I was at a ministry conference last week where we were discussing the different avenues churches make available for people to give money. If you thought passing the plates was still the norm, then hold onto your abacus! Some churches have ATM-like kiosks in their lobbies, usually named something quasi-spiritual like “Giving Center” or “Swipe-n-Pray” (one of those is made up). Other churches offer automatic withdrawal from their members’ bank accounts. Still others have options for online giving through PayPal or other such sites. Have these varied options arisen out of a desire to keep up with the times or sheer desperation? Yes.
No matter what method a church uses to collect tithes and offerings, almost all of them still employ the tried-and-true practice of passing the plate on Sunday morning, with rituals as familiar as stale communion bread: The deacons move from row to row with the plates, the congregation members shuffle through their wallets or pull out their checkbooks, the minister tries really hard not to look out at the congregation for fear of inducing a guilt trip. Rustle, rustle. Clink, clink. Stand and sing the Doxology.
At my church, we have two worship services, and the offering is in a different place in each. In the first service, it comes right before the sermon, and in the later service, it comes right after the sermon and before communion. I’ve tinked with the order of worship, but can’t seem to get offering in the right spot. Is there really any good place in the service to say, “OK, folks, now’s the time when you give us your money”? We can spiritualize it all we want, crafting God-drenched Invitations to Offering or heartfelt stewardship testimonials, but in the end, that time is often perceived as the church’s version of “pay to play.” You want the juice and the loaf? Then you gotta give up the dough.
Why is that? Because we’re Americans, and for us everything is a transaction. There’s no such thing as a free lunch (or a free [Lord’s] supper?) so we assume that everything we do has some cost associated with it. If something is of value to us, we assume we have to pay for it (there’s a comment here about perceived value and the declining giving in churches, but it hits too close to home for me to say it). So on Sunday morning, the church gives a sermon and communion, the worshipper drops in some cash and takes the bulletin as a receipt. Transaction completed. Please come again.
It may sting our consumerist ears to hear it, but worship is NOT a transaction. In fact, I remember Jesus turning over some tables when the Temple got a little too close to resembling PetSmart (“Get your turtledoves, two-for-one special!”). Sure, we give something and we receive something, just like at Walgreen’s, but there’s something fundamentally different about Sunday morning, and it has to do with the Divine Sales Clerk. Here’s the way pastor Skye Jethani says it: “We (Americans) interpret everything through a lens of pragmatism, through a transactional understanding of the world. Many of us come to church Sunday after Sunday with an expectation of receiving something… But God does not exist to be useful. God exists to be adored, simply because of who He is. True worship is never transactional. True worship expects nothing in return. True worship is, at its core, an act of senseless, wasteful, indulgent beauty.”
You see the problem? Jethani says worship should be senseless and wasteful, but when it comes to our two most precious commodities – time – the last thing we want to do is senselessly waste it. If we are wasting time, that means we’re not being useful productive, which is an anathema in our production-driven and goal-oriented culture. To not be doing something (or more than one something, as our multitasking world encourages) is to be doing nothing, and if we’re doing nothing, well…what’s the point of even existing? For our time to really count, we must have something to show for it.
Which is exactly the problem. We don’t know how to look at something or someone without assessing their usefulness to us. “What have you done for me lately?” isn’t just a Janet Jackson song; it’s the mantra of a generation that feels like it has too little of everything, when it reality it has enough but has forgotten how to assign meaning to it. We think we have too little time, but our time is wasted on trivialities. We think we don’t have enough money, but we spend disposable income like it’s covered in some infectious disease. We measure everything by its usefulness, including our time on Sunday morning. And if God doesn’t rate high on our utilitarian scale, well, maybe our time is better spent doing something that will gain us some kind of tangible return, like a better golf swing or a deeper tan or an extra hour of sleep.
If we come to worship expecting to get something in return, we’re missing the point of why God calls us there in the first place. We don’t go to worship for us; we go to worship for God. We are not the audience; God is the audience. We are the pariticipants, crafting together a work of prayer and song and attention to be offered to the One who deserves all of those things and so much more than we are usually willing to give. I cringe when people say things like, “That worship didn’t do anything for me.” So what!! The question is, during worship, did you do anything for God? Or were you too busy critiquing the singability of the hymn tunes or the timeliness of the sermon illustrations to participate in an act of senseless, wasteful, indulgent beauty?
I wonder how our worship – heck, our lives – would be different if we saw our worship differently, not as something done for us, but something we do for God. If we did that, we might be willing to offer more than just a few bills from our wallets. We could offer our whole selves to the Creator, to waste our time simply being in God’s presence. If we truly acknowledged how much our cups overflow, then on Sunday morning our offering plates might do the same.