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What are We 'Offering' at the Offering? Part 2

In the stewardship course I teach, one assignment invites students to “design from scratch” stewardship practices for a new congregation. In other words, students try to step back from the inherited practices of the church, and for a moment, at least, imagine new ones. Of course, the assignment is a bit dangerous -- tradition and existing practices really matter, but they can also stifle our imagination. In today’s post, Martha Moore-Keish continues her reflection from last week regarding offering plate practices. Martha pushes us to imagine, for a moment, what it would look like truly to redesign our practices.

Yours truly,

Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders

What are We ‘Offering’ at the Offering? Part 2

Martha Moore-Keish

Last week, in this post I considered how “the offering” as we consider it together came to be established. In news that might surprise many worshippers, the early church didn’t collect money at all. Instead, they emphasized feeding the community -- at the eucharist table and with leftovers for any in need. Later, the word “offering” did develop, but Martin Luther had deep reservations about any suggestion that human beings might “offer” anything to God. God is the one who gives.

Given this history, this week I’d like to consider how our liturgical actions might be reshaped and renewed. Much of the way we celebrate the offering suggests problematic theology, but it’s also increasingly strange to see largely-empty plates passed around. So, what might we do? How might our liturgical gestures reinforce (rather than undermine) the fundamental pattern of grace and gratitude that ought to define Christian faith and worship?

Offering Proposal One: Just Don’t

Let’s be bold: remove the financial offering from the center of worship. Sure, this would be a big change for many of us, but it’s actually a return to previous practice, in a way.

Like Puritans and other Reformed Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries, consider placing a collection box in the narthex/lobby of your church. Information about electronic giving might be available nearby. Then, encourage financial and other giving as a part of what it means to go into the world -- as worship wraps up and the assembly is sent.

By placing the collection at the end of worship, as part of the sending, we put our giving in its proper place: as a response to God’s gracious giving which has nourished us through water and word, bread and wine.

This may not be the right option for every congregation, of course. Giving of ourselves, in joyful response to God and for the benefit of others, is a vital part of Christian life. Placing the collection at the end of worship, as part of the sending, risks making our financial giving less visibly important. For young children, the practice of offering can be particularly significant, as it was for me, to watch their adults contribute money regularly to help the world, and to practice such giving themselves. (Of course, this could be just as effective at the end of the service if approached with care.)

This proposal may seem radical, but many evangelical congregations have already implemented such practices. In other words: it can be done. People will still give. The church’s mission can still be accomplished.

Offering Proposal Two: Do and Expand

Now for something less radical. If we keep financial “offering” in worship, then how might we do this in a way that’s meaningful, and that keeps the focus on our giving as a grateful response to God’s abundant giving? Try this: expand the notion of what’s happening with the offering plate and invite people to place tokens of gratitude -- thank you notes, if you will -- in the plates, in addition to or in lieu of money. 

Tokens of gratitude could include pictures or lists of things for which a worshiper is thankful that week. Anyone could contribute to such “an offering of thanksgiving,” with or without credit card, cell phone, or bank account. Above all, this would clarify that what we are “offering” is not our own possessions, but a grateful response to God’s self-giving. [One church in Texas is already engaging a version of this practice.]

What are we offering when we are offering? Ourselves, our lives, and our financial resources, whatever they may be -- but not as if they are our own tightly held possessions that we (oh so generously) share with God. We fundamentally “offer” to God visible and tangible thanks for what we have not earned. May our liturgical practices also reflect this reality.

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.

"thank you" image by Milly. Creative Commons licensing via Flickr.

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