Dear Church,

Stop stealing.

I know that pulling off excellence in church every single week is difficult and expensive.  Churches, especially church plants and smaller churches, don’t have enough time, budget, staff, or expertise to produce high-end stuff in-house each week. So I get it, it’s easier to take a short-cut. But sometimes our attempts to save time or money inadvertently lead us to an ethically treacherous place.  Most often, this happens within the realm of intellectual property, and so we don’t think of it as stealing.  We think of it as sharing.

I’ve been where you are, walked in your shoes, and rationalized the same way. Even in creating this website–a place designed to help church leaders train up, heal up, and pump up so they can have their maximum impact–there’s a temptation to want to use great stuff on the web. But just because it can be downloaded for free doesn’t mean it’s yours to use for free.

Having walked this journey, too, I think that most of us in church want to do the right thing but get confused by what’s legal and figure since it’s “all for Jesus” it doesn’t really matter. Here’s why it matters: using intellectual property without permission is literally picking the pocket of content creators. While major studios or production companies might not miss the small royalty, the photographer, videographer, musician, or artist who is hustling each week to make ends meet certainly does. If everyone in your church decided not to tithe simply because your sermons were offered for free, every church in this country would be in trouble. Likewise, if digital media you come across has value to you, pay for it.

Here are the four things churches are notorious for stealing:

1.  Sermon Series

The big church down the road (or the obscure church I admire) just finished a sermon series on the book of Judges.  So we tweak one word in the title of the series (or not), create our own graphic (or not), pick a slightly different breakdown (or not), with slightly different message outlines (or not), and we get it scheduled for next month.  The Bible is open for all.  To coincidently do a series on Judges when another church is doing a series on Judges isn’t stealing.  But to take another church’s ideas and content and try to only slightly couch it in a different way, is.  We don’t see it that way because we’re all on the same “team.”  But in the end, you’re really robbing your congregation and yourself of an opportunity to do something unique in your specific context.  Be inspired by others, but don’t copy their sermon content—unless it’s properly licensed. If you’re looking for a great place to get this stuff for free and legally, check out SermonCentral.com.

2.  Graphics

Unless you have a graphic designer on your team, it’s hard for churches to get good graphics.  You likely value good graphic design.  Unfortunately, most churches don’t value it enough to pay for it.  So they hop online, type something into Google images, and download someone else’s finished work.  There’s no way around it folks; it’s stealing.  Someone else made it, you downloaded it; you didn’t buy it.  Good graphic design can be had for less money than you would think.  And there are lots of churches that do have graphic designers on their teams who would gladly give you previous work or donate time to help you with something custom.  Before stealing, ask. A fantastic place for no-attribution needed, completely free images is Pexels.com. It’s what I use on my site. The images are fantastic, and they are all CC0 or public domain. There are also great subscription services like ShareFaith or Church Motion Graphics which provide high-quality graphics for a relatively low price.

3.  Strategic Plans

This one is tricky.  It’s a good thing to learn from other churches who have gone before and succeeded.  A very good thing!  But to take verbiage from another church or to mimic styles, content, ideas, etc. is not good.  Like with a sermon series, the ones who really get robbed are the people you’re serving and yourself.  It’s God’s heart that he would do something unique through you.  Don’t feel the need to steal someone else’s idea for your church.  Be the church that fits who you are and fits the needs of your community. If you’re looking to be inspired by great content on the cheap so you can develop your own strategic plan, check out MinistryLibrary.com. I’ve reviewed their site–and it can be incredibly valuable. If you need even more help, hire a consultant to help you. Consultants look at your church, your congregation, your city, your leadership, and help to craft your strategic plan. If you’d like to learn more about what it looks like to do a strategic planning consultation with your church, contact me.

4.  Music

Finally, follow the law in regards to music.  Don’t post copyrighted music in your sermons.  Don’t use copyrighted music in videos without attribution.  Don’t play music on Sundays without a CCLI license.  In the end, it’s less expensive than a lawsuit.  And remember that musicians don’t make tons of money.  The music they write is their ministry to your church, and to choose not to license it properly is to muzzle the ox while it’s treading the grain (I Tim. 5:18). If you’re looking for a place with copyright flexible music, try Audio Farm. Chances are you can find that instrumental track you need there, and it’s free and legal.

Bottom line:

You wouldn’t sneak cash out of the offering, snag a Snickers in the grocery store, or get overzealous with the give-a-penny/take-a-penny jar at the gas station.  So don’t steal stuff for your church just because it doesn’t feel like stealing.  It’s time for this to stop.