When we’re not careful, we often assume the way we’ve traditionally practiced a spiritual discipline is the only way it can be done. For instance, there was a long historical resistance to allowing instruments besides the organ into the church. After hundreds of years, it was all anyone knew, and it became inexplicably linked to the act of congregational worship.
Mozart had called the organ “the king of the instruments.” And nineteenth-century Scottish philosopher frequently pined for the organ, saying things like, “Listen, and for organ music thou wilt ever, as of old, hear the Morning Stars sing together.”
The organ was an ideal tool for its time. The sound could fill a massive cathedral and help guide congregational singing. But eventually, the church realized that worship was bigger than any one instrument. For many, however, to abandon the pipe organ was to abandon worship itself.
Many feel the same way about the offering plate.
A brief history of church funding
The Church of England didn’t have to take a weekly offering from its members. Churches were established by the government and were supported out of the public treasury. When settlers first started in the new land, colonial American churches were still doing the same thing. In 1833, Massachusetts ended the religious tax, forcing the church to come up with innovative practices for funding services.
Some churches rented pews to churchgoers—more expensive seats in the front and free seats in the rear. Of course, this created a class distinction based on where you sat. One of the principles surrounding the creation of the Free Methodist movement was that the poor deserved the same access to the church as the wealthy.
Over time, churches began taking a weekly offering from congregants—an act that became deeply ingrained in the conscious of the American people during the rise of itinerant preachers in the late nineteenth century. To support themselves on the sawdust trail, ministers would pass buckets at every gathering.
Today, we tend to think of plate passing as the way church generosity has always been practiced, but that’s just not the case. And while including it in the worship time makes giving seem more intentional and spiritual, passing the plate has its drawbacks:
- You can’t miss a week of collecting offerings. The entire budget hinges upon taking a collection during every meeting.
- It requires that people who are growing less reliant on cash and checks in their everyday life still bring them to church.
- It can make visitors (and members) feel uncomfortable when an usher stands over them as they take the plate.
An argument for digital giving
Whether it’s a giving form on your church website or a mobile app, most churches offer some form of digital giving—but they still haven’t prioritized it. Part of the problem might be that familiarity with passing the plate makes it feel more spiritual.
If the idea persists that digital giving is somehow less spiritual, it doesn’t really matter that people are transitioning away from cash and check or that offering collection is unsustainable. But is digital giving less spiritual or holy? No.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul encourages believers to be generous givers.
“Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:6–7).
Paul’s concern is that Christ followers be loyal and generous in their giving. The method of giving isn’t the issue; faithfulness is. If this is the goal, digital giving might provide an opportunity for people to become more committed.
We should encourage church members to make a commitment about how much they're willing to give, and simply do it. If they set up a recurring offering that comes right out of their account every month, that’s not less spiritual than writing a check on Sunday. In fact, people who use recurring giving tend to give more over time—so it might be making them more faithful.
The only thing that’s changed is the offering’s delivery method. The heart of the gospel is still there: “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God” (2 Cor. 9:12).