Sunday, February 6, 2011


Not long ago I was visiting in a large main-line church where the offering of money was accomplished in a manner which I had never experienced, or even thought of, before. This is what happened:

The “Presentation of Tithes and Offerings” was announced, and people came forward in procession with brass plates to receive the offerings, row by row, front to back of the room. As the people deposited their gifts (when they had them to deposit), the pastor stood at the front and recited the up-and-coming events and programs to take place in the church, along with some personal encouragements from members. Then the collectors, plates in hand, processed once more to the front of the room as we all stood to sing the Doxology, and remained standing for the Prayer of Dedication.

I am not usually reticent to offer an opinion of liturgy, but in this case I was speechless. It was a jaw-dropping experience.

When I took the time to analyze, it became very clear that this was just an example of the problem with the Offering in the extreme. It appeared to be nothing more than “the Collecting of Dues,” and while you were paying up you would hear what your dues would buy. Whatever was intended, it came across as crass advertising, and contributed little or nothing to the Glory of God. It struck me as remarkably similar to those movie-theater appeals for a charity, shown on the screen as ushers pass a can around for contributions from the audience.

In any act of worship, leaders always have to be careful what impression is made on the people by what is done or said. Equally, they should be conscious of what expression of faith is made by the people by what they say or do. In terms of both impression and expression, the Offering is a mine field. In the example above, what was impressed on the people was the close connection between what they were putting in the plate and the programs offered by the church—the making of contributions while programs and events were announced made that clear. What was expressed by the people was simply that they had a role in financing the church programs. By liturgical impression and expression our theology is fashioned, for ill or for good.

If I had a nickel for every time someone talked to me about the offering in terms of “paying dues”, I’d have retired earlier…well, that’s an exaggeration, but not as much as you might think. Too often the Offering focuses on what we give rather than what God has given to us, the Gift of Christ. The procession of collectors returning with their bounty in brass bowls is often a triumphant one, and in spite of the singing of the Doxology praising “God from whom all blessings flow,” it’s our offering that is celebrated.

Obviously, the monetary gifts we bring, no matter how large or how great a percentage of income, are puny in comparison to the sacrificial gift of Jesus Christ to each and all of us. The best we can do is to consider whatever we put in the plate to be a token, a mere representation of something more worthy of rendering to God, namely our very selves, all that we are, all that we have.

So we need to think about how to deal with this liturgically, how to make the Offering a response to God’s giving rather than a glorification of our giving.

One possibility would be to move the contributions of money outside the boundaries of worship altogether. Many folks have already done this by making a pledge for the year and writing a monthly check. I remember a man telling me that writing his church check first when paying his monthly bills, was a more meaningful act of worship than dropping something in the plate—he saw his other expenses line up in priority under his response to God’s generosity and goodness. Of course those who give this way now find themselves looking in the pew racks for something to drop in the plate, or simply waving the collector off. We’d need to develop other options for the offering of self and possessions to Christ’s service.

A better suggestion might be to place the Offering at the end of the service, after the Lord’s Supper, just before the “sending” hymn. In this case, the collectors would simply do their collecting and go out the door, to be followed by the people starting on the next leg of their Christian pilgrimage. What the people have given would be a sign of their commitment as disciples of Christ, and it would clearly be given as a response to God’s gift in Jesus Christ as celebrated in the Eucharist.

Certainly the Offering should include, in addition to money, the people’s offering of themselves, time and talents as well, for specific tasks or ministries in the church or community. These could be written on cards and deposited along with financial donations, again as tokens of the larger and more inclusive giving of oneself.

In any case, it isn’t what’s in the plates that’s being dedicated as much as it is the givers. What we give is given to God only when we and our gifts go to work in the service of others in the world.

How is the Offering given/received in your church? What might be done to emphasize the offering of the whole person rather than just a few (or many) dollars?

1 comment:

  1. I understand that something like 70% of pastors are uncomfortable talking about financial stewardship. It's understandable, since while we stand on solid theological ground modeling and talking about giving from the first fruits, tithing, and offering sacrifically, we are also paid by that same congregation. I hear what you are saying about the larger theological issues. We should and do offer our whole selves as a holy and living sacrifice. I say that often, and I believe it wholeheartedly.

    I know a National Baptist congregation in which the congregation comes forward to bring their offering. That feels right to me, like coming forward for Holy Communion, presenting ourselves before God. I also know a United Methodist congregation that does not receive an offering. The plates are left by the doors, and members know to place their pledges and offerings.

    We all hope to be moved to gratitude and inspire others to be moved in like manner. Maybe you're saying there's a qualitative aspect to our offering that supercedes what we put in the plate.


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