In Defense of Passing the Collection Plate
When I was in high school, I really started to get serious at my faith because of a Calvary Chapel church in my area. While as an Anglo-Catholic my faith is quite different now, I greatly appreciate my brief sojourn with Calvary Chapel. I was reminiscing about those days recently and was reminded that one of the major distinctives of Calvary Chapel churches is that they do not pass a collection plate. Instead, churchgoers are encouraged to drop their tithes and offerings in some sort of container in the back of the sanctuary as they leave.
My wife and I briefly attended a community church (unaffiliated with Calvary Chapel) in our current city of residence before we were married. They had a similar set-up in regards to tithes and offerings, but with one addition: a kiosk in the lobby with iPads where you could tithe using a Square card reader.
In our modern culture, this shift away from passing a collection plate is not entirely unwarranted. Some members of the Church are uncomfortable by the practice, and many outside the Church see it as exploitative or inappropriate. Certainly, when one sees “pastors” like Creflo Dollar pressure congregants into tithing so he can get a private jet it is sickening. Yet regardless of what the world thinks, when done properly, passing a collection plate is a valuable act of Christian community which is right and good to practice for two reasons: one Scriptural and the other liturgical.
There is clear biblical precedent for passing an offering plate. First is the principle for the church to take care of its members. From its conception, the church has used its funds to build a koinonia—a community of the faithful. This was done with such conviction that everyone fully gave up their own possessions to care for their brothers and sisters (Acts 2:42-47). In 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 (NIV), Paul commands the Church at Corinth to “set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.” In Romans, he mentions a similar financial contributions of other churches who were providing for the poor in Jerusalem (Rom 15:26; 31).
These proof texts are not the sole reason for passing a collection plate. Indeed, all the churches I have attended that do not pass a plate make financial contributions to their organization quite possible. However, there are liturgical reasons for doing so as well. During the Mass, the tithes, bread, and wine are brought forward from the congregation to the altar where the Deacon receives them and presents them to the Bishop who offers them to the Lord on behalf of the people.
James K.A. Smith details three reasons why passing the plate is important.1 The first is that the elements used in worship—the bread, the wine, and the money—are shared in common. The important principle undergirding the essence of Christianity is that God is restoring the world, and that he uses common things to do it. In Exodus 3, he spoke to Moses out of the burning bush. God was present, yet the bush remained a bush. In order to communicate, he utilized common elements. In worship, our common elements are transformed into supernatural channels of grace. The bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus. The tithes and offerings become a vehicle for the Church to live Incarnational reality to the community it serves by caring for the hungry, the needy, and the poor. This is not a private activity individuals perform in isolation but a communal action done for the Lord.
The second reason why passing the plate is a fitting liturgical practice is because it is an expression of gratitude. As Smith explains, “It is a symbolic but concrete indication that the ‘commerce’ between God and humanity is not a contract but a covenant, which traffics not in commodities but gifts.”2 This is why during the presentation of the gifts, the priest or bishop prays, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation. Through your goodness we have these tithes and offerings. Receive these gifts presented by Your people for the work of Your Church.” While money may be an incomplete way for us to express our gratitude to the Lord, it is one of many for us, as the Body of Christ, to show our collective thanks. The offering plate is one way for that to happen.
Third, and finally, according to Smith, is that the offering embodies a new economy, one which reflects the larger Kingdom of God. He claims, “the kingdom is concerned with economics. This is not just a matter of individual acts of charity or discretionary giving from our so-called disposable income, but rather a reconfiguration of distribution and consumption.”3 Instead of allowing the system of capitalism to dictate our relationships. The Kingdom of God turns this on its head by making wine and milk available to all, regardless of their wealth (Isa 55:1-24 ).
In the end, I understand why some churches refuse to pass a plate. It may be less offensive to our modern sensibilities. Nevertheless, to skip out on this part of the liturgy is to miss a valuable communal action that informs the Church’s view of the Kingdom. Hopefully, more churches will discover the value of this practice.
(1) James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 204.
(4) Ibid., 205.