, rather than depending on legal restrictions that conflict with the advantages made possible by technology.
Not an organization – The Christian Commons is not an organization, hierarchical structure, association, or coalition. It has no governing authority, no membership and no formal means of joining. It is merely a body of unrestricted Christian content pro-actively made available under an open license for the good of the global church.
Not the Public Domain – The Christian Commons is not the same thing as discipleship resources in the Public Domain. Discipleship resources in the Public Domain have no copyright restrictions at all, so these resources are in the Christian Commons. But not all content in the Christian Commons is in the Public Domain. Most of the content in the Christian Commons that is useful to the global church is still under copyright and has a copyright holder. The content itself has voluntarily been made available under a license that grants others the freedom to translate, adapt, build on, revise, and redistribute without restrictions. The release of the content under the open license that puts it into the Christian Commons does not, however, nullify the copyright-holder’s ownership of the content. The content is still owned by the copyright holder, and the license under which the content is released depends on copyright law for its enforcement.
Not copyright assignment – Some attempts at providing “open” solutions for Christian content use an approach that involves assigning the copyright of content to a neutral third party that oversees it. The Christian Commons has nothing to do with this model. Content in the Christian Commons is still owned by the original copyright holders (except in the case of content in the Public Domain), though the freedoms granted to others for the unrestricted use of the content are broad.
Not license management – Some attempts to facilitate the legal use of discipleship content (especially worship songs) provide a means of mediating between the content owner and those wanting to use it. Content in the Christian Commons is not managed by a mediating entity because the content itself has been pre-cleared for anyone to use it freely, without requiring permission or management and oversight by a third party.
Not for the half-hearted – There is a very clear line between “open” content and “closed” content. Those who legally own discipleship resources often find themselves in a position where they really want to release restrictions on their content to bless the global church. But there can often be a strong motivation to also try to maintain some restrictions on the content at the same time, such as trying to prevent bad things from happening to it or attempting to ensure that no one takes commercial advantage of it. One cannot have it both ways. Either content is unrestricted and released into the Christian Commons under an open license, or it is not. Once content is released into the Christian Commons under an open license like the Attribution-ShareAlike License, there is no going back. The license is irrevocable and the content is locked open, forever.
The Biblical Basis for the Christian Commons
The world has changed rapidly in the last two decades. The creation of a Christian Commons is a means of aligning Great Commission strategies with Scripture, as well as with the technological resources God has given the global church in the 21st century.
The Original Christian Commons
In the early church, some believers had plenty while others were in lack. In order to meet the physical needs of those who lacked, the ones who had plenty voluntarily gave up their exclusive ownership of some of what they had, for the good of the entire church.
Now all the believers were together and had everything in common. So they sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. —Acts 2:44-45
They realized that what they owned was not really theirs, but had been given to them by God to meet the needs of others. They had a greater goal than merely their own well-being and comfort. So they voluntarily (not under compulsion) chose to give up some of their individual and exclusive ownership of some of their possessions and property, without repayment. They chose to have these things in common.
To be sure that the significance of this is not missed, Luke mentions the same thing two chapters later:
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. —Acts 4:32, ESV
But this time, we are told what the outcome was of their selfless and sacrificial choice to have everything in common:
There was not a needy person among them… —Acts 4:34, ESV
Those in the church who could not meet their own needs had their needs met by those who had plenty. The church was not divided along organizational or denominational lines. They were united (“of one heart and soul”) and their unity led directly to generous sharing—without restrictions—of what they owned.
Note again: no one was required to do this. Giving up property for use by others was not a mandate—it was a voluntary choice on the part of the owners of the property. No one was required to give anything up, or less of a Christian if they do not. Not only that, if they did decide to give something up, they were not required to give everything up. Peter made this perfectly clear when speaking to Ananias about the land he had sold:
“Wasn’t it yours while you possessed it? And after it was sold, wasn’t it at your disposal?” —Acts 5:4
With Peter, we strongly affirm the right to private property! We also affirm that contributing to the Christian Commons is neither a mandate nor an “all or nothing” proposition. Releasing one work into the Christian Commons does not assume or require releasing everything one owns into it. One might choose to give everything, or one might choose to give some things, or one might choose to not be part of it. All options are equally valid and Biblically-supported.
The need and the solution of the Church in the 1st century is essentially the same in the 21st century: some people are in need, while others have an abundance and can voluntarily meet that need if they so choose. In the first century, the need was for tangible property. This need still exists today, and meeting it is a good thing, although it does not replace the great thing of “making disciples of all nations.” In the realm of discipleship, the need faced by believers is for intellectual property (“discipleship resources”), rather than physical property.
The Christian Commons, as proposed here, is an implementation of the Biblical principle of voluntarily holding some discipleship resources “in common” in the arena of Intellectual Property, for the express purpose of meeting the spiritual needs of the entire global church. Those who own the copyrights on discipleship resources can help meet the needs of others in the global church who are lacking by voluntarily releasing the content under an open license. By putting a discipleship resource into the Christian Commons, anyone in the global church is given the legal freedom to use it for spiritual growth without any restrictions.
The Privilege of Sharing in Ministry
One of the greatest privileges for every Christian (not just clergy) is being directly involved in ministry. Jesus Christ “personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ...” (Ephesians 4:11).
Sharing in ministry is costly and difficult. But those who have experienced it can testify that sharing in ministry is a rich privilege. In the first century, the churches of Macedonia were among the least likely to want to give generously to meet the needs of others, but they begged insistently to be involved in sharing in the ministry:
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God granted to the churches of Macedonia: During a severe testing by affliction, their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed into the wealth of their generosity. I testify that, on their own, according to their ability and beyond their ability, they begged us insistently for the privilege of sharing in the ministry to the saints...—2 Corinthians 8:1-4, emphasis added
It is a tremendous privilege to give sacrificially to meet the needs of the global church—both their physical and their spiritual needs.
Providing for Those with No Rights
God cares for those who cannot care for themselves. Throughout Scripture we see a recurring pattern of God being the defender of the helpless. God says of Himself that He “watches over the sojourners [and] upholds the widow and the fatherless” (Psalm 146:9).
When God gave the law to Israel, He specifically instructed those who “have” to make provision for those who “have not”.
When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. —Deuteronomy 24:19-21, ESV
There are two things to note about this principle that are immediately applicable here. The first is that in Israel at that time, the sojourners, the fatherless, and the widows had limited rights and were easily exploited. The law (“you shall not steal”) was on the side of those who had land and could feed themselves legally. In this passage, God instructs those who own property to not make full use of their rights, so as to provide for those who have nothing.
What if we adopted this principle for the building of the Christian Commons? Instead of “going back to pick up every last sheaf”, “going over our olive trees a second time”, and “stripping our vineyards”, we could live by this principle in the realm of discipleship resources. Rather than lock up everything we own under “all rights reserved”, we could proactively release some of our resources under open-licenses and into the Christian Commons. In so doing, we would help provide for the global church—many of whom have no legal rights to acquire discipleship resources in any other way.
The second point to note about this passage is the clear statement of God's blessing for those who live by this principle: “that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” God cares deeply for the well-being of His Church, especially those who cannot provide for themselves. When we provide for the (spiritually) hungry, God blesses the work of our hands.
In Luke 10, Jesus told a story about a Samaritan who willingly incurred a financial burden to meet the need of someone who could not meet their own needs. James picks up this theme of “loving your neighbor as yourself” in the context of not showing partiality between “neighbors” based on their socioeconomic status.
My brothers, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For example, a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor man dressed in dirty clothes also comes in. If you look with favor on the man wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor man, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” haven’t you discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?...
Indeed, if you keep the royal law prescribed in the Scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. —James 2:1-9, emphasis added
The legal climate governing the world of Intellectual Property Rights is, by default, partial to those who have money. The process of negotiating rights, writing up legal agreements, and paying attorney fees can require a significant amount of capital. Such agreements are often only established when there is potential for financial profit for the parties involved. In the context of world missions, this collides with the linguistic and economic reality of the global church.
The global church needs discipleship resources translated into the thousands of languages they speak, but they are often not financially well off. Most of the languages in the world have fewer than 10,000 speakers. This means the base of potential consumers of a discipleship resource in languages like these is so small that it will often not be a viable undertaking for organizations using traditional funding models. These languages will also generate small “numbers” and meager analytics for a “free of charge” (but copyright-restricted) resource. Often for these reasons, the classic model for creating, translating, and distributing discipleship resources tends to be less favorably inclined for the small and the “have-nots.”
A few verses later, and in the same context, James continues:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. —James 2:14-17
In a spiritual sense (and often a physical sense as well), this is the exact context of the global church in most languages of the world. They have nothing to eat spiritually, while speakers of a handful of languages (especially English) have an unending feast of discipleship resources. Picture a famished beggar on the street, while a table is spread before him in a sumptuous feast—a feast with “Do Not Cross” lines around it that legally prevent him from meeting his desperate need for food. This is not anyone’s intent! No one purposefully raised the barriers to prevent others from joining the feast. The way copyright law works, however, means that those who own the content are the only ones who can tear down the barriers, by releasing the legal restrictions that the law grants to them alone.
It is good to pray in faith that God would meet the spiritual needs of the global church. It is better to pray in faith while also helping to meet their needs by giving them what they need. Effectively meeting their needs moves beyond the “give them a fish” mentality of “free of charge” access to legally-restricted content. Instead, it “teaches them to fish” and provides them with the “fishing tackle” they need—the legal freedom to translate, adapt, build on, revise, redistribute, and use existing discipleship resources in their own languages, without any restrictions.
The Gospel of Giving: God’s Blessing
The Christian Commons is built on the concept of voluntarily and sacrificially giving of ourselves, without receiving payment for what we give or maintaining control over the gift, in order to meet the needs of the global church. When applied to the realm of Intellectual Property and discipleship resources, specifically, it can seem revolutionary. But it is actually neither new nor revolutionary. Even for the church in Acts, it was not a new concept. The origins of voluntary giving of an individual’s wealth for the good of the whole is profoundly Biblical. It is one of the foundational principles established for God’s chosen people, Israel.
The Israelites were commanded by God to be generous to their brothers and loan the poor whatever they needed. These were loans, not gifts, and they were expected to be paid back by the recipient of the loan. But there was a catch. At the end of every seven years, the Israelites were to cancel the debts that were owed to them by their fellow Israelites in the land. So, if a poor person had not paid back the loan and the 7-year cycle was up, the debt was canceled. The loan became a gift.
At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how to cancel debt: Every creditor is to cancel what he has lent his neighbor. He is not to collect anything from his neighbor or brother, because the Lord’s release of debts has been proclaimed. —Deuteronomy 15:1-2
The purpose of this mandate to loan generously and cancel debts at the end of every seven years was specifically intended to meet the needs of the poor. One of the ways by which God’s people are to be different from the world in which they live is through their generosity to those less well-off.
If there is a poor person among you, one of your brothers within any of your gates in the land the Lord your God is giving you, you must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Instead, you are to open your hand to him and freely loan him enough for whatever need he has. —Deuteronomy 15:7-8
God, however, knows how desperately wicked our hearts are. In a context like the one established among the children of Israel, the tendency would be to willingly loan to the poor in the early part of the seven year cycle (when there is a good chance of the loan being repaid), but become increasingly restrictive and possessive toward the end of the cycle (when the debt is more likely to be canceled and the loan become a gift). This is why God specifically instructed His people to not give in to their propensity for stinginess:
Be careful that there isn’t this wicked thought in your heart, ‘The seventh year, the year of canceling debts, is near,’ and you are stingy toward your poor brother and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty. —Deuteronomy 15:9
Instead, God instructed His people to give generously, even when there was no possibility of being repaid. God promised great blessing for those who do so:
Give to him, and don’t have a stingy heart when you give, and because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do. For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, “You must willingly open your hand to your afflicted and poor brother in your land.” —Deuteronomy 15:10-11, emphasis added
The Israelites who generously gave of their own physical property to meet the physical needs of their brothers were promised by God that they would be blessed for it.
This same principle is restated in the New Testament when Paul told the Philippians that their generous gifts were “a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18). The Philippians had sacrificially given of their property and resources to meet the needs of others, and in this context, Paul assured them God’s blessing would be on them to meet their own needs.
And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus. —Philippians 4:19
God has promised to bless and supply the needs of His children who give willingly of what they own to meet the needs of others.
The Gospel of Giving: Joy for The Giver
When the time came for the Israelites to build the temple, David called an assembly. He willingly gave hundreds of tons of his own gold and silver (the finest, best gold he had) for use in building it. Then he invited the children of Israel to voluntarily do the same, asking, “Now who will volunteer to consecrate himself to the Lord today?” (1 Chronicles 29:5b). The Israelites responded with generosity to the call to build God’s temple.
Then the leaders of the households, the leaders of the tribes of Israel, the commanders of thousands and of hundreds, and the officials in charge of the king’s work gave willingly. For the service of God’s house they gave 185 tons of gold and 10,000 gold coins, 375 tons of silver, 675 tons of bronze, and 4,000 tons of iron. —1 Chronicles 29:6-8
The voluntary donations for the temple totaled more than 46,000 tons of gold, silver, and bronze, not counting other metals and precious stones (cf. 1 Chronicles 22:14; 29:4,7). This was a tremendous offering, but what is interesting was the result.
Then the people rejoiced because of their leaders’ willingness to give, for they had given to the Lord with a whole heart. King David also rejoiced greatly. —1 Chronicles 29:6-9, emphasis added
The people who had the means and disposition to give generously did so willingly. They gave away a significant amount of their own material possessions and wealth, and the result was great joy. But the joy was not just for the givers. The generosity of the givers resulted in God’s blessing of joy for the entire nation of Israel. They gave of the very best of their material wealth and property for the building of God’s temple; a physical building. In the same way, when those who are in a position to give generously of the very best of their Intellectual Property do so, the entire global church is blessed and filled with joy. These gifts of discipleship resources are given for the building up of God’s church from every nation, tribe, people and language; a spiritual building (1 Peter 2:4-5).
This same principle of “joy for the giver” is mentioned again in Hebrews, although in a context where the “gift” was exacted from them by theft.
…you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. —Hebrews 10:34 (ESV)
How did these believers wind up having joy when they were being robbed? They were commended for joyfully accepting the loss of their property, because their focus was not on their possessions in this life. They knew they had a better, eternal possession stored up for them where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20).
The Gospel of Giving: Glory and Thanksgiving to God
In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, he exhorted them to follow through with their good intentions of giving of their own resources to provide for the well-being of others in the church who were in need. Paul makes it clear that giving is a voluntary activity, not one that should be done grudgingly or from compulsion. Paul also reminds the Corinthians that God rewards each person according to their generosity and that one cannot outgive God.
Remember this: The person who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the person who sows generously will also reap generously. Each person should do as he has decided in his heart—not reluctantly or out of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make every grace overflow to you, so that in every way, always having everything you need, you may excel in every good work. —2 Corinthians 9:6-8
Generous giving to meet the needs of other believers results in three things: God’s provision for the giver, thanksgiving and glory to God from the recipient, and affection for the giver from the recipient.
Now the One who provides seed for the sower and bread for food will provide and multiply your seed and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for all generosity, which produces thanksgiving to God through us. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many acts of thanksgiving to God. They will glorify God for your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with others through the proof provided by this service. And they will have deep affection for you in their prayers on your behalf because of the surpassing grace of God in you. —2 Corinthians 9:10-45, emphasis added
The gifts given by the Corinthians met a need that could not otherwise be met. Can we not also expect the same blessings that were promised to the Corinthians, when the gift that is given involves the releasing of discipleship resources into the Christian Commons, as a gift to the entire global church to meet their spiritual needs?
Building the Christian Commons
The process of creating a discipleship resource can be time-consuming and costly. It is understandable, then, why traditional licenses are usually used to provide the maximum revenue stream from the resources created, whether by sales or donations to the exclusive distributor. The growth of the Christian Commons does not depend on a costly content-creation model that is stripped of the revenue stream. There are a number of alternative models that can provide sustainable growth for the Christian Commons. Four of these models are summarized below and addressed in greater detail in appendix E, “Sustainable Models for Building the Christian Commons”.
Collaboratively-Created Resources – The global church collectively has tens of millions of unused hours each month. Digital technology like the Internet and mobile phones make it possible to treat the aggregate “free time” of the global church as an asset that can be used in the translation and distribution of discipleship resources in thousands of languages. By adopting a model of social production, instead of private production, the cost associated with creating and translating massive amounts of content in many languages drops significantly. At the same time, the speed of production and distribution of the translated content increases significantly. The open collaboration of the global church to create and translate discipleship resources is a strategic and important means of building the Christian Commons.
Voluntary Early Release of Content – As much as 95% of books written in the last one hundred years are out of print and not available in digital formats, making them difficult (if not impossible) to access. Some Christian authors and publishers are finding that the commercial value of many books are significantly depleted within only a few years after publishing, even though the “all rights reserved” of their copyright lasts for seventy years after their death. Instead of waiting for the term of copyright to expire many years in the future, owners of discipleship resources could sell them for a period of time, then voluntarily release them under open licenses for the good of the global church.
Sponsored Works – Foundations, seminaries, churches, and donors could fund the creation of discipleship resources that are released under open licenses from the outset. This requires understanding that many discipleship resources typically have a dual purpose: ministry tool and revenue generator, from direct sales of the resource or donations to the exclusive owner (or distributor) of the discipleship resource. This is not a problem, but the “revenue generation” purpose depends on restrictive license terms governing the resources in order to maintain the revenue stream. As sponsors realize the immense missional value of creating discipleship resources that have a single purpose of ministry, funding the creation open-licensed discipleship resources can be seen for what it is: incredibly strategic for the Kingdom, without the hindrance of also serving as a revenue generator.
A Gift of Intellectual Property – Those who own the rights to discipleship resources that could be of use to the global church could give a portion of what they have (and of what they create in the future) as a gift, released under an open license into the Christian Commons.
Distributing the Christian Commons
The traditional means of distributing discipleship resources is built on a “pull” model, like a magnet. Content owners maintain exclusive control of their “all rights reserved” content and attempt to attract consumers to the content. This is not a bad way of doing things. Some resources get to millions of people using this model.
The Purpose-Driven Life was marketed and distributed in this way. It is arguably the most successful discipleship resource in recent history, in terms of number of sales. It was published in 2002 by Zondervan and by 2007 it had been translated into 56 languages, with 30 million copies sold. This is an impressive set of numbers, by anyone’s reckoning.
But the reality is that, even with a wildly popular book and the marketing muscle and financial resources of Zondervan, it took 5 years to get that resource translated into less than 0.8% of the world’s languages. If the rate of 56 languages every 5 years is maintained, it would take more than 600 years to reach the rest of the languages with this discipleship resource. Recall, however, that more than half of the world’s languages have fewer than 10,000 speakers each and so represent extremely limited market opportunities for a publishing company, compared to languages with hundreds of millions of speakers.
The “pull” model that attempts to attract all potential consumers to the distribution channel is unable to go the distance to equip disciples in every people group and every language of the world with the discipleship resources they need for spiritual maturity. The people who can be reached by it are only those who are within the “magnetic force field” of the limited distribution channels. Many in the global church are far beyond the reach of traditional distribution points and so do not get access to the content.
Nuclear Fission: A Distribution Model that Goes Farther
The point here is not to denigrate the traditional approach to distribution. Up until the dawn of the digital era, there were few, if any alternatives. But now there is a viable alternative—the “open” approach. It makes the most of the opportunities afforded by the digital age, the rise of the global church and their soon-to-be ubiquitous mobile technology. This model can not only go the distance to every language of the world, but it can do so rapidly and at significantly less expense than the traditional model.
This new approach requires that content be released under open licenses so that anyone can legally help push the content outward to anyone, anywhere in the world. Instead of attempting to pull potential consumers of the content into a small number of legal distribution channels (the “pull” model), the content is released under open licenses that permit anyone to become a legal distribution channel (the “push” model). Anyone who has the content can legally redistribute it to all their friends who can, in turn, redistribute it to all of their friends, and so on. By inviting (and permitting) the global church to become the content distribution network for discipleship resources available in digital formats, the resource can spread extremely rapidly and at virtually zero marginal cost.
This process is similar in concept to the extremely rapid and multiplicative effect of nuclear fission. As one atom splits, it releases neutrons that cause other atoms to split which release still more neutrons that cause other atoms to split, and so on. The process accelerates extremely rapidly, releasing an immense amount of energy in a very short amount of time. This kind of exponential effect is characteristic of the “push” model for distributing content. If everyone who gets a copy of a discipleship resource one day gives copies to two people the next day, the number of discipleship resources given exceeds the population of the world in a little over one month.
Distribution by Any Means
If a resource is restricted by copyrights so that it exists on only one website and cannot be legally redistributed by others, that resource can be much more easily blocked by governments who maintain a “blacklist” of prohibited websites. Resources in the Christian Commons, however, are not subject to these obstacles. Discipleship resources in the Christian Commons can be legally distributed from any number of channels (including BitTorrent and the darknet). They can be hosted on any website, and they can also be legally distributed by any other means and technology available to the global church.
Because the purpose of these resources is exclusively ministry, there is no need to “count the numbers” and track the analytics. Consequently, resources in the Christian Commons can be legally distributed using offline, off-the-grid, under-the-radar methods without restrictions or caveats. This minimizes the risk associated with attempting to distribute content exclusively over the Internet or requiring Internet access in order to use the resources. In parts of the world where it is dangerous to be a Christian, this is an extremely important consideration.
The Spiritual Feast of the Global Church
In past centuries, the creation and distribution of discipleship resources was characterized by legal restrictions, high costs, and limitations. In many ways, there was little alternative because the only means of distributing content involved the costly creation of physical media like books, records, and cassette tapes. But in recent years, the rise of digital technology, the Internet and the mobile phone has changed the rules and opened up new opportunities for the advance of God’s Kingdom in every people group.
The global church is on the rise. They are digital, mobile, networked laborers, working for the advance of God’s Kingdom. The existence of a growing church, equipping themselves with the technology to not merely consume, but to create discipleship resources to support their spiritual growth, may prove to be the greatest opportunity ever for the advance of God’s Kingdom to every people group and in every language. The global church is not able to take full advantage of these opportunities, however, because of the absence of unrestricted discipleship resources that they can use as though they were their own, free of charge and free of legal hindrance. This is a massive obstacle, but one that can be overcome by the voluntary choice of those who own the discipleship resources that can help meet the spiritual need of the global church.
This obstacle is already starting to erode, like a dam that starts to show more and more droplets of water before it finally bursts. All over the world, believers are starting to understand how copyright and licensing works and, more importantly, how excessive controls on discipleship resources can inadvertently hinder the global church from growing spiritually. Some are choosing to “endure anything rather than create an obstacle for the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:12) and are releasing their discipleship resources into the Christian Commons. Steps are being taken to end the spiritual famine of the global church, although much remains to be done.
The classic approach to accomplishing the Great Commission often involved locking people out of “our stuff.” We worked in relatively small, isolated teams, with clearly-defined boundaries of who was “us” and who was “them.” Throughout the history of world missions there have been a lot of closed doors, competition, and legal hindrances to ministry.
But that was then. A better, faster, cheaper, and more effective means of accomplishing the Great Commission is now possible. The future of world missions in the digital age involves open collaboration as the body of Christ, to provide unrestricted discipleship resources in every language, for every people group. It is about freedom, transparency, collaboration, and sharing.
The past may have been restricted and closed; the future of the global church is Open.
Conclusion of Part 4: The creation of the Christian Commons, comprised of discipleship resources voluntarily released under open licenses like the Attribution-ShareAlike License, enables the global church to translate, adapt, build on, revise, redistribute and use discipleship resources without restriction or obstacle.