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What are We ‘Offering’ at the Offering? Part 1

For many of us, the tradition of collecting the offering in baskets is deeply etched in our early worship memories. In fact, I share a particular experience with Martha Moore-Keish, this week’s writer. We both came to the faith in the old pews of First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, Florida. Martha is one of those great friends and mentors I’ve known all my life. She’s also, Dr. Moore-Keish, an accomplished liturgical theologian. In today’s post, part one of a two-week series, Martha puts the offering into historical context -- it turns out, it wasn’t always this way.

Yours truly,

Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders

What are We ‘Offering’ at the Offering? Part 1

Martha Moore-Keish

Most U.S. mainline Protestants share an assumption about what “offering” means, and how it is done. “Offering” means the collection of money in worship, usually in plates passed down the rows of worshipers, sometime after the sermon. This is a time-honored practice, but in this two-part series, I want to suggest this practice that most congregations do every Sunday is problematic in two ways.

First, I highlight a conceptual theological problem: “offering” sounds like some things are ours, and we present them to God. This idea is reinforced when we have choreographed offertory processions that parade money to the front of the sanctuary accompanied by triumphant music. Whose generosity are we celebrating here -- God’s, or ours? Are the things we give truly “ours” in the first place?

Second, these days there exists an increasing practical problem: fewer and fewer people carry cash or write checks to put in the plate. As a result, we have the theologically and practically problematic practice of processing a bunch of half-empty offering plates to the front of the sanctuary, which satisfies neither the budget nor meaningful liturgical theology. This offers us an opportunity to rethink -- perhaps even reform -- our practice.

In this week’s article I will consider history -- how we got to our current offering phenomenon. In next week’s post I’ll suggest some potential shifts in practice around the offering.

Early Church

How did we get here? To begin with, “offering” for most of Christian history did not refer to money. In the second and third centuries, people “offered” food to be used in the eucharist, and then worship leaders “offered” prayers of praise and thanksgiving, in remembrance of Christ and in gratitude for God’s gracious provision.

As people offered bread and wine for the eucharist, they also brought contributions for those in need. Justin Martyr, describing Christian worship in Rome in the mid-second century, names this practice (see here). For centuries, Christians provided for others as they themselves came to the eucharistic table. Bread and wine were gathered, and deacons set aside the amount needed for the service. Then, the rest was distributed to the poor. But financial giving was not called “offering.” In other words, early Christians would probably not associate our offering plates today with anything related to public worship.

Then, from the 3rd century on, the bread and cup were increasingly described as the “offering,” the first part of the eucharist, which was increasingly identified with Christ’s own sacrifice.  Over the centuries, Western medieval celebrations of the mass came to focus on the priest offering the eucharistic sacrifice on behalf of the people, and often for particular people, who did not have to be present to receive the benefit. What had begun as a functional act of preparing the table, coupled with the symbolic interpretation of self-giving in response to God’s grace, became an elaborate act of priestly sacrificial offering.

Reformation Era

Martin Luther in the 16th century lambasted all talk of sacrifice and offering. The notion of human beings “offering” anything to God was backwards, he argued. God offers gifts to us, not the other way around. The mass is not a sacrifice we offer to God, but a benefit we receive from God. Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed Protestants all concurred. The offertory (for Protestants) ceased to be the presentation of gifts for the eucharist.

Instead, starting with the Church of England in 1549, “offertory” came to mean the collection of money. Gradually this became common Protestant practice. By the mid-20th century, a new sort of “offertory” became a high ritual moment in almost every American Protestant congregation: ushers solemnly passing plates and then marching forward in procession, bearing cash and checks to the front of the sanctuary for a prayer of dedication.  The pastor sometimes elevated the plates during the prayer -- a gesture oddly reminiscent of a medieval high mass, with money rather than bread as the focal point.

What is going on here? Whose giving are we really celebrating? Next week we’ll consider the practical implications of this dive into our offering history.

For More Information:

Martha Moore-Keish is the J.B. Green Associate Professor of Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, in Atlanta.

To view Dr. Moore-Keish's 20-minute presentation of these ideas see this video from Rethinking Stewardship 2018. 

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

"Freeborn Luthren SW Side" image by Steve Walser. Creative Commons licensing via Flickr.

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