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.