I grew up in church so I’ve always had a context for the things I experienced. Church was embedded in my family culture; immediate family and distant. This season of being a “visitor” has allowed me the benefit of a number of awakenings of sorts. It has opened my eyes to how unique (dare I say strange) the whole church experience can be, especially for a newcomer. I think that not feeling at home in a church is affecting my sense of context. I believe that church commitment is comparable to relationships in that we tend to let down our guards, do less questioning and more accepting and eventually maybe some excusing as we commit ourselves fully. Similar to the classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I get the sense that I’ve been given a glimpse of sorts: church from an outsider’s perspective. I’m finding myself questioning all the little nuances and rituals we Christians have created that have come to make up the church experience.
To pass the offering basket or not…that is the question. I loosely quote Shakespeare to bring some lightness, but to be honest; it’s one of the ship-load of questions I’ve been mulling over throughout our hunt for our next church home. Suddenly I find myself wondering why we do this. Since the dawn of church, has money always been requested or did giving have a different catalyst?
Throughout the last half year, I’ve visited churches passing the offering baskets a hundred different ways. (Ok, not literally a hundred, maybe more like a handful.) Some request an offering nearly under the radar and others have pastors who preach mini messages in preparation for giving. I even visited a church where 2 offerings were elicited back to back, both intended for the needs of that church. Many times churches encourage visitors not to feel any obligation, but even when I'm not the visitor, the word “obligation” is kind of an icky word for me. Obligation seems to rob me of a bit of the pleasure or joy I find in giving.
Then there's the mini pre-offering sermon or extra long sermon-prayer. Usually this consists of being reminded that 1. God loves a cheerful giver, 2. my gift in faith is sewing into something totally unrelated in my own life and 3. that giving equals increased personal financial blessing. I can't help but wonder if the presentation of the request is manipulating me to give. Church theology, in these moments, seems to take a hard left away from the Gospel message of “done” to “do for God and he will do for you.” As a person who's always struggled with forgiving myself for my wrongs, I sincerely appreciate the common sense of that system, but I’ve never found freedom there. My deepest moments of liberty have come from the revelation that God gave everything for me and there’s nothing that "doing" will get me.
I absolutely don’t believe that the bulk of churches intend to manipulate their congregants into giving. Needs are real and God wants us to be givers. How can needs be met if needs aren’t known, right?? Is asking wrong? I don't think so, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen if the offering portion of church was taken off the menu. If churches stopped prompting their congregants to give would the giving cease?? Without a prompt, would the giver fade away? Does God need us to communicate our needs in order to meet them? Would God speak to me or us and stir our hearts to financially support ministries in the absence of an official request? It’s a heavy and scary question, for me included. Yet with all this wondering, I’m finding myself fantasizing about a church with no financial ask; not because I don’t want to give, but because I’d love to see what God would do in that kind of place. What degree of freedom might flow from an inner prompting rather than an outer one?