Should Bibles be sold or handed out?
This is a question which all missionaries working in poor countries will have to answer. And the answer is not as simple as we sometimes try to make it.
I was recently reminded about this issue while watching a DVD of an international missionary organisation working in Swaziland. We all realise that DVDs or pamphlets or whatever other medium is used, are made in order to convince people to donate money towards the cause. The DVD starts with a shot of a number of school children, singing and dancing with Bibles in their hands. The caption reads: “Swazi kids excited about their new English and SiSwati Bibles.” These Bibles had been handed out to them with the help of donations received from overseas. Who’s heart won’t soften when seeing children in darkest Africa dancing with joy because of receiving a Bible?
Many people however feel that it is wrong to hand out Bibles free of charge. The logic behind this conviction is that something is only appreciated if it is paid for.
And now the question: Who is correct? Should Bibles be sold or handed out? And the answer, as I said earlier, is not as simple as saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. When I arrived in Swaziland in 1985 we used to receive boxes full of tracts, some in English, others in siZulu (closely related to siSwati) and when visiting schools I handed out these tracts by the thousand. But there came a time when I became convinced that I’m not doing the right thing. I did realise that the children were merely grabbing the tracts, not because they were really interested in reading them (although I believe that many did read them), but because it was something given to them free of charge. After making this decision I planned the distribution of literature in a much more disciplined way. The fact is that I became convinced that I could distribute Jehovah’s Witness literature or even Muslim literature free of charge and that the children would still grab as much as possible.
So what is my solution? In the good old days I was able to get 30% discount from the Bible Society if we bought Bible directly from them. Bibles were fairly cheap (around $2) and after the 30% discount they were still affordable for most people. We literally sold thousands of Bibles. But at the same time we were open to hand out Bibles to people who we felt would put the Bible to good use and who could not afford to pay for it. I’ve received many things free of charge which I deeply appreciate and I sincerely believe that many people receiving a Bible free of charge would also appreciate it. Which means that we used both systems of giving and selling Bibles, but always selling it without profit.
Things have changed. The Bible Society refuse to give churches discount. Discount is now only given to stores and prices have gone through the roof. The cheapest siSwati Bible available in stores would probably be around $12 – this in a country where 70% of the population live on less than 45 US cent per day! Money received for Bible distribution is now used to buy Bibles at shelf price, but then we sell them at about a quarter of the price at which we buy them. And then we still have an understanding that Bibles may be handed out free of charge or sold at an even lower price if the recipient can really not afford to buy it.
We don’t have much singing and dancing with Bibles in the hand using this system. But I’ve seen many people sitting with their Bibles, reading it and when I look at the congregation on a Sunday as they follow the Scripture reading in their own Bibles, I see Bibles with pen marks, showing signs that they have been used. For me this means more than the singing and dancing.