Peter Marty: Elements of the Lord's Day: The Offering Experience

Offerings glorify God - you get to view your life as a blessing and gift

The offering moment in Christian worship is undergoing a rapid sea change. The advent of online giving, cash and credit card giving kiosks in some churches, less frequent worship attendance than a generation ago, and widespread ignorance about stewardship among newer Christians means some stark new realities. One can be sitting in the 10th row of a full church and see a nearly empty offering plate go by.

"I guess they don't give very much in this church," a surprised guest notes. "It looks like a few people leave small tips."

Paltry offerings in dinky offering plates are a far cry from the fresh eggs, live chickens, bead jewelry and sundry personal items that Christians in other parts of the world delight in bringing forward. I remember the 15-minute offering "moments" when I lived in Africa. Shocking to many Western believers, there still are Christians who take the offering admonitions in the book of Exodus seriously: "No one shall appear before me empty-handed" (23:15).

For an offering to be an offering, it deserves to represent our best foot forward. We are returning to the Lord what we believe we first received as remarkable blessing. This blessing is why choirs diligently rehearse their offertory anthem. It's why organists and band leaders practice during the week. It's even why a mother will whisper to her 12-year-old just before he or she steps into an acolyte robe, "You need to tie your sneakers." 

Some congregations and pastors are oddly squeamish about money. They don't want to talk about it. The very sound of the word money must grate against their holy sensibilities. Never mind that money does so many wonderful things, or that giving it away is one of the most vivid expressions of faith we know. For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, the mere sight of cash and giving envelopes creates embarrassment for some church communities. 

Otherwise faith-filled people can treat money as if it's dirty, or too personal, to have a rightful place in the sanctuary. Why else do they go to such great lengths to keep it out of view? A velvet bag gets passed along rows of worshipers. A sealed offering box is mounted near the exit door. A timid note in the bulletin reads, "For those who want to make an offering upon leaving today ...."

The less we celebrate the offering experience, the more passive we become as it unfolds. We spectate like fans watching a football game on TV. The offering moment almost feels like halftime - a break in the action. Disengaged or restless worshipers take it as the perfect opportunity to go to the restroom, listen to "filler" music, or catch the announcements that get shared in what is viewed as the lighter time of worship. It's intermission in the minds of many. All that is missing is a popcorn machine in the lobby.

To speak of the offering as "the collection" does little to alter this halftime spirit bouncing around peoples' psyches. We are giving gifts with generous hearts attached, not taking up a collection as a dutiful obligation. Charities collect donations. Shoppers collect coupons. Churches receive offerings. That's what all of us do whenever someone places a carefully selected gift of any kind in our hands. We receive the gift. We don't grab it. We don't take it. We certainly don't collect it as our gathered loot.

Ideally, the worship servants who receive the peoples' offerings have a radiance to their faces. They're well capable of smiling. It might be worth some behind-the-scenes attention in your congregation if dourness is more the standard. Handling precious gifts that people are turning over to the Lord's work is not exactly grim duty. It's not morgue work. It's lovely joy. Some would label it a privilege.

In the end, the offering moment comes down to you, the worshiper. Regardless of whether the "plates" are large or small, whether the music is stirring or not, and whether the second usher on the left is having a bad hair day or a perfectly coiffured one, your offering is what glorifies God. You get to view your life as a blessing and a gift. Your offering becomes a witness to this extraordinary truth.

Taken with permission from the December issue of The Lutheran magazine,