What Will the End of the Offering Plate Mean for Christian Worship?

Passing the plate has a short history. It may have a short future, too.

Churches have tried all sorts of ways of raising money: membership dues, pledges, bonds, patronage, investments, bulletin advertising, fees for services, gift shops, holy day activities, cultural festivals, facility rentals, “poor boxes,” and honorary dedications. But in America, the most widely used of all the fundraising tools is the collection plate.

It was not always thus. The practice of plate-passing originated sometime early in the twentieth century, and it was a marked improvement on earlier fund-raising methods in America. Prior to that most, churches rented pews or had public subscription lists — which highlighted wealth inequality — or they used lotteries and raffles — which were later criticized as gambling. Only on rare occasions would a hat would be passed around to collect money for a specific cause. But as global mission movements rose in the late nineteenth century, more and more people requested special offerings. In time, collection plates became the most powerful fundraising tool the church had.

What happens when we stop using paper money?

 

Collection plate practices weren’t restricted to churches. The United Way would visit workplaces, give inspiring speeches, and then pass the plate. Most political rallies fundraised on the spot, too. The Boy Scouts went door-to-door collecting money for Troop projects. Today, you see latter-day collection plates in grocery stores that solicit small donations at checkout — a tool that netted $358 million in 2012 alone.

In recent decades, though, collection plates have become less popular. Political organizations focus on large donations from targeted donors, generating far more revenue. Boy Scouts, PTA’s, and service organizations use special events like 5k runs and products like Thin Mints and popcorn. The United Way’s workplace donations come directly out of paychecks based upon signed pledge cards, making donations consistent.

Plus, people are now more likely to be offended by the social pressure — and induced guilt — of the collection plate, as Jesse Jackson learned when he was booed after trying to take a collection while speaking in Ferguson last August.

So why, even in our era of digital banking and services like the one offered by the company that runs this site, does plate-passing still rule in churches?

It’s because the plate is not just a collection plate; it’s an offering plate. It’s an act of worship. Christians believe that when we put money in the plate, we aren’t just supporting an organization. We are giving to God.

I remember being repeatedly told in my church management class in seminary that “people don’t give to a budget, they give as a spiritual response to God’s blessings.” I’ve heard that repeated hundreds of times at all levels of church organizations. As budgets are prepared and church boards think carefully about their finances, the conversation moves easily from economics to spiritual disciplines of giving. Generations of American Christians have come to believe that placing money in the offering plate is a spiritual activity.

But what happens when we stop using paper money? That’s where our culture is headed. In the coming years, our gifts to God will no longer be placed on an altar after being ceremoniously collected; instead, they will be securely and silently transferred from one account to another. Will the symbol of the offering disappear? Will we lose an important ritual of worship — and the revenue that goes with it?

These questions highlight a theological problem with offering plates: associating the donation of money with an act of worship consecrates not just the virtue of generosity but also the money that is donated. It gives money — symbolic pieces of paper printed by the United States Treasury — a sacred status. This is something Americans don’t mind doing. It makes sense that the decades in which the acquisition of money and goods became the American Dream were the same decades in which the collection plate became an act of worship.

The problem is that money is the most secular thing of all. It is the opposite of holy. We cannot serve God and money. What belongs to Caesar (or the U.S. Treasury) does not belong to God. But we have merged them nonetheless.

The good thing about the digital revolution of financial exchange is that it offers churches an opportunity to approach money in a new way. It won’t hurt us to abandon the offering plate and try something new. We won’t even have to start from scratch — there is much to learn from the practices of synagogues, mosques, and temples, as well as branches of the Christian faith who do not indulge in passion for the almighty dollar.

Still, the end of the offering plate will not be the end of the church’s complex relationship with money.

Note: The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.

Dave Albertson
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  • http://sue.edison-swift.com Sue Edison-Swift

    Thanks for this food for thought. While you can raise big money with major gifts, it does not necessarily build community. Ask the congregations with a big endowment and small participation. Offerings are stewardship–where the widow’s mite has great value. Offerings are the “we” antidote to the “I” culture.

  • bakabomb

    We’ve pretty well eliminated the ostentatious practice of flinging our Temple money into the collection vessel to eIicit a loud and self-aggrandizing clang. It’s done with offering envelopes that conceal the amount of the currency and checks. Nowadays, folding money and coins are generally only put into the plate by po’folks like me who live week to week and may or may not have something in the wallet on any given Sunday.

    I put in what I have without any feelings of inadequacy or mortification, because I’m pretty involved in all other aspects of the life of our beloved community. Nor am I ashamed or abashed if our more well-to-do congregants witness the amount of my contribution. After all, “we’re all family here”.

    I’m not certain that online giving does anything more than put the whole money-collection process behind an online, logged-in firewall. As a software app developer, I applaud these new methodologies. As a Christian, I’m not sure they address the root issue raised by the writer. It seems to me more of a sidestep. And I’m not particularly impressed with an article wrapped around a link touting one’s own online product. Strikes me as almost emblematic of the issue, in fact.

  • Antonja Cermak

    In a local Episcopalian church I was struck by the tangible donations to the food pantry (boxes of cereal, cans, etc.) being brought up as part of the offering of gifts. I had seen the same done with the money many times, but had never connected the dots of what was going on there.

  • Judith Gotwald

    Having visited 80 churches in three years, I noticed that even when offering plates are used, they are no longer passed. Typically, an usher stands at the end of the aisle and never lets go of the plate. Worshipers sitting near the center awkwardly pass their envelopes or dollars (carefully folded so no one can the amount) toward the end of the aisle. Why is this is the new norm? Is it because attendance is so sparse that to pass the plate people would have to get up and walk to the next pew? But I saw the same practice in churches with fairly healthy attendance. Is it because we don’t trust givers to put offerings into the plate and not nip a buck or two? (I’m reminded of one woman from my childhood who often made change from the offering plate as it went past her. She’d put in $20 and take out $5 or $10. She made quite a show of it so no one would accuse her of taking more than she put in.)

    I find this new protocol to be offensive. I don’t get the sense that I’m giving an offering. I am very aware that I’m being watched as the plate is presented—not passed. It fundamentally changes the act of giving. It is not worshipful.

    Frankly, the line we repeat weekly about giving —ourselves, our time and our possessions— seems pretty focused on “possessions.”

    There is also a huge problem, largely unrecognized, in organized religion. The greater church with its pooled resources from all member churches, along with the agencies and institutions they create, can EACH afford development offices that focus on getting big gifts from members. They can wine and dine, offer plaques on doors, and promise eternal public recognition to reel in gifts from church members. Many even offer free estate planning in return! What chance do congregations have to encourage endowment giving when competing with paid guns—all of whom owe their existence to congregational offerings!

    Add to that, the growing practice of regional bodies simply claiming congregational property and assets for their own.

    I think the church should rethink its monetary structure entirely.

  • Beth Johnston

    Canadian money is colour coded so folding it is useless. When the dollar bill was eliminated most ‘buck a week’ people moved to 2 dollar bills but when the two went those folks started using coin; five a week was too much! We need a variety of opportunities and means of giving. But I have known of people who quit going because they had nothing to put in the plate. Yet their church was asking for money, complaining they needed more. Driving some away but not inspiring those who keep it in their bank accounts.

  • BoBraxton

    folks, read “Money: Whence It Came, Where It Went” [John Kenneth Galbraith] to find out that “money” is not the same as pieces of printed paper with high rag content. Money is not like the conservation of matter and energy – money is both created and destroyed minute by minute and is largely a fiction. Two more books to recommend: “The Fear of Beggars.” another, “Whose Offering Plate is it Anyway.” To me the plate being passed is a home-style symbolism – and I hope “we” don’t through out the Table with the plate. We are invited to God’s table. Would you go to have a meal at the home of a friend or neighbor and not bring something to offer like a bottle of wine or bunch of flowers (only examples)?

  • VMWH

    Without a check how do you designate different parts of your gift to different places? I have not yet found a memo line on any of my internet bill paying setups.

  • Sue Stromquist

    My father (born in 1912) used to say that giving his pledge has ” business” and he did not do business on Subday. So his pledge was sent in by check however often and he put in the offering an extra gift on Sunday in the plate. He was very set on this and would try to get others to do the same.

  • iggy

    It’s part of communion, and I think that idea has been forgotten.

    Congregants used to bring the bread and wine themselves from home. And all the gifts were brought forward: bread, wine and anything else that was being offered to the church (not necessarily money). It’s ALL the Offertory.

    At my old church (Episcopal) , one lady told me that one thing that made her decide to stay was that we brought forward the bread, wine, and money, offered it all, and the priest blessed it all. She was surprised and moved that we were recognizing and honoring her dollar in that fashion.

    But of course, in practice, churches pass the plate like it’s some sort of furtive act. An interruption. An afterthought. I know one Catholic Church where they are still passing the plate after the Sursum Corda has begun, and there are no words for how much that bothers me.

    And that ust suddenly sticking a basket under peoples’ noses should never be done, Either treat it as a genuine part of the liturgy – an actual rite, with actual symbolic and spiritual significance – or just leave a basket somewhere for people to put in if so moved.

    Of course, none of this touches the pragmatic fact that churches often actually need that money. The bulk of funds usually doesn’t come from the basket, but it’s often the difference between operating in the red and operating in the black. And maybe silently leaving a basket at the door significantly decreases your funds.