Church Offerings as Acts of Worship
How can worshipers understand the congregational offering as a response to God’s grace and a way to join God’s reconciling work in the world?
Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, New York, has only 80 to 90 worshipers each Sunday, so everyone noticed when people began shaking their heads no as ushers passed offering plates. “Even my own kids asked, ‘Why don’t we give anything to church?’ because they didn’t see me contributing,” says Jill Fandrich, an elder who also edits the church newsletter and maintains the church website.
Fandrich explains that most members pre-pay, pay by bank draft, bring checks to the church office, or use monthly offering envelopes. Only four still give through weekly envelopes.
Meanwhile, deacons in an online discussion network, CRCNA The Network, noted that many worshipers are giving through what’s called pre-authorized remittance (PAR) in Canada or electronic funds transfer (EFT) in the U.S.
These experiences raise the question of how to make the offertory a participative act of worship that helps us, each week, to offer up our lives in response to God’s grace.
Making it more participatory
Churches around the world use high-tech and low-tech ways to involve worshipers in the offering. In Canada, some PAR users fill out giving cards to symbolically participate during worship, even though they’ve already given electronically.
Many members of Discovery Church in Bowmanville, Ontario, are under 40 and have smart phones. Their pastor, Martin Spoelstra, writes on CRCNA The Network, “If you set up an account with PayPal and connect it to your bank account, debit card or PayPal account, then any smart phone will act as a wallet during the service. If the minister takes out his or her own smart phone during the offering and shows the congregation that it only takes a few seconds to make a donation, then people will respond quickly.”
Fandrich explains that Westminster Pres added a “loose offerings” category to help members practice generosity and local mission. First Sunday offerings go to the church food pantry. Loose offerings for the rest of the month go to a hospice, nursing home, emergency need, or congregational need chosen by the mission and stewardship committee.
“By intentionally encouraging everyone to put a dollar or more in plates, we are now collecting $400 to $600 a month, and the physical act of giving is more evident. In families with children, it’s usually the child who wants to put in bills and coins. Our worship is fairly formal, and the more opportunities for children to do something participatory, the better,” she says.
Richmond Church of the Brethren in Richmond, Indiana, places a wooden cup on the communion table so worshipers may give to that month’s special offering while bringing up their weekly general fund offering. Travis Poling writes on Facebook that the congregation chooses charities by vote. “Most are local secular community service organizations. Each month a representative from an organization says something about their work before the collection,” Poling says.
Anne Zaki teaches in a seminary in Cairo, Egypt, but has worshiped all over the world. “Hands down, the most memorable offering I’ve seen was in a village in East Africa, where congregants came forward with offerings of grain, veggies, fruits, and even live chickens. In many African countries, people literally bring in the tithe of their harvest,” she says. Unpaid pastors feed their families with offerings. Some churches auction off food tithes to raise money for a church need.
Offering as an act of worship
Greg Scheer notes in Reformed Worship that the Old Testament gives many instructions about offerings. New Testament worship references link the offering and communion liturgies and mention the offering more than preaching. “God cares about how we give. Therefore the offering should be part of our worship service and is worth doing well,” Scheer writes.
He grew up in a Pentecostal church with a cheerful giver practice of combining “the passing of the peace and the offering into an extended period of shaking hands, singing, and walking or dancing forward to the offering bowls.”
Now Scheer is minister of worship at a Christian Reformed church that celebrates weekly communion. After the spoken invitation—“Come, then, to the joyful feast of the Lord. Let us prepare the table with the offerings of our life and labor”—people come forward to place their offerings in baskets on the communion table, followed by members who bring forward bread and wine.
“This practice ties together the communion table—Jesus’ gift to us—with our own giving to Jesus’ work in the world. It emphasizes the profound mystery that….Jesus himself is the gift, but he allows us to take part in incarnating that gift with the common stuff of life on a weekly basis,” Scheer writes.
Life responses to God’s grace
Westminster Presbyterian Church in Yakima, Washington, puts “Stewardship in Action” after the sermon and before the prayers of the people. Robert Rife, minister of worship and music, writes on Facebook, “Various in-house or missional ministries share brief testimonials of ways the church has tangibly blessed through giving time, talent, and treasure. It puts a face to our cash and builds community.”
On the Sunday closest to Epiphany, every congregation in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Egypt gathers a “Bethlehem’s Baby gift” for the denomination’s hospitals, clinics, schools, and social service and employment agencies. “These gifts to social justice causes help us remember the gifts of the Magi to the infant Christ. We follow their model in presenting our gifts to all who don't receive a proper welcome and honor in our society,” Anne Zaki says.
Worshipers at Lowell First United Methodist Church in Lowell, Michigan, receive Connection Cards in their weekly bulletins. After the scripture, sermon, and prayers of the people, pastor Rick Blunt introduces ministry announcements by saying something like: “Whenever God’s Word is proclaimed, there are opportunities for God’s people to respond….I invite you to fill out a Connection Card and place it in the offering, because your attendance is an offering to God.” Cards also have space for people to volunteer for specific ministries or take a next step in their faith journey.
Don’t miss the conversation with Rick Blunt on how Lowell First United Methodist Church customizes Connection Cards each week to help worshipers offer their lives to God.
Read Greg Scheer’s Reformed Worship piece about the offering as a liturgical act (second Q & A).
Gather a group to read, discuss, and share findings from these books:
- Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money by Christian Smith, Michael O. Emerson, and Patricia Snell
- Preaching and Stewardship: Proclaiming God’s Invitation to Grow by Craig A. Satterlee
- The State of Church Giving through 2009 by John and Sylvia Ronsvalle
Use or adapt United Church of Canada resources for year-round congregational stewardship. Explore this Congregational Resource Guide on church finances.
Start a Discussion
Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, council, worship, finance, or education committee meeting. These questions will help your church talk about money and giving:
- In your personal finances, do you have automatic payments set up for fixed costs such as insurance payments, mortgage, or car loans? Do you also include church and charitable giving in your “first fruits” or “off the top” category? Or do you prefer to give as the Spirit moves you in worship?
- What relationship do you see between the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and Jesus’ Matthew 25 statement about giving in his name to “the least of these”? How often do prayers, songs, sermons, offerings, or other elements reflect these themes in your worship?
- In what ways do your congregation’s worship services, education offerings, or small group experiences help you deal with the opposing pulls of mass consumerism and generous financial stewardship?