Rethinking the offering plate

April 13th, 2016

The offering plate became obsolete years ago but most congregations have yet to notice. We still pass the plate and observe that fewer and fewer dollars go into it. I am still kicking myself for passing the plate this last Easter instead of announcing how to give online in the bulletin. What was I thinking?

The offertory is a moment of extreme embarrassment for many because they either didn’t bring cash, don’t have a checkbook or forgot to bring either because they were going out later and didn’t want to be bothered carrying cash “around.” They can pay for Sunday dinner or brunch with a credit card. Why can’t they give to God the same way?

Money is just old-fashioned. Some old-fashioned things are great; I think of buttermilk biscuits or writing thank-you notes. Other old-fashioned things are just not useful and keep us from meeting the goal of getting money to the church. That goal is not just utilitarian—it is also holy. It allows us to be the body of Christ, the hands and feet of God, the world-wide webbing of the Holy Spirit.

Check books and cash are old fashioned in a dysfunctional way. More and more people pay for everything online and don’t need a checkbook to do so. Why should church be the only place left for cash or checks? Doesn’t that sideline God to a certain demographic or to the 20th century where cash and checks were more than welcome in offering plates? Why do that?

Like shoulder pads or penny loafers, those long handled baskets or wooden plates with felt potholders at the center are a kind of interesting relic of a time when banking and money wore different clothes. We announce our last century belongings by only passing a plate. We say we are still back there rather than in here. There is nothing wrong with “back there” as long as we are also “here, now.”  

One of the key issues facing most congregations today is dedowdying. By that I mean needing to decorate as though we were in this century and not the last one. I know we all had a better time in the 20th century. But while banks still make a lot of money off of so-called services, churches make less money out of so-called services. One of the reasons is that our props — like offering plates or Grandma’s old couch — ally us with the past and not the present.

More forward-looking and younger churches have transitioned to a credit card receiving device that allows people the sacrament of paying their offerings. Or they take members’ tithes and pledges and offerings online regularly, sometimes by direct deposit. Online giving, when implemented by the former main line congregations, often triples the size of the gift over a few years. People like giving that way.

Certainly the old offering plates and baskets need a decommissioning. Maybe those offering receptacles also need a desacralizing. They did their job well; those plates have been carried with great piety and sincerity for a long time. We can still use them, but we can’t expect all our congregants to want them. Like the two or three members who don’t have email, we remember to call them with important information; we can also pass the plate in that same spirit.

We can then sacralize and bless the kiosk and the church’s computer. They do our work for us, and it is holy work. We can still have a moment in the service when there is an offering, but it should include reminding people to give electronically.

Change is normal, even around matters as holy as how we get money for our work. Dedowdying is a form of dusting, of decluttering, of living more in the “now” than in the “then.” Offering plates are a great place to start on this large and important project.

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