Understanding the Offering
By Lana Miller
This article was originally published in Giving Magazine Vol. 22, No. 1 in 2020. You can access the full issue here.
Recently, I was teaching youth about stewardship. I asked if they knew why an offering is received in worship each week. When the response to my question was silence, I asked what they thought the offering was used for. The room was silent again. After another long pause, one brave boy volunteered his answer: “I suppose to pay the pastors.” I thanked him and asked if there were any other ideas. None.
I expect that many of us can identify with this story for various reasons. Perhaps it is not only our youth who would remain silent with such questions. Unfortunately, many persons in the pew do not really know why we receive offerings during worship or how they are being used. Perhaps some of us even wonder if receiving offerings is a necessary part of worship.
So, what are offerings being used for? According to the National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices (NSCEP) by Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, the two largest expenses for congregations are personnel and facilities. The study found that congregations “spend roughly half (49%) of their total budget” on personnel and “23% on facilities, including building maintenance and construction, utility bills, mortgage payments, and other expenses related to providing physical space to build community.” They go on to say that “Providing a place for worship and professionally-trained and/or credentialed clergy are most often necessary for offering regular religious services and performing the sacraments and rituals that define congregational life.” Perhaps this study isn’t a surprise. We expect to pay for space and clergy. But should we have additional expectations for the offering?
In the Old Testament, when the “festival tithe”, (Dt 12, 14, and 26) “charity tithe”, (Dt 14:28- 29) and “Levitical tithe” (Nm 18:20-24) are explained, there is a hint of caring for clergy, but not much is noted about space. The festival tithe was to be used for a party to remember how God delivered the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. The Levitical tithe was intended to support the Levites who served as temple servants. And the charity tithe was used to care for the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the marginalized. In addition, “first fruits” giving, which is mentioned about thirteen times in the Old Testament, was a way to make God a priority and remember that all we have is because of what God has given us. It served as a reminder that we are God’s, to be used for God’s purposes. As Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” When truly lived out, this verse challenges cultural assumptions which claim that all I have is credited to my own hard work and wise investments. In the Old Testament, giving reminds us of the centrality of God in our lives and invites us to participate in God’s work.
In the New Testament, we see that for those who were faithful believers and followers of Jesus, being generous was an expectation. In Luke 8:1-3, we see Jesus’ ministry supported by Mary, Joanna, Susanna, and several other women. In Romans 16, we see many women and men named as coworkers in the early church efforts—dedicating themselves, their homes, and all that they had to share the gospel. As disciples of Jesus, Romans 12:1-2 states, “offer yourselves as a living sacrifice… this is your true and proper worship.” It seems that the overarching message about giving in the New Testament is that the most important offering we can give is our very selves.
Taking the Old and New Testament passages into consideration, perhaps we have oversimplified the offering. Instead of the offering being the way to dedicate ourselves and all we have to the service of God and God’s people, we have made it about paying for clergy and space. We misunderstand what the offering is about or what it might be used for. What if the offering became a more central ritual in worship where we invited people to offer themselves every week? How might this change or shape the way we receive the offering? Perhaps if our giving was more clearly connected with the work of God in the world and our participation with God, it would become a more necessary part of worship.
Lana Miller is an ordained pastor who received a BA from Goshen College and an MDiv from Eastern Mennonite Seminary. She is an Everence Stewardship Consultant in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and formerly served as Undergraduate Campus Pastor at Eastern Mennonite University and as a Southeast Asia Area Representative with Mennonite Central Committee along with her husband Andrew.
Giving Magazine was a premier stewardship resource published by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center (ESC) from 1999 until 2020. The magazine served Christian faith communities throughout North America, providing thoughtful, practical, and inspirational content on faith and giving from thought leaders and practitioners alike. Giving was published annually from 1999 until 2018 (volumes 1-20), and then quarterly in 2019 and 2020 (volumes 21-28) in digital form only. In 2021 ESC closed its doors and committed its archives to the care of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. For further information on ESC or its archives, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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