To release her first contemporary Christian music album back in 2004, Beth Barnard signed a contract with Sparrow Records during her freshman year of high school.

Her 11-song debut was self-titled Bethany Dillon, a stage name she adopted at the recommendation of execs who thought her maiden name—Adelsberger—would be a mouthful. Through Sparrow (now Capitol Christian Music Group), Barnard spent most of her teen years recording music. Her hit songs were nominated for Dove Awards and appeared on WOW compilations.

She then married Shane Barnard—one Shane-half of Christian music group Shane & Shane—and realized that she wanted to stay at home with her family rather than record and tour. More than a decade and four kids later, Barnard sensed last year that she had another collection of songs to share. Only this time, she launched a Kickstarter campaign.

The crowdfunding site had allowed Barnard to release a worship album, A Better Word, in 2017. She turned to Kickstarter again in 2021 to bypass some of the business baggage she was happy to leave behind when she stepped away from the music industry years ago, like marketing efforts and hitting the road to promote the album.

Her fans remembered her and came through, giving more than $20,000 in the first 12 hours of the fundraiser in January.

“Thank you, thank you … not only for helping us meet the financial part of rolling this out, but also for what that speaks … that you’re behind this and excited about it,” Barnard told backers in a recorded video after her project was funded.

Kickstarter, where supporters can pledge for a one-time project, and platforms like Substack and Patreon, where they can pay to subscribe for content on a regular basis, offer creators a way to directly connect with their audiences while giving fans a way to directly support the creators they love.

These setups took off over the past decade among the aspiring and niche, including in Christian circles. Then, as the pandemic canceled events like concerts and conferences, more artists and speakers relied on direct funding and online subscription models as they adapted their material for online audiences.

Apologists, pastoral coaches, and theologians have also begun to turn to direct funding as a revenue stream and a way to share resources. The Truth’s Table podcast, hosted by Michelle Higgins, Christina Edmondson, and Ekemini Uwan, has over 250 Patreon supporters offering $5–$50 a month for bonus episodes and other perks. Australian Bible scholar Michael Bird offers Q&As and commentary in his Substack newsletter Word from the Bird.

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Big names have stepped over to the direct-funding space too. After 40 years in Christian music, the late singer Carman created what remains one of the highest-funded Kickstarter projects in the app’s history, raising $538,103 in 2013 for what turned out to be his last album. Some of the top Christian artists on the site today include singer-songwriters Nichole Nordeman and Jasmine Tate and worship band Citizens.

Though he continued making music and releasing books through traditional outlets, rapper Lecrae joined Patreon during the pandemic, offering his weekly podcast for $5 a month or perks like live Zoom chats for $50 a month. Christian writer and podcaster Tsh Oxenreider launched a Substack in 2019, where subscribers get access for $60 a year or $6 a month to her newsletter and are invited to special events, including in-person book club gatherings (when pandemics allow).

The widespread use of direct funding has shifted the relationship among supporters, creators, and the institutions that used to stand between them.

But despite the success many Christian artists, public theologians, and podcasters have found in crowdfunding, the model raises questions Christians should consider: What are we selling, exactly? And should we sell it just because someone’s willing to buy in?

‘Quintessentially Christian’ giving

Christians were in the direct funding game long before there were websites. In Roman society, wealthy patrons supported poets, philosophers, merchants, and artisans, and the framework carried over into the church. Paul refers to Phoebe as prostatis—a “patron” or “benefactor.” Other New Testament figures such as Lydia, Jason, Onesiphorus, and Philemon may have also played that role in supporting the early Jesus movement.

For most of history, being a patron required status and big bucks. An elite few would commit to consistently support a respected artist or teacher over their career. Online tools today, however, have opened the door to huge swaths of middle-class supporters, who can offer up $5 a month via their credit cards for a members-only podcast and the distinction of digital patron status.

But the church itself has always leaned on the benevolence of the masses. Most churches across the globe rely on tithes and donations from members to operate. Churches build buildings, send youth groups on mission trips, plant other churches, and send out full-time missionaries almost exclusively on donated funds.

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In a proto-crowdfunding model, missionaries regularly visit churches or send letters to recruit like-minded Christians to pledge ongoing support for their ministry work. Like the creators now recruiting online, missionaries are expected to provide their backers with updates about how the investment is paying off on the mission field.

Those missionaries are tapping into a key motivation of their donors: They want to feel intimately involved—or at least aware—of what they’re supporting. That sense of intimacy is key to other, more global Christian efforts like World Vision and Compassion International, where donors can choose a specific child and international community to support.

Still, research suggests younger generations are more inclined to give to individuals than to institutions doing mission work. Giving directly to Christian artists over the internet leans into that reality.

Whatever the reason people give, crowdfunding does seem quintessentially Christian. It answers the call to be generous, to bear one another’s burdens, and—depending on the “product”—to work together in pursuit of gospel causes.

That’s why Heather Wilson and her brother, Jacob Wells, said they wanted to create an explicitly Christian crowdfunding site. They launched GiveSendGo in 2015 and now estimate the site has raised around $25 million so far, spread out among about 8,000 successful campaigns—everything from missions and Habitat for Humanity projects to, more recently, funding for adoption or foster care.

“We got to talking about how this is really what the church should be doing,” Wilson said. “The church in Acts would give what they could and help support each other. This is the kind of the same thing.”

In practice, though, it’s not that simple. For one thing, the site doesn’t require campaigners to be professing Christians or be raising money for explicitly Christian endeavors. In fact, GiveSendGo offers a case study in the pitfalls of populist funding. It’s come under fire recently for hosting deeply controversial campaigns.

Earlier this year, a high-ranking member of the violent alt-right group Proud Boys raised more than $100,000 on GiveSendGo.

Kyle Rittenhouse, accused of murdering two Black Lives Matter protesters in Wisconsin during the unrest last summer, has raised more than a half million dollars for his defense.

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Before his murder conviction in the killing of George Floyd, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin allegedly raised more than $6,000 (his campaign is no longer active).

Wilson and Wells told Religion News Service that they decide which campaigns to allow on their site on a case-by-case basis and that they don’t want to participate in “cancel culture” or presume to be “judge and jury.”

There’s a difference, of course, between crowdfunding for a cause (controversial or not) and the patron-artist relationship fostered on sites like Kickstarter and Patreon.

GiveSendGo is perhaps a cautionary tale: When anyone can launch a crowdfunding effort with the click of a button, people will ask for money for anything—and some people will give money for anything. So how can Christians think critically about what we should create, and where we should give?

Sustaining income?

Hannah Anderson is a Christian writer whose work often explores the relationship between home life and the marketplace. Anderson thinks crowdfunding may appeal to people, especially women, who are used to giving away their artistic work for free.

She first began writing as a young mom, she said, in part because her family needed the money, but also because she felt a calling to create. “That’s just a human need,” she said.

For many like Anderson, crowdfunding and subscription platforms may seem enticing. They’re often marketed as an alternative to the uber-competitive and exclusive “marketplace”—Kickstarter’s mission is to let “creative people…take the wheel” rather than leaving “art world elites and entertainment executives to define our culture.”

But many who have found success in crowdfunding already had a steady following built through more conventional means.

The Holy Post podcast had been around for four years before the show added a Patreon with bonus content in 2016, and its popular cohosts author Skye Jethani and Phil Vischer (of VeggieTales fame) had name recognition with Christians long before that. They now bring in over $18,000 a month on Patreon.

While direct funding may allow artists to finally monetize their work, it’s usually not enough to pay the bills.

Beth Barnard says she never planned for her album’s Kickstarter to put food on her family’s table. “We wanted funds to be able to pay the band well and to check all the boxes of what it is to make a record,” she said.

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That funding problem isn’t exclusive to crowdfunding sites, though. Even established Christian authors who publish books the old-fashioned way typically don’t make a sustaining income on writing alone.

“Almost everybody who is publishing in traditional ways in the Christian world, who are successful authors … almost everybody has a day job,” said Trevin Wax, outgoing senior vice president for theology and communications at Lifeway Christian Resources. Publishing is “at best a nice little bonus.”

For that reason and others, Wax doesn’t worry that crowdfunding sites will elbow out traditional publishing houses. Lifeway offers a machine of publicists, editors, graphic designers, inventory managers, and, crucially, event planners that those going the independent route won’t have. The events are key, Wax says; any author who wants even a modicum of success must also be speaking in front of audiences.

Expectation of intimacy

So if the majority of Christian creators using crowdfunding won’t make a sustainable family income on the art alone, what else can they sell?

Crowdfunding offers something that traditional publishing doesn’t: intimacy between creators and their audience. But the expectation of that intimacy—which comes to the forefront on social media and through these subscription models—can be more rewarding and more demanding.

Glorious Weakness author Alia Joy used to field requests from committed readers who wanted to send her money through Venmo to support her work. After her 2020 conference plans were called off during the pandemic, she took the readers up on their suggestion and started a Patreon.

“The people that have believed in my writing have really rallied around me,” said Joy, who lives in Oregon with her three kids, husband, and widowed mother.

Joy’s bipolar disorder, physical disability, and bouts with severe depression have often kept her from writing consistently. In February of this year, she wrote a confessional post to her Patreon supporters apologizing for her inconsistency and trying to set a more realistic expectation.

“When I have words, I will serve them here,” she wrote. “When I don’t, I will rest. His grace is sufficient.”

The $5 Patreon subscriptions total about $350 a month, which Joy said she uses to cover the cost of her psych medication.

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She says her readers have been mostly kind and supportive. She has less of a problem with getting pushback from followers than with hearing from some who feel too connected to her when she is not able to reciprocate.

“I 100 percent don’t care if people just don’t like me,” she says. “But if people ask me, ‘Hey, can we go get coffee?’ and I say I can’t do that … if they’re like, ‘I’m not worth having coffee with,’ that actually is the thing that makes it really hard for me to set boundaries.”

After she released her book, in which she wrote about her childhood sexual trauma and other heavy issues, Joy says she started getting really personal, weighty emails from readers who wrote as if they knew her—and were expecting a response in kind. For a while, Joy shared an 800 number that connects callers with mental health experts in their area. She’d send it to especially troubled supporters.

Whenever the line between person and brand blurs, expectations become unmanageable, Anderson warns. Financial backers might feel too much entitlement to creators’ content (and time). Creators might view negative feedback as a referendum on them as a person.

In addition to the personal risks, she sees another potential problem: The quality of the art could suffer. “You have the accountability of contenting your audience, but to me that’s not a good form of accountability,” she said.

If the artist is the product, she says, there’s no editor necessary. That might feel like freedom, but when artists focus more on their fans than on their work, it can also lead to stagnation.

“If you enter into this space like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to give my thoughts to the world’ … there’s no reciprocation about whether your thoughts should be shifted,” she said.

“I would worry that people who go down the Patreon route without a clear sense of putting boundaries in place for themselves … one of the things it would do is it would stifle your personal growth.”

Wax at Lifeway says professional editors push writers to do better work. “There’s always going to be a need for traditional publishers to vet writers really well and edit their work with excellence.”

Scripture, too, warns of the potential downsides of a crowdfunding model, with James criticizing churches that catered to their generous benefactors (James 2:1–4).

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There’s no doubt crowdfunding sites like Patreon and Kickstarter have paved the way for albums, podcasts, articles, theological insight, and art that may never have otherwise been produced.

Beth Barnard may never have released another album if doing it required a year of touring apart from her family. Alia Joy may never have found an outlet that would publish the heartfelt prose her audience has come to love—and that her disability keeps her from producing consistently.

But despite their clever marketing, crowdfunding sites offer neither perfect populism nor unfettered creative freedom. They don’t eliminate many of the setbacks of traditional publishing: Some really good artists still won’t find an audience. Some really bad art will. “Success,” after all, still hinges on popularity and money. And those looking for money for nefarious reasons will also try this new avenue to get it.

This presents challenges for Christians on all sides of the crowdfunding relationship: to make sure we’re creating good things that warrant distribution and to make sure we’re giving money to those good things—not as a bid for influence over the person creating them.

For her part, Hannah Anderson doesn’t support many Patreons. Instead, she likes looking for digital “tip jars” (usually links to PayPal or other money-transfer apps) at the ends of articles she enjoyed.

“I link it more directly to the artifact,” she said. “I’m going to give you money for this thing, not for you.”

Maria Baer is a CT contributing writer based in Ohio.

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