Bible Software: Business or Ministry?

Cutthroat Competition? Christian Charity? or Compassionate Capitalism?

by David Lang (Posted: 7/22/04)


[Please Note: As with all Bully Pulpit articles, the views expressed in this opinion piece are completely my own, and are not necessarily representative of CMUG.]

Losing One or the Other

A seminary professor of mine once remarked to a room full of future pastors: "If you earn your living by your faith, sooner or later you'll lose one or the other." That professor had a penchant for making startling statements, and this one was no different. It was a sober warning that financial concerns are often in conflict with spiritual goals and principles. If a minister's faith leads him to preach or do things which his congregation or denomination finds objectionable, he runs the risk of losing his job. On the other hand, if he plays it safe and preaches only what people want to hear, he may keep his job and even do quite well financially, but at the terrible cost of selling out his mission and calling. It all boils down to another way of saying that you can't serve both God and "mammon" (Matthew 6:24, KJV).

Although I didn't end up entering the pastorate, as a Bible software developer I work in a field where to some extent I'm still "earning a living by my faith," and I often wrestle with the question of whether what I do is strictly a ministry, a business, or something in between.

The Challenge of Self-Definition

This question of how to define what one does is something which seemingly every Bible Software developer must struggle to answer. There is certainly a broad spectrum of answers given.

Some commercial Bible software developers clearly define themselves as a business. As such, they are not shy about trying to make as much money as possible, or even about aggressively trying to beat out the competition. As Christian businessmen, they do try to behave ethically, and they do have higher goals than mere profits, but sometimes it's hard to see such people as being motivated by anything more than the bottom line.

At the other end of the spectrum are those developers who clearly define what they do as a ministry. This group is mostly made up of freeware/shareware developers who receive little or no money for their efforts, but there are also commercial developers who define themselves this way. In such cases, they may well charge for their software, but their profit margins are usually razor thin, and their identification of themselves as a ministry often dictates how they respond to certain situations.

Now, before you jump to the conclusion that those companies which define themselves as a "business" are bad while those which define themselves as a "ministry" are good, let me caution you to remember that these two models are merely two ends of a broad spectrum, and that there are strengths and weaknesses of each.

For example, there is one "business" company I know of which strikes me as overly aggressive and competitive, yet their desire to "win" is marked by an overall commitment to quality and a desire to create the best product they can. On the other hand, I've seen a "ministry" company which appears to be content to release features and modules which I would consider to be half-baked. It's not that they don't care about quality; rather, it's that as a "ministry" they are eager to get things into their users' hands as soon as possible, even if that means releasing them in a form which is merely "good enough."

To be frank, I've seen the ministry label used to justify everything from shoddy workmanship to cut-throat competition to copyright infringement to failure to pay royalties to poor user support to practices which I think border on being deceptive. Thus, it's not always so easy to conclude that "business" equals bad while "ministry" equals good.

Do I say this because my company considers itself to be a business rather than a ministry? Not at all. The truth is that I'm not at all sure where to place OakTree Software along the continuum from business to ministry. My boss will tell you in no uncertain terms that we are not a ministry, but that's largely because he doesn't see sitting at a computer writing code as being worthy of the name "ministry." For him, ministry is teaching in various congregations overseas, something he does at his own expense for several weeks out of the year.

On the other hand, we're not strictly a "business" either. While one of our goals is to build a sustainable business and be financially compensated for the work we do, we do a lot of things which simply do not make sense from a purely business standpoint. For quite a few years, my boss and his wife actually subsidized the development of Accordance with the money they earned at their "real jobs" (he's a programming consultant and she's an anesthesiologist). While they no longer have to fund my paychecks out of their own pockets, they still take very little in the way of personal income from Accordance—certainly not anywhere near what their time is worth.

Another aspect of OakTree Software which makes little sense from a purely business standpoint are some of the modules we choose to develop. We have often invested a great deal in the development of research tools which we knew would never sell enough to recoup our costs. Why? Because it was something our users asked for, or simply something in which we had a personal interest. As a "business" which is not primarily driven by concern for the bottom line, we have had the freedom to pursue worthwhile projects for their own sake. Thus, while we define ourselves as a "commercial" software developer, there is much in what we do that could easily be defined as "ministry" or "charity."

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Ministry Model

Those developers who self-consciously adopt a "ministry" approach have certain advantages over those who adopt a more "business" approach. One huge advantage is the goodwill they engender on the part of their users. Giving software away for free tends to cover a multitude of sins. Users who get something for nothing know they have reason to be grateful, tend to wait patiently for new updates and features, and generally make fewer demands.

Another advantage is that people tend to pitch in and help. Online Bible's and the Sword Project's modules were largely developed by users who volunteered their time and effort. MacSword's "open source" approach invites people to help with programming, localization, documentation, etc.

Software which is given away for free is sometimes also able to make available resources which commercial Bible software developers cannot. For example, there are numerous resources available on the internet which can be copied and used freely "for non-commercial purposes." As a "commercial" software developer, even if my company made those resources available in Accordance format for free, it could be argued that we were still using them to promote a commercial product, and so we can't touch them. In other cases, publishers may grant special concessions to those programs which are freely given away. For example, my company must pay a fairly substantial royalty for certain Greek and Hebrew Bible texts which are under copyright, while some freeware developers have apparently obtained permission to distribute those texts for free.

Naturally, there are disadvantages to the "ministry" model as well. The first is simply lack of time. Because they are not paid for their development efforts, most of these developers must support themselves by other means. Unless they're independently wealthy, that means they have a full-time job other than Bible software development. Consequently, their development efforts get relegated to those nights and weekends when they're not spending time with their families or meeting other obligations.

Another major disadvantage is that many book publishers are unwilling to license their materials for use with freeware/shareware Bible programs. Many publishers are concerned that those developers will not present their materials in a way that seems "professional," that they may devalue their materials by charging as little as possible for them, or simply that they may not be around for very long.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Business Model

Commercial developers have their strengths and weaknesses as well. Because they charge for their software, they may be perceived as greedy compared to those who give their software away. As one survey respondent put it, commercial developers may be viewed as trying to "make a buck from the Word of God" (as opposed to making a buck from an honest day's work?). At the very least, commercial developers will be judged more critically than those developers who are working in their spare time.

But that's also an advantage. Because their users have paid good money for their software, money they could have spent elsewhere or not spent at all, commercial developers are more accountable to their users. If they want to stay in business, they need to be responsive to user requests and demands. That means continually updating and improving the software, seeking feedback, and providing support.

Another obvious advantage, of course, is that commercial developers generally have the time and resources to provide all these things which their users expect. Just as a paid minister has the freedom to minister full-time, while a volunteer minister must split his time between work and ministry, so developers who are paid for the work they do are better able to commit themselves fully to that work.

Commercial software developers also tend to have an easier time licensing copyright materials from publishers. This is partly because commercial software is (hopefully!) more polished than any shareware options available, and partly because commercial developers are perceived as less likely to close up shop.

Is it Wrong to Sell Bible Software?

We've just considered the practical distinctions between what I've called the "ministry" and "business" models of Bible software development, but there are many who also see a moral distinction between the two. Of these, some feel that it is simply wrong to make a profit from the sale of Bible software.

Is it wrong to sell Bible Software? And if so, why?

Some would answer that it is wrong to withhold the Word of God from those who cannot afford to buy it. But this is just silly. As long as there are web-sites and programs which offer free Bible texts, the commercial Bible Software developer has no monopolistic control over the dissemination of the Scriptures. So if someone cannot afford a particular Bible program, he is not for that reason prevented from accessing the Bible itself somewhere else.

Others simply point to those who give their software away and argue that commercial developers should do the same. Aside from arguing that you get what you pay for, I always find myself wondering what these people would say if someone told them that they had a moral obligation not to be paid for their work.

While I don't think any of these arguments carries much weight, I can certainly sympathize with the suspicion which I think lies in back of them. We've all seen the rampant commercialism which has infected much of modern Christianity, and there are lots of supposedly "Christian" businesses which appear to be earning their living at the expense of their faith. It's tempting to want to "fix" this problem by urging Christian authors, musicians, publishers, filmmakers, software developers and the like to give away their wares for free, but ultimately, it's a solution which strikes me as being closer to communism than Christianity.

How Much is Too Much?

Many people, while not objecting to commercial Bible software per se, object to the prices which commercial Bible software developers charge. In the case of Accordance, we've found that complaints about price stem from a wide variety of perspectives and comparisons.

Some people simply deem something too expensive if it costs more than they can afford or are willing to pay. The developer of iBible charges a modest shareware fee of $15, but is willing to give his software away to people who claim "indigent" status. In the first month iBible was available, a thousand people requested the software for free, presumably because they could not afford it. That's a lot of "indigents" who happen to own Macs capable of running OS X!

Then again, am I any better? The developer of iBible was gracious enough to give me a free copy of the program, not because I claimed indigent status, but because I was writing an article about the use of Strong's numbers in Mac Bible software. I certainly could have paid the $15—I don't think twice about spending that much on dinner for my family at a fast-food restaurant—but somehow, that money seemed like a lot to pay for a program I only intended to use to write an article I wasn't being paid to write.

My point is that any amount of money will seem too high if that product isn't worth more to us than the asking price. A pastor or teacher who uses Bible software in his work may be willing to spend hundreds of dollars for it, while a layperson who only wants to look up a verse now and then may see fifteen dollars as too expensive. Ultimately, "affordability" is a pretty subjective measure of price, because it all depends on how a customer assesses the value of a product.

Another way to judge the price of a program is by comparing it with that of other programs, but this too can be tricky. As Mac users, we all know that comparing a $399 white box Windows PC with a $799 eMac is not exactly comparing apples to apples. There are qualitative differences between the two which we would see as justifying the Mac's higher price tag. It can also be argued that the Mac costs less money in the long run. Yet there are many people who just can't seem to see that. In the same way, when someone complains to me that Accordance is more expensive than some shareware program with limited capabilities, I tend to make the same sorts of arguments about our software's quality, the frequency with which it's updated, the excellence of our user support, and so on.

A fairer price comparison would be between Accordance and some of the higher-end commercial Bible apps for Windows. Here again, such comparisons are not exactly apples to apples, since the economies of scale are quite different where the Windows and Mac markets are concerned; but at least the commercial Windows programs come closer to Accordance in terms of software quality, speed of development, and support offered.

While we know that we can never match the prices of the freeware/shareware programs available, my company has long tried to keep the price of Accordance comparable to the higher-end commercial Bible packages for Windows. Last year, after so many people complained that Accordance was too expensive, we took a hard look at some of the leading Windows Bible study programs and discovered two things:

1. In many cases, the entry-level price for Windows Bible software was actually higher than the entry-level price for Accordance. Many of these programs are sold as a series of packages starting at around $150, while Accordance was available from as little as $59 (it's now available from $39). One of the cheapest high-end commercial programs actually offers a single large package for $299, and the developers of that software have confided to us that they are often criticized for being too expensive because they don't offer a less expensive alternative.

2. Though the various Windows Bible packages were sometimes more expensive than Accordance packages, they typically contained more value, with more included modern English Bible texts, commentaries, etc. By forcing users to purchase these items separately, the real cost of an equivalent Accordance package quickly added up to much more.

We therefore responded by including more value in each of our main module collections, even giving users their choice of modern Bible texts rather than padding our packages with lower-royalty Bible texts. Accordance is now quite comparable in price to the higher-end Windows programs, and I believe, offers greater choice.

In spite of this, there were a number of survey respondents this year who still had the impression that Accordance is more expensive than most Windows Bible software. Some of these simply may not have been aware of recent changes. Others were comparing Accordance to low-end Windows packages which are little more than glorified e-Book readers. But there were a few who did seem to be aware of the latest Accordance prices and who were comparing Accordance to the very Windows programs with whom we are trying to stay comparable in price. When I went back and compared Accordance with these packages, I consistently found Accordance to be roughly equal, and in some cases better, in terms of bang for buck.

I believe this discrepancy between perception and reality is largely due to differences in marketing. Ultimately, most people compare packages in terms of their general impressions rather than on an item by item basis. Packaging, presentation, the way included modules are listed, etc. all contribute to whether or not a user gets the impression that a package offers a lot of value for the money; and frankly, the Windows developers are better at those things than we are.

For example, one Windows Bible program offers an "Advanced Library" package with a street price of $399 ($499 retail). In Accordance, you could put together a package which is comparable in content and far superior with respect to features by combining the Standard Level of the Library CD ($169) with the Core Bundle of the Scholar's CD ($199). It actually comes out to be $30 less than the Windows package, but because the Windows package lists a lot of stuff for a single price, some people have come away with the impression that this Windows program is cheaper than Accordance.

Thus, while I think my company continually needs to look at the way Accordance is priced, we also need to find ways to better communicate the competitive value of the modules and features contained in each of our packages.

My point in all of this is not to justify the prices my company charges, but to demonstrate the challenges which face the commercial Bible software developer with respect to setting prices. On the one hand, his prices will be compared with shareware programs which cost little to nothing, and the fact that he is not giving his software away may automatically brand him as just a little bit greedy. On the other hand, he has to keep his prices comparable to Windows programs which have a much higher sales volume and which are locked in a price war with countless competitors. And, of course, he must also strive to develop software which is demonstrably superior to the Windows programs and substantially better than the freeware options. It's not an easy line to walk.

Not Without Rewards

Throughout this article, I've spent a lot of time discussing the challenges which face the various developers of Mac Bible Software. Shareware developers are challenged to find the time, resources, and motivation necessary to develop the features and modules their users want. Commercial developers are challenged to create a sustainable business without becoming ruled by purely financial concerns, to create software which users will choose over freeware programs and internet sites, and to stay one step ahead of the best that Windows has to offer. Yet despite these challenges, developing Bible software for the Mac is not without its rewards.

For those developers who have adopted a "ministry" model, the rewards include the satisfaction of being generous, the joy of providing software which meets people's needs, the gratitude and praise which they receive from their users, and—for those who accept donations or charge modest fees—some degree of financial remuneration. Commercial developers also enjoy the satisfaction of creating software which meets people's needs and which elicits their praise, with the added benefit of being able to earn their living doing something they love.

For me, personally, I get to work for a great little company which gives me the freedom to set my own hours and to work from home. I also get to influence the development of what I think is the coolest Bible software available, and I get to play with all the new goodies before anyone else does. And on top of all that, I get to do it all on a Mac. All in all, it's not a bad deal.

David Lang is CMUG's Content Editor. David works as a developer of Accordance Bible Software, and lives in Maitland, Florida with his wife and four children.

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