Monday, May 14, 2012

Offering?


I know I’ve commented on this before, but, in spite of my very clear pronouncements, the Offering persists in posing some liturgical questions.

First of all, technology has made the contribution of money to the church a simple thing to accomplish outside the boundaries of worship.  Many people just send in a monthly check; others find it possible to pay by credit card; and, I understand, it’s possible to make an automatic direct deposit from your account to the church’s.

Of course the problem with all that efficiency is that it de-personalizes the ritual.  It falls in the same category as taxes withheld.  It happens while you’re not looking, and is, therefore, relatively painless, disconnecting any idea of “sacrifice” from the offering.

You still have to prayerfully (one would hope) contemplate the form you fill out allowing the automatic transfer or the check you scrawl out, but that’s a once-upon-a-time prayer, and a distant memory when you’re in the midst of worship. It’s not likely to be a pressing present issue.

Let’s assume, for the sake of conversation, that you’re one of that endangered species of people who actually bring your offering every week to present in person. A check written as you arrive at church, or cash out of your wallet is placed in an offering envelope. You’re ready to offer it as an act of worship.

The deacons, ushers, or other appointed collectors, march up and take large brass plates and circulate among the pew-sitters to receive their gifts.  Most donors, however, tend to slip the folding cash or envelope or check into the plate, almost surreptitiously. It does not appear to be a matter of great import; it seems to have low liturgical impact on the participants.

The problem here is that the Offering is carried out in a manner in which the worshipper is very passive.  If “liturgy” is the work of the people, then, judging by their actions, the people don’t seem to be working very hard.  Sure, they work hard, perhaps, to acquire the money they drop in the plate, but they are not very active liturgically.

Too often, the Offering is regarded as a means of “paying dues”—or worse, paying for admission to the service, much like going to the movies or a concert.  The Offering, then, is not offered as much as it is collected, and it’s highly questionable whether the donors “get it” at all.

Another potential problem is the music used at the time of the Offering, especially as it is being received.  If it is an “anthem”, it can easily glide into the performance category—if it does, it becomes a great distraction.  The music the choir sings during the Offering should captivate the congregation and focus closely on the theme of our humble gifts being in response to God’s gift of new life in Jesus Christ.

If the Offering music is instrumental, the danger is that it will slide into the “noodling” category, meaningless sound to prevent silence from happening, a mere “cover” for the passing of the plates.

Music, as everyone should know, is very powerful, and has, itself, theological content. The right music, done well, can raise the spirit of the Offering from mundane to marvelous. Music is not just accompaniment for the liturgical act of the Offering, it can and should be expressive of its meaning.

Some years ago, we attended a church where the Offering took place in a strikingly different manner. The Offering was announced as an opportunity for reaffirming or making a personal commitment to serve Jesus Christ.  The “deacons” stood at either side of a container at the front of the room, and the people were “invited” to come forward to present their gifts.

During the procession, we sang songs and hymns about God’s gifts to us and our commitments to Christ.  The connection of music and action was powerful.

When I described this to a friend, he suggested cynically that, among other virtues of the procedure, the pastor and deacons could clearly see who gave and who didn’t.  True. Yet, not so cynically, it held all the people accountable to one another as well as to God—not a bad thing.

Since I’ve told others about this mode of Offering, I’ve heard tales of some churches out there that have the same kind of process.

More attention needs to be paid to this part of the Sunday service. Too many questions about its meaning and personal significance are left hanging demanding theological education.  More imagination is called for as well to help the Offering become more authentic worship by the people.

For the Offering is never just of giving some money, nor paying our dues, nor even supporting the church in its wonderful work—the Offering is the act by which we give ourselves anew to God, to the service of Christ.  The Offering is nothing less than an “altar call” in response to God’s wondrous gifts.

What is the Offering like in your church?  Have you ever experienced an offering by processing to make your gift?

2 comments:

  1. Charlotte KroekerMay 15, 2012 at 12:02 PM

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece, Don, and for introducing the aspect of music and the theology associated with the musical offering. Perhaps more reflection on the theology of the offering itself needs to happen first. In our church the choir used to offer the anthem during the offering until it became obvious the distractions associated with the physical activity made it hard for both the choir and the congregation to concentrate on the music. Now the announcements are done during the offering. I'm not certain that is a better option theological however! As with all liturgical action that is accompanied with music a balance must be achieved by the action and the requirements of the music so that both can be rendered gracefully. A contextual but important balancing act!

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  2. Hi, Don - I have just discovered your blog, and am very glad to have done so! I'm a PC(USA) teaching elder and, while I'm not currently serving in parish ministry, I have a continuing interest in all things liturgical. Looking forward to catching up on what has gone before and reading what is yet to come!

    I like the idea of the offering as the "altar call," and the practice of going forward to the deacons that you describe. (And what an appropriate duty for that office in the liturgy, since deacons are set apart expressly for service, service which will, presumably, use the financial gifts being given.)

    I've heard of congregations that provide envelopes or cards or something for everyone to put in the plate on Sunday morning, whether they actually have a check with them or not, but this seems to simply perpetuate the offering as something potentially shaming (i.e., better not let anyone know you didn't bring money to worship today!). I am one of those endangered who still brings a check every Sunday. My four-year-old daughter enjoys putting in the plate, but how formative that will be on her understanding of the offering as a joyful giving of our resources and ourselves to God, I don't know.

    Also, in our congregation, we collect the offering prior to the sermon, which seems entirely backward to me, but was (is?) apparently long-time practice among "former northern Presbyterian churches."

    Could you say something - or point me to where you have already said something - about the current, BCW-recommended practice of presenting the bread and wine/juice for the Eucharist as part of the Offering? I understand the theological reasoning behind it, as it certainly can't be denied that loaves of bread and bottles of wine/juice don't grow in the wild as such - human labor has to combine with God's gifts to produce them - but I have to confess this is one practice that still strikes me as somewhat at odds with our understanding of the Supper as God's gift to us, from start to finish. That's one reason I've always appreciated that, in most Presbyterian churches, the table is already set before anyone arrives. (Of course, it did take human effort to set the table... so maybe we ought not obscure that?)

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, and for this blog.

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Thanks for joining in the conversation!