Losing the Offering Plate

April 17th, 2012

Change is a buzzword in church circles. Even some traditional congregations have added modern worship music, practical sermon series, 21st century marketing concepts, theater style seating, and small groups in recent years. But the last thing some churches want to touch is the traditional offering with the passing of collection plates and baskets. If Social Security is the third rail of American politics, taking an offering could be the third rail of the church. Anywhere money and church mix is a potential hotspot for controversy, and some churches are probably slow to change the way they do the offering because they’re afraid donations will decrease. The bigger risk, however, could be continuing to do things the old way.

If your church is still relying on passing the collection plate, here are some reasons you might want to rethink that:

Many people don’t use cash and checks anymore. I haven’t written an actual check in ten years. I do all my bill-paying online, including tithing. However, doing that has required some set-up on my part, and I’m not sure most people would or could go through the trouble. To facilitate giving, some churches are setting up giving kiosks in their main lobby or narthex. These are equipped with machines that accept debit and credit cards. Think self checkout stations in the supermarket. This supplements online giving opportunities churches may offer. The major upside to kiosks is that people can donate while they’re at church, which is when more of us are generally inspired to give.

Some people believe the negative stereotypes about churches and money. I talked to a friend recently who visited a new church. “How did you like it?” I asked. “The service was good except for one thing. They asked for money too much. The pastor kept passing the plate until the people had given a certain amount.” What a horror story. While most churches don’t approach that level of tackiness, you’d probably be surprised at how some practices we consider to be innocuous are actually perceived by visitors.

Passing the plate puts people on the spot. A few years ago, I was helping a fellow finance committee member count the Sunday offering. As he straightened a stack of dollar bills, he remarked, “People need to be educated about tithing. They think this place is the dollar movie theater.” I found the comment amusing (if rather harsh) but it made me think about why people give what they give. I’m sure there are some who only have a dollar to give, but I wonder how many put a dollar or two in so they won’t look like they’re giving nothing. We certainly shouldn’t think that way, but I’ll admit, since I give online and not during the church service, I sometimes wonder if people think I don’t give at all. (That’s assuming anyone even notices or cares. But when you’re in any kind of leadership, you’d be amazed at the conclusions people jump to.) The bottom line is, the offering is an awkward time for some people—second only to “pass the peace/greet everyone around you” time.

Someone could get the idea that church has a cover charge. Don’t laugh. When people are looking for reasons not to go to church, not wanting to feel pressure to give comes in just under not wanting to be judged and not having the proper “church attire”. Most churches are really good about telling visitors not to feel compelled to give, but passing around offering plates still creates a potentially uncomfortable situation. With church, there are two types of uncomfortable—"good" uncomfortable and "bad" uncomfortable. This is bad uncomfortable.

Getting rid of the collection plates doesn’t mean getting rid of offering time. People need to have opportunities to give to God and invest in your church’s ministry. It’s an important part of worship. The main idea here is to create alternative ways for people to give—such as the kiosks I mentioned earlier, strategically placed (and securely mounted and locked) offering baskets or boxes, and an easy-to use online giving option. A mobile giving app is another idea that offers both convenience and immediacy for the giver. If your church has weekly communion or prayer time, people can bring offerings to the altar rail (or equivalent) too.

Even if you choose to retain the collection plate, pushing alternative ways of donating gives people who don’t use the plate permission to be more comfortable in your church. And that’s a definite win for everyone.

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