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Tell me, why do we send the ushers around with offering baskets during worship – when most members have already given electronically, either through automatic deductions or by using the QR code provided on the worship guide?
Comments from the church administrator during staff meetings do not usually spark my theological reflection, but something I heard a few weeks ago started me thinking about those three to four minutes in our church’s order of worship when we, to use the words I have spoken in one form or another for more than forty years, “receive the offering.”
At the first church I served, I would say, “Let us bring our tithes and offerings to God,” knowing full well that we had few actual tithers. But the word “tithes” always seemed to me so hopeful and inspiring. In my pastoral imagination, we were that woman in Mark’s gospel who gave two copper coins – “all she had to live on.”
Most people, as I discovered, have already given whatever they are going to give by the time they arrive for worship and are not thinking during worship about their weekly gift to the church. I served churches earlier in my ministry where members “pre-paid” their annual gift to the church in early January, presumably with an eye to their tax filing in April. They weren’t planning to drop anything in the basket when it was passed.
So, during the offering each week, are we just supposed to listen quietly to the choir or praise team (we have both) as the baskets are passed, as a kind of entertainment? And if I don’t ask for “tithes and offerings,” what should I be asking for?
(Full disclosure: I now give electronically too. I resisted for a long time, but finally gave in. I hardly even think about my gift anymore. I touch the keypad on my laptop, and the gift moves from my account to the church’s. It happens so fast that I still marvel.)
Looking for guidance about the offering, I decided to check the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship website. I figured that other churches must have given this matter some thought. Turns out, they have.
Among the resources I found was something from a pastor whose church now receives “special offerings” every week at the time of the offering. What makes the offerings special is that they are designated for a different purpose each week. They do this, the pastor wrote, partly to teach children about the act of giving – to create “muscle memory,” as he put it – but they also do it to teach adults about the importance of giving in response to hearing the Word read and proclaimed.
Sitting in my office that day, I imagined that my church too could re-claim this special time during worship: we could pass the basket and practice the act of giving. The needs were obvious – the war in Ukraine, the earthquake in Turkey, the food pantry in our neighborhood, to name a few. What was important, I thought, was to remember giving as something we do in the context of worship. I was excited.
I called the person with responsibility for mission, and she was enthusiastic. Extra money to give away? What a wonderful idea! I could count on her support. I talked next to our worship leaders, and they seemed to like the idea too, as long as I didn’t take too much time giving instructions about something we already know how to do.
What I didn’t expect was the response I received from those responsible for the budget. While most of our giving comes to us online, not all of it does. We still count on several hundred to a few thousand euros each week that appear in the offering baskets as they are passed. What would happen to our budget, they said, if we suddenly changed the way we received the offering?
A good point. And suddenly I shifted from theological reflection to the ordinary, practical issue of meeting the budget and paying the bills. Maybe we shouldn’t mess around with the offering, after all, I thought.
I am still thinking about the issue. I am still talking with staff members and leaders in the congregation. I want to update a practice that dates to the earliest days of the church without tanking our budget. And in all of the talking and thinking and praying, we are actually having a thoughtful conversation about what an offering during worship means in 2023.
So, not such a bad outcome. For the time being.