Rediscovering the meaning and place of the offering in worship.
It had been a lovely organ recital. The organist had ably demonstrated the fine capabilities of her instrument. As she stepped down, a man moved toward the podium. I watched him absently, still reflecting on the music that had filled the small auditorium. I don't know what I expected him to do—perhaps to put into words the praise that the rest of us were feeling for the young organist. Instead he made an announcement. "An offering," he told us, would be "taken up" to defray the costs of the evening.
A short time later, as we walked out of the auditorium together, a colleague of mine ruefully observed that whenever a group of church people gather, "there's bound to be an offering." There's more truth to that comment than many of us care to admit. Offerings are taken at countless gatherings, many of which bear no resemblance to a worship service. Eventually the integrity of the offering in church worship services suffers from these glib uses of the term and practice.
Consider for a moment the many names and formalities that have developed in connection with offerings. We refer to the practice variously as a "love offering," "the collection," "the offering," "our alms," "our kingdom investments," "our gifts," "our tithes." Those who "take up" the offering are sometimes the ushers of the day, sometimes members of the congregation serving in rotation, sometimes children, sometimes elders or deacons. Sometimes we have one offering; at other times two—one for the material operation of the church and the other for a designated cause. (When communion is celebrated, some congregations add still another offering after the sacrament—bringing the total in the service to three.) Sometimes the offering occurs before the sermon, at other times after. Sometimes the minister prays before the offering; at other times after. The possibilities are almost as numerous as the churches in a city.
Why so much variety? Perhaps because people are unclear about the place of the offering in the framework of the service. As a result, its meaning and message suffer. Instead of carefully studying the integrity of the offering within the liturgy, congregations attempt to spruce up their gift-giving with unorthodox innovations. In many instances the time of offering is the noisiest part of the service.
Reformed worshipers need to rediscover the offering as the response of God's people in thanksgiving, in the spirit of Romans 12:1. The monetary gifts we bring serve as the apologia of the giving of ourselves in the reasonable service of our God. As such, our giving becomes the sign of our love and the seal of that love toward our neighbors, whose needs we meet with the gifts we bring.
The loving spirit of our giving is umbilically attached to the spirit of our Lord's gift of himself to us. The necessity of his death and resurrection, and the consequent blessing for believers, is the mother of our giving to and blessing others in need.
Oblation or Alms?
Up until the tenth or eleventh century the offering was closely connected to the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. The people themselves supplied the bread and wine and offered these gifts as part of the celebration of the sacrament. Through these substances the people gave of themselves—just as God, by the same symbols, gave himself to them in the Supper.
But during the Middle Ages the notion of offering took on additional connotations. Many church members began to view the bringing of gifts as an "oblation" to God—our sacrificial gifts to appease a demanding God.(As one modern Roman Catholic scholar says, it tended to become "a kind of relapse into pre-Christian ways"; R.L. Ledger, Worship, Dec. 1967, p. 589). Also, says the Catholic Encyclopedia, the offertory rite included the notion that these ordinary food items would be "transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ for the Real Sacrifice."
The Reformers strongly opposed both these ideas—the offertory rite as a way of appeasing God with our gifts and the notion that the food changed into the actual body and blood of Christ. Instead the Reformers wanted a clear distinction between God's grace offered in the Lord's Supper and our response of gratitude and thanksgiving in the form of gifts (to the poor).
Although for awhile there was some disagrement about if and where the offertory should be part of the liturgy, the Reformers and their followers gradually concluded that they should rectify some of the Roman abuses connected with the offertory but not abolish the custom. No worship service, John Calvin said, could be held without the giving of alms. But the Reformers viewed such giving as the response that God's people make after hearing the Word and receiving the sacrament. As a result, in many Protestant orders of worship offerings were given after sermon and sacrament.
On the Table?
Where, when, and how should the offering take place in our liturgies today?
When we recognize the ancient roots of the offering, it becomes obvious that the Lord's table is an appropriate place to lay our gifts. Knowing too that the church cannot prohibit the nonecclesiastical use of the term and practice of "offerings," the Lord's table can become the focal point to recover the meaning of this response of God's people. On the table, where the Lord gives the sign and seal of meeting our spiritual needs and also nourishing us in the new life of his Spirit, we respond with a sign of our gratitude which, as it is given to our neighbors to meet their needs, becomes a seal of love.
I can appreciate the aversion that some might have to this suggestion of placing our offerings on the table. Their concern might stem from a fear of "making common what is holy." The sign and seal of our Lord's sacrifice, they might say, would be "unequally yoked" to the signs of the giving of ourselves.
I disagree. We should strive to make more meaningful, more "holy," if you will, the altogether "too common" response of God's people, to erode the neo-Gnostic thinking that has crept into our attitudes toward money. In the spirit of 2 Corinthians 9, especially verse 13, our giving is a test of sacrifice wherein God can be glorified, not people.
Some Practical Considerations
Church councils should carefully consider the nature and function offerings have in the service.
■ To encourage the genuineness of giving, take only one offering in each service and take time to carefully explain the cause or need to the congregation well in advance. If possible, have a representative of the cause or agency in church when the offering is taken and ask him or her to receive it with a prayer of thanksgiving.
■ The budget, or pledge, envelopes, sometimes collected during the "first" offering, might more appropriately be sent as mail-in donations or deposited in a budget-envelope box in the church foyer.
■ At the risk of incurring the organist's wrath, I recommend serene silence during the offering, much like the mood often present during the distribution of communion elements. Let the pastor or agency representative stand when the deacons have taken the collection and receive the offering at the Lord's table.
■ Church councils, especially the officers of mercy, might consider alerting the congregation to nonmonetary needs of others. Let the church bulletin carry a tear-off offering slip, on which members can list items or services they can provide for those with special needs: lunches, clothes, babysitting services, housecleaning, car repairs, and so on.
Our offerings will not and should not ever become a sacrament, but they can be part of the "living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God" that Paul urges in Romans 12:1. They are investments in the lives of the neighbors we love. We give as the Lord has given to us.
Hilbert Berger, Now Concerning the Offering, Nashville, TN, The Upper Room, 1987. 26 pages, $3.45.
Herbert Mather and Donald Joiner, Celebrate Giving, Nashville, TN, Upper Room, 1988. 28 pages, $5.95.
These two United Methodist booklets provide detailed suggestions on highlighting the "offering" in worshi.p.