An Offering From Plate to Pulpit
Behind every cultural custom or religious ritual is a story. Some of these stories are older and more established than others. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the seemingly time-honored traditions that we hold dear as 21st century believers are fairly modern innovations. Passing an offertory plate is one such example of a relatively novel practice with fairly shallow historical roots.
The church did not start in America, but the particular practice of passing a plate that has become embedded in contemporary church culture did. Most churches in early colonial America were supported by the state. Being that most early colonials and citizens assumed that religion served the public good in establishing character and virtue, churches received provision through poll and property taxes. By the mid-1800s, state churches were officially disestablished and no longer privy to formal state support.
While some churches turned to gimmicks such as renting out pews in order to raise support, many turned directly to Scripture for direction. On the basis of texts like 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, 2 Corinthians 8-9, 1 Timothy 5:17-18 and related passages, churches began to increasingly depend on the freewill offerings of their members for support. By the early 20th century, the practice of giving developed as a natural part of the weekly liturgical practice and specific time was set aside for the collection of an offering utilizing the passing of a plate or bag.
For over 100 years, the American church has relied upon this particular tradition and it has been greatly used by God for the furthering of His kingdom purposes not only in this country, but even beyond our borders. However, over the past twenty years, there have been an increasing number of churches moving away from the custom of passing a plate by utilizing other means of collection. Part of this is driven by technology, as we are culturally becoming a cashless and checkless society. But other factors are driving the transition of tradition as well.
As the elders of The Parkway prayerfully considered a change in this area, we were led by three convictions: liturgical, cultural and biblical.
The practice of passing a plate takes time. As the elders have reflected upon our order of service, we have come to believe that our corporate time together can be better stewarded by engaging in more established and formative traditions. We are looking to maximize those elements of our worship service that we find to be of the utmost significance for the formation of our people. In particular, we think that our weekly worship time should focus on preaching, singing, praying, taking communion and reading Scripture. Each of these has a much more biblically defined role in the gathering of the saints and we thus want to emphasize them in how we steward our Sunday mornings together.
Though the weekly gathering of a church is primarily for the theological purpose of edifying the church body, the Bible also declares that there should be a certain sensitivity to the potential presence of unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:20-25). In light of this, it would seem prudent to think through our services from the perspective of communicating with the unchurched or dechurched persons who might come. Many of those whom we would like to serve in our community have a caricature of churches based upon prosperity preachers and other church charlatans. For them, the practice of passing a plate might simply confirm their presuppositions that the church is merely interested in their pocketbooks.
Perhaps by not verbally and liturgically emphasizing giving on a weekly basis, we can begin to shepherd such people toward a healthy understanding of the joy of generosity. The church exists to give to the world, not take from it and we want our priorities and mission to be perfectly clear not only in what we say and do, but how we say and do it.
There is no biblical command as it relates to how and where and when offerings are taken. Beyond a clear commandment to give generously, we are left with only a few broad parameters for thinking about this issue. We do have an example of people bringing their tithes and offerings into the temple and even placing them within a small chest (2 Kings 12), but that is not practically prescriptive. Instead of direct apostolic commands, we have been given biblical borders in which to wisely apply the various commands related to the call to a generous lifestyle. As it relates to an offering, it seems as though moving away from passing a plate and utilizing some sort of box or chest in the back of the sanctuary can better accomplish our theological hopes for giving.
First, it could provide a better way for someone to give in secret as Matthew 6:1-4 commands. Anyone who has given into a plate as it has passed has probably at times experienced the difficulty in being secretive about the act. Like the sly attempt to tip a valet, the act more often than not comes off even more conspicuous with increased effort to be coy. By removing the public element to giving, we hope to better enable our people to give secretly that they may be rewarded not by public praise, but by a Father who sees in secret.
Second, by removing the offering element from our weekly service, we would limit the motivation of giving out under some other pressure besides grace. As 2 Corinthians 9:7 states, we are to give neither reluctantly nor under compulsion, but rather cheerfully. We want our people to give out of an overflow of gratitude to the Lord, not because their neighbor or an elder could be watching. By limiting the public display of giving, we hope to limit at least some opportunity for shame, guilt or pride as a motivation.
If we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture, then we must maintain that there is no one right way to lead the church as it relates to a practice of giving. If there were one, the Spirit would have revealed as much. Neither passing nor not passing will commend us to God so we have freedom to exercise wisdom as we seek to shepherd our people and steward our time.
To the elders of The Parkway, it seems wise for us for now to replace the tradition of passing a plate with that of utilizing an old pulpit placed in the back of the sanctuary. Rather than having a dedicated time for an offering, anyone who wishes to give may do so before or after services as they feel led.
The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:6–8)