by Tom Raabe
Cash is in society’s ICU. And its cousin, personal checking, isn’t feeling too well, either.
It seems Western culture is moving rapidly away from these putatively primeval means of financial exchange and toward online transactions and the use of cards, credit or debit, or applications on smart phones.
That puts an old favorite of the Christian worship tradition — the offering plate — on the sick list, too.
The offering has long been somewhat problematic. Visitors, for example, can be embarrassed when a collection plate is handed to them. Some are even offended — “There they go again, trying to get my money.” Even church members who contribute via other means are sensitive to inquisitive glances from fellow parishioners at their lack of something to place in the basket.
The current threat to the church offering, though, seems largely generational. Some point to millennials and their embrace of technology as a major factor. Although 83 million strong, they are the least-churched demographic in American society. So, problem number one: They don’t go to church. But it’s problem number two that threatens the viability of collection time: Those that do go to church don’t have much inclination to adopt traditional church-giving practices. They don’t carry cash, don’t write checks — checks are what Grandpa and Grandma write — and don’t pay for anything unless they can use cards or phone apps to do so.
Studies show that young adults will sometimes give online or via mobile apps linked to a church website and that they generously support specific causes (Kickstarter and GoFundMe wouldn’t last long without them), but they rarely toss anything into the plate.
It’s not only them; it’s also Gen-Xers. People in their forties and fifties aren’t inclined to whip out their checkbooks very often either — not like boomers and members of the Greatest Generation do.
The result as the church grows grayer — increasingly empty plates coursing up and down the pews on Sunday mornings — will no doubt prompt some church leaders to consider abandoning this venerable worship practice. It’s five to ten minutes of wasted time, they’ll say; it breaks the momentum of worship. It’s like a financial halftime; a commercial; the PBS pledge-drivers breaking into the BeeGees concert to importune your contributions.
But at what theological cost is its abandonment? Financial giving has throughout church history been an act of worship, and its absence in the worship service creates a void. Actually giving something, physically bringing an offering to God rather than pressing a button at a website or tapping your phone a few times, conveys symbolic power. It can remind us that giving to God isn’t the same as autopaying your utilities bill. It’s an act of sacrifice.
The offering in the worship service allows all of God’s children to join in, in the community of the church, to give back to God of what he has so generously given to us. Even the poor, even the destitute, even those who don’t have bank accounts or smart phones are given the opportunity to put something in the plate.
In the end, it isn’t about the money. Does God need the money? They don’t pass the plate in first-grade Sunday school classes because God needs the money. Does God need that daily offering at VBS? Did God need the widow’s mite?
It’s about what God wants. God wants our devotion. He wants our hearts. We need to give our tithes and offerings because through them we express our love and devotion and thanks to God for his love for us. The offering is an act of worship.
Certainly, online giving, mobile app giving, contributing through a lobby kiosk — all of it is legitimate, and can be done with reverent forethought and intention. The church eschews modern technology to its financial peril.
But the worship service affords opportunity to offer our gifts to God in a formal, measured, prayerful, intentional sense. And in it the offering is included among other essential acts of faith and devotion — confessing the creed, singing hymns, offering prayer, hearing the Word read and preached.
The church neglects those to its theological peril.
Tom Raabe is a member of Christ Church—Lutheran in Phoenix.