The Problem with Free

Several years ago, my wife and I moved to Eger, Hungary to plant a church. Eger is a college town, and the first members of our church were college students, so we did a lot of outreach at the college campus.

One of the main ways we did outreach in the early years at the college, was by organizing lectures on various topics, such as intelligent design, business ethics – we even did a cultural night with Indian dancing and food as well as a lecture on the veracity of the Da Vinci Code, back when that was a hot topic. Each of these events was done for the purpose of evangelism and introducing people to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and they were very effective.

The first such event we organized at the college was a lecture on intelligent design from an American speaker who is a friend of ours. We rented out a lecture hall at the college, organized all the logistics – and asked a friend of ours to be in charge of designing a flyer.

The flyer he designed had all the pertinent information on it – including the fact that this event was FREE.  At the very bottom of the flyer was a line of text which read: “And the best part is: It’s Free!”

After the flyers were printed, we began handing them out on the campus, inviting students to join us in the evening for this lecture. As I handed the flyer to one student, he stood and read it, and then handed it back to me and said: “If the best part of this event is that it’s free, then I think I’ll find something else to do.”

This gets to the idea of “Perceived Value”. Perceived value means: “the worth that a product or service has in the mind of the consumer. The consumer’s perceived value of a good or service affects the price that he or she is willing to pay for it.” (source)

In this situation, the ‘perceived value’ was ZERO, because we told everybody that the BEST thing about this event was that it was free!  #epicfail

In spite of this, we did pack the lecture hall out that night, and the event was a success, but we learned a valuable lesson. Interestingly, our most effective outreach in Hungary was (and still is) a camp, which the campers pay full price to attend!

What we have found is that when something COSTS someone something, the perceived value is higher. This has led to discussions about whether we should charge for outreaches, such as concerts, not because we have to, but because ironically more people come when something costs something – because we are wary of things that are free, wondering what the agenda or the catch is behind it being free.

I say all that to say this: I think one area where the Christian church has missed the mark, is when we say basically the same thing about God’s grace as we said on that flyer:  The BEST part is: It’s FREE!

Yes, Grace is freely given by God to the repentant – but in a very important way, Grace is not free: there is a cost to that Grace > it cost God EVERYTHING, it cost Jesus His whole life, AND it will cost YOU everything!  It will cost you your whole life, in order to take hold of it!

This is made very clear by Jesus, who tells parables about a man who found a treasure in a field, and, in his JOY, went and sold ALL THAT HE HAD, that he might purchase that field. Jesus says that you must take up your cross, you must DIE! – you must give up your whole life in order to take hold of the new life that He is making available to you!

Here’s the thing: when we portray that the BEST thing about the Gospel is that it is free, we are diminishing the perceived value. No wonder some people react with a less than enthusiastic response! No wonder some people say: Well, maybe later – you know, once I’m done doing my own thing – if that ever happens.

The point of what Jesus says when he says that the Kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man finds and in his joy goes and sells all that he has and returns and buys that field – is that the knowledge of God, the ways of God, eternal life – these things are such incredible treasures, that if you could only understand how great they are, you would be willing to do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING necessary to take hold of them. In other words: No cost would be too high!

And it is only then, once we have helped people to understand this, that we bring them the good news: that it is God’s free gift to them. But the only way to take hold of it is to give all of yourself over to him who gave all of himself for you.

That kind of understanding is one that brings a person to their knees, to tears of thankfulness and gratefulness, where they are overwhelmed with the kindness and goodness and love of God.

The best part about grace is not that it is free. That’s just the icing on the cake. 

May we portray the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its true infinite value: something worth living for, something worth dying for, something worth giving EVERYTHING for.

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