In most United Churches, on any given Sunday, an offering is made by congregation members. The offering originates in the early days of the Christian church. One could even argue that it was instituted by Christ himself in the way which the disciples pooled their resources in common.
In the days of the house churches, people would gather on the Lord’s Day for worship and a communal meal: the original potluck luncheon. All the food would be placed on a communal table where the food would be blessed and then shared (1 Cor. 11:17). All in the community, from the poorest to the wealthiest, would be fed and cared for. These gifts of food were considered “peace offerings” in much the same way as Jews offered such gifts in the temple.
Justin Martyr, the second-century theologian, living in a Roman world full of sacrificial offerings argued that the new church’s offerings were not sacrificial in the sense of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. He held that the offering collections were gifts of thanksgiving to God.
This practice of a communal meal worked well in the first century house churches, however, when Emperor Constantine declared the Roman Empire Christian in the fourth century, the house churches were unable to absorb the masses of converts that came to worship. The churches moved into the large Roman court houses. The shared meal with its expansive offerings was no longer practical. The people adapted and continued to bring simply bread and wine as they always done. But the agape meal was relegated to history.
For almost a thousand years members of the church brought not only bread and wine, but also, at times, candles, oil, wheat, honey, grapes and other precious items. These material offerings were processed up to the communion table by church members. Deacons would then distribute these gifts among the poor and needy.
By the medieval period the bringing of material gifts was slowly replaced by a monetary gift. The parish priests, buoyed by the belief that God deserved only the best of offerings, charged that the bread and wine being proffered were of inferior quality. Thus, the offertory was replaced by the presentation of the collection of money.
Why We Give
The offering is an integral part of worship. Throughout human history humanity offered gifts to God. Not simply a collection of money, the offering is a gift of the people’s lives in response to the Gospel. The offering functions as a symbol of our lives and our relationship with both God and the created world. It is a response to God’s goodness. The offering is a time to recognize that everything we have is from God and that we are blessed to be able to give something back. We give only what we have; not what we wish we could give or what we might have in the future. We give within the boundaries of our resources. Paul says in Hebrews 13:16, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
It is easy to focus on the money aspect of giving as we watch the offering plates be passed, but the offering is always much more: it is an offering of our tithes, talent, and time.
The concept of tithing was practiced extensively in the Old Testament faith communities. A tithe was a one-tenth part of something, paid to a religious organization. Now voluntary, historically tithes were required and paid in kind, with such items as agricultural products. The Temple was, in fact, set up to receive such tithes (Rom. 15:16). Many Canadians today struggle with the concept of tithing however, if one views all the financial gifts given to charities, community causes, and churches, as part of the tithe many church members are giving close to one-tenth of their income. Alongside our financial gifts we give of our time and talents. Whether it is coaching hockey or teaching in the children’s church, there is no limit to the ways we make our lives an offering to God.
This expanded sense of the offering is closer to that of the scriptural witness (See 1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 9:7, and Acts 4:35, 37). The theological crisis of the offering is our utter inability to be able to give directly to God. All we can do, as a response to God’s generosity, is to give to our neighbours and community of faith. This has little to do with balancing the church’s budget and everything to do with the transformation of both the givers, and the world in which we live.
In part the paucity of our theology of giving has resulted in problems with how the offering is taken up and presented. In some communities there is embarrassment about the offering as if it were a sort of payment for spiritual services rendered. Unlike purchasing a ticket for a movie, the offering is not an admission fee. Other people who are participating in the PAR program are, at times, embarrassed by passing the plate without contributing. Some churches handle this discomfort by distributing cards that can be placed in the offering plate. The question remains: how do we rethink the offering to make it a meaningful part of worship?
When We Give
The placement of the offertory is a bit of a moveable feast. Some churches take up the offering directly following the children’s time. Others take up the offering directly after the opening prayer. Both positions allow for the children and youth to participate in the offering as a sort of “first fruit offering.” Still other churches take up the offering following the Minute for Mission, making the offering a theological response to the sermon and Minute for Mission. On a Communion Sunday this approach is the first movement in the celebration of the Eucharist. Finally, there are some churches who place the collection of the offering at the end of the service. In this position the offering acts as a response to the entire service. In deciding when to gather the collection, consider what is you wish to communicate to the community of faith.
How We Give
Most United Churches still pass either offering plates or baskets to gather the offering collection, however, many churches have dispensed with the in-service collection altogether. Some churches have tried putting a basket at the entrances to the church to gather contributions. Surprisingly no detrimental financial effects were reported. Still other churches use a box with a small slit on top to help with privacy. Church members report that they appreciate the anonymity and lack of pressure in this approach. While this may seem a distant future, some churches are already exploring the possibilities of “church apps” by which one can make donations to the church simply by using their cell phones. However, you gather your resources, plan to bring these gifts to the communion table in procession.
Why We Bring Up the Offering
From a theological perspective, having individuals who reflect the age and diversity of the gathered community to process the offering up to the Communion Table is preferable. Best practices would be to offer everyone in the community of faith an opportunity to take part in the offering procession over time. The procession helps people to understand, in a visible and dramatic way, the significance of the offering as the gifts of the people.
What We Give
The gathering of monetary gifts is a limited response to God’s grace in that it only accounts for the tithe and not the gifts of talent and time. The following are suggestions about what else could be processed in and given as gifts.
· On a Communion Sunday have someone in the faith community bake fresh bread.
· Collect gifts of food to be given away to those in need.
· Prayer shawls or quilts can be dedicated as part of the offering.
· Gather gifts of toiletries, socks, mittens or hats that later can be donated to those in need.
Ideas for Enriching the Offering
· PAR cards or similar tokens can be used so that many can participate in the collection.
· During the time of collecting, play suitable music and, if the technology is available, play a slide show of images of the congregation in action in its varied ministries.
· Invite the congregation to hold the plate as it is passed and mentally place those times in the week when they lived the gospel, made a difference, or lived God’s love.
· Think of other times when one could use the collection plates, for example, using them to gather written ballots. This could help to see these actions as offerings to God rather than just church business.
· Invite people to name their joys while rendering up their gifts of tithes, time and talent.
· Consider how liturgical dance could be incorporated into the offering procession. In other words, use the gifts and talents in your faith community.
· Seasonally take up special collections such as white gifts, flowers for the sick, art such as children’s art, banners, dance, or music.
· Consider using a piece of music for an entire season so that all may learn the offertory music.
· Consider placing the choir anthem in the offering time so as the strengthen the notion that the anthem is the choir’s gift of talent.
· Consider praying an offertory prayer with a full description of what it will be used for:
baloney and cheese from Costco to feed the hungry, teachers’ salaries in Haiti, supplies for the children’s church, paying the public utilities bill, paying for the staff salaries, a small portion goes to presbytery to help fund our work together…be specific about your concerns.
Conscious choices made about how, when, what, and why of the offertory can help transform a simple cash exchange into a meaningful part of the worship service.