WHY WE STOPPED PASSING THE OFFERING PLATE
by Dennis Sawyer, pastor, Philadelphia Church, Chicago
“You forgot to take the morning offering again, Pastor,” said head usher Dick Ford in a rather bewildered tone. (He was also a deacon and a trustee.) It was true. Nearly a year into my first pastorate, I was still, on occasion, forgetting to pause for the collection of tithes and offerings. Now and then I was spared embarrassment when an anxious usher would frantically wave his money from behind the last pew or hand me a note just before I started the morning message. The problem was mine. I had grown up hearing non-Christians say, “All the church wants is your money.” When I opened my mailbox or turned on a Christian broadcast, I had to agree that money seemed paramount in the kingdom of God. Besides, the offering just didn’t seem to fit anywhere. We were seeing a spiritual awakening in that small coastal Oregon town of 500. The Sunday morning attendance had grown from 200 to 300 during the year, with a special sense of God’s presence in each service. To pause and take an offering seemed tangential. We tried taking it at the beginning of the service, and people thought we seemed too anxious to get their money. In the middle of the service, it interrupted the flow, and at the end it interfered with the altar call or concluding challenge of the message.
At the peak of frustration, while preparing a sermon on tithing from Malachi 3:10, I was pierced by the words “Prove me now, saith the Lord of Hosts.” A series of questions deluged my mind:
- Could God provide for our financial needs without our passing the plate?
- Does the worship of giving have to occur at a moment between 11:00 and 12:15 Sunday mornings?
- If we freed ourselves from passing the plate, could we better use that time in another form of corporate worship?
- What does Scripture mean when it says not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your giving may be in secret (Matt. 6:3)?
A few days later I presented a challenge to the official church board. “Let’s mount offering boxes on the wall at each sanctuary exit and discontinue the collection of tithes and offerings during our services.” After they recovered from shock, the comments began to fly. I remember parts of the exchange:
Question: “Is it scriptural?”
Answer: “Yes. It’s what Jehoiada the priest did in 2 Kings 12, for example. He took a chest and bored a hole in its lid. He placed it beside the altar, on the right side as people entered the temple, to collect their gifts.
“Mark 12:41 tells about Jesus sitting down across from where the crowd put their money into the temple treasury. That’s where he spotted the widow with the two coins.
“Even the apostle Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 16:2 that he wanted their money set aside before he came so there wouldn’t have to be a collection after he arrived.”
Question: “But isn’t giving an act of worship? Doesn’t it belong in a worship service?”
Answer: “Yes, it’s an act of worship. But so is visiting prisoners and feeding the hungry, yet we don’t squeeze all of that into the Sunday morning service.”
Our discussion ended in a compromise. The church board requested that one box be placed low enough for children (a great idea), that an appropriate notice appear in each Sunday’s bulletin so people would know how to contribute, and that the whole concept be reviewed after three months.
In fear and trembling, we mounted the boxes, stopped passing the offering plate, and waited. For six weeks the income ran far below normal. People would bring their tithes to church and take them home again. On the seventh week the “Lord of Hosts” began to pour out his blessings. People who normally gave a dollar a week realized they hadn’t donated in a long time, so they suddenly wrote out checks for $25 and $30 to make up.
Of greater importance, however, was our accelerated attendance, which soon averaged over 500 and increased to 1,200 on Easter or other special events. People said things like:
“I never realized how much the boxes on the wall meant to me until I brought a friend to church and we didn’t take an offering. He was overwhelmed.”
“I like it because it takes away the feelings of obligation; I know I give more with this system.”
The offerings continued to be collected via the boxes for our six remaining years in Hammond, Oregon. God “proved” himself again and again.
When I began my pastorate a year-and-a-half ago here in the inner city of Chicago, I immediately requested that we stop passing the collection plate and use that segment of time for personal prayer instead. The leadership agreed to give it a try, and now toward the beginning of each service the elders come forward and make themselves available to pray for the needs of the people. People come for prayer while the rest of the congregation worships in song.
I warned everyone about the six-week dip—with the result that people overcompensated, and it never happened! During the first year of using boxes in Chicago, we collected more in tithes and offerings than in any previous year. Again, the comments were intriguing:
“When you tithe once a month by check, it was always a bit disconcerting to have an offering plate put under your nose for the next three weeks.”
“I think it’s great, because it avoids all the panic of rummaging through your purse trying to write a check before the usher gets to your pew.”
“It’s funny, but my favorite time on Sundays has become those moments after the service. I just stay in my seat for a while reflecting on the service and what has been said; then I pray, write a check as the Lord leads, and drop it in a box on my way out. It’s a good feeling.”
My wife encountered a real “cheerful giver” one morning. The woman was madly stuffing the box with everything she could find in her purse. When my wife said hello, she replied, “I’ve never been here before, but this is the greatest idea I’ve ever seen, and I’m voting to keep it that way“—as she kept thrusting her green “votes” into the box.
“Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:7, niv).
Merrill, Dean ; Shelley, Marshall: Fresh Ideas for Administration & Finance. Carol Stream, Ill.; Waco, Tex. : Christianity Today; Word Books, 1984, S. 111