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Has Passing the Plate Passed Its Time?

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by Greg Gibbs

My dad tells a story of his family’s involvement in Baptist Temple church in Philadelphia in the 1940’s and 1950’s. A legendary tale is the one where my grandfather, an usher, dropped the offering plate by mistake and coins went clanking and clinking across the sanctuary floor, rolling until they came to a stop. As the story goes, church folks never forgot the coin drop debacle and my grandfather harbored a bit of resentment that out of all the years he faithfully served, people remembered him for the mishap more than almost anything else.

To most people alive today, a story involving coins, offering plates and ushers in a grandiose church in downtown Philadelphia sounds more like a tale from early America, than anything that resembles the modern church experience.

Are you trying to decide if it is time to stop passing an offering plate?

Some churches have already moved ahead - they have an offering “box” in the lobby or have gone fully digital by displaying QR codes to link to the giving portal on the website, using a custom church app or putting text-to-give instructions on the screen.

As I continue to think about money matters with senior church leaders, I admit that I may be holding on to the offering plate with a firmer grip than I should. But we are in the middle of a change – and how to handle the evolution of offering collecting is not black and white. The factors that influence our decision can be generational, regional – about tradition and theology and about the age and stage of a church.

In so many churches today, the big shift is that money is given digitally and not even on a Sunday. When my millennial daughter recently visited our church, the offering moment struck her as not distasteful as much as antiquated. “Dad, the offering plates being passed wasn’t as awkward as it was analog.” I felt personally affronted – as if she were accusing our church of harboring a spinning wheel in the parlor and churning our own butter in the kitchen.

A feeling of defensiveness is usually a sign of something that I know is true and don’t want to admit. And it hit me. As much as I have been signaling to church leaders in the last few years that we are going to need to re-think the offering moment and plate passing, it is like an old habit that’s hard to break. Many churches, including mine, are still doing it. I ponder the unintended consequences:

  • Are we signaling to the younger generation that we do not understand their world or do not care (or both)?
  • Are we communicating to some of our best givers (who give digitally) that we are good with causing a potentially embarrassing moment for them as they pass the plate to the next person during worship?
  • Are we showing that we are so set in our tradition that, even though 9 out of 10 people (or more) do not use the offering plate, we cannot see any other way forward?

Some quick analysis revealed that less than 2% of money collected at our church comes as cash dropped in the offering bag. Statistics tell us that churches are increasingly receiving digital gifts and that 80% or more of that giving does not happen on Sunday. So, the primary question for the church going forward as our culture is a speeding train toward cashless and check-less currency is this:

How can church leaders navigate the Christian act of giving-as-worship when much of the giving happens not in the sanctuary and not even on Sunday?

I live, work and worship in the post-Christian city of Los Angeles, where the skepticism about churches, church leaders, and especially the use or abuse of money is higher than Big Bear Mountain. So, if a young person who is gingerly re-approaching church attendance after straying post-high school or a not-yet-Christian comes into our context, we presume that they hold little or low trust around the practice of giving.

I am beginning to believe that shuffling a bag or plate under the nose of an attender does not pass a basic risk vs reward test. Are we willing to risk the offense? Does it confirm a suspicion about the church? All this for the sake of an extra 2%? At least in my context, that is what seems to be at stake.

But the reason I have been slow to recommend a wholesale passing is passe approach is a reminder from my almost 80-year-old father. He said, “Greg, I am an old guy so take this for what it is worth. There was always something beautiful to me about the communal act of seeing each person hold their hand over a plate and drop in any size gift. It felt like we were doing something together and it was an equalizer – rich and poor were acting as one family. And we were worshipping together with whatever we could give. Today, so much of our world has been made into an act of an individual at a computer by themselves – even the act of sending an electronic tithe to the church.”

Another reminder came from Shawn Reilly, a friend of mine who is a generosity pastor and thought leader who serves a large and historic church in the south. He reminded me of the significance of context both theologically and geographically: “In a southern Presbyterian church that values tradition and the theological importance of giving as a pillar of the worship experience, it just doesn’t make sense to stop passing the plate.”

This is the complexity for me. Even if we make the choice to stop passing the plate, anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I am not vying for an avoidance of the topic of generosity in worship. Nor do I think that a new person to the church or a visitor in worship should not hear clear and even challenging teaching about how the use of money is a barometer of the quality of one’s faith.

But I am asking a diagnostic question for those who are in the chaotic middle ground of “we aren’t what we used to be, and we aren’t what we will be” in terms of communal life. I am suggesting the possibility that one step in the direction of being missionaries to our cultural context has to do with the question of whether passing the plate has passed its usefulness.

Here are some conversation starters for church leaders:

  • What percentage of support do you receive via plate passing?
  • What portion of that do you suspect would continue to be given through a box, the mail or through digital means if you walked the congregation through this change?
  • How would you continue to disciple people in the theology of generosity if you did not have the “built in” cue of an offering collection during worship?
  • How could this shift benefit your church’s mission?

My suspicion is that we are still in the messy middle. And wise leaders will ask hard questions about the best way to approach this now and into the future for the sake of pointing people toward a life committed to following Jesus. After all, He had a few things to say about money.

Greg Gibbs, M.A., is the Executive Pastor of Vintage Church in Santa Monica, California. He has over thirty years of ministry experience and has authored two books on church generosity. Greg continues to write and consult with Auxano alongside his responsibilities in the local church.