I saw an offering plate before I was even old enough to attend church. My father was a lay elder and church treasurer. This usually meant I got to stay and play with my friends long after the services were finished, because Dad was counting the offering. The offering plate is as indelible in my mind as any image from over four decades of attending church—that smooth wooden bowl with a felt liner that got passed down the row every time we gathered for worship. I also remember watching my father help pass the plate on Sundays and hearing my mother write a check, trying to write fast enough to beat the plate to the row while also muffling the tearing sound as she tore her tithe from the checkbook.
These rhythms of giving—the passing of the plate, the invitations to generosity, the scriptural texts that urge us toward holding our treasures loosely (Matt. 6:19–20)—gradually worked their way into my own life as habits. They started as dropping a few quarters into the Sunday school offering as a child and developed throughout college and into family life as a married man with children. The opportunity to serve as an usher allowed me to exercise my gifts in the church early on, hinting toward my future calling as a minister of God’s people.
It’s hard to imagine Sundays without the Sunday offering. And yet this is not just an act of imagination, but a reality. The physical act of giving is a tradition that’s quickly falling out fashion, especially in more contemporary church settings. There are good reasons for this, of course. We live in an increasingly cashless society, where fewer people have physical money in their wallet. Many churches have begun skipping the plate-passing in favor of drop boxes or baskets toward the back of the sanctuary.
And online giving, which the State of the Plate report found was used by 79 percent of churches 5 years ago, has become as essential a facet of ministry as a church website. Christian tech companies such as Tithe.ly, Pushpay, and Anedot offer simple solutions that virtually eliminate any friction in the payment process. What’s more, there is nothing in Scripture that specifically prescribes passing the plate as part of the worship service. In fact, plate-passing, at least in America, is a fairly recent tradition, started in the 1800s with the elimination of state-funded churches.
Another social phenomenon, COVID-19, exacerbated the modern trend. In the early days of the pandemic, when it was thought that surface contact spread the virus, churches quickly worked to make everything touchless. The offering plate was the first casualty, in favor of already-existing online options. This technology kept churches afloat, as even technologically unskilled members were forced to swipe and click and tap their way to generosity. Now that the initial pandemic shutdown is behind us, the question many are asking is: Why return the passing of the plate to our worship services?
I have mixed emotions. As a pastor, I know how helpful online giving can be as an option for church members. It can be a form of accountability, allowing church members to keep their commitments current, setting up automatic bank drafts that pull funds out. In a way, this digital format is a throwback to the language of the Old Testament, where generosity was seen as the giving of “firstfruits” (Prov. 3:9). Generally speaking, to tithe was to willingly yield the first part of your crops and your livestock to the service of the Lord. You didn’t give after you provided for your family. You gave before you provided for your family.
A monthly digital withdrawal may be less visible, but it’s no less a commitment. Recurring payments can be a kind of spiritual discipline that ensures generosity is not subject to our personal budgetary whims. This technology makes it easier to plan generosity rather than scrounging for a few bills on a Sunday morning. Our family has practiced this for several years and we’ve found it helpful.
And yet, when that plate would pass in front of us in church, I’d experience a twinge of guilt. Even though I’d given, I still felt like I should put something in that plate. I’m not sure if this is a carnal desire to want to be seen giving (Matt. 6:1–4), as if I should hold up a sign that says, “Don’t worry, I give online” to assure my fellow members that I’m not avoiding my responsibilities; or if it’s a bit of wistful nostalgia for the years I spent dropping envelopes. For many, the ritual commitment—writing that check every week—has been replaced by a one-time commitment to automated recurring payments. It still requires sacrifice, but the act is less like a liturgy and more like a one-time walk up the aisle.
Perhaps more importantly, I worry that by removing the tradition of plate-passing—so seemingly cumbersome and unnecessary when three quick clicks can set up my tithe for the year—we might be reducing the act of giving to a mere transaction. Do we lose the sacred rhythms of giving, such an important part of worship from Old Testament to New, when the offering becomes something we do in between buying printer cartridges on Amazon and scrolling through Instagram? There is something to the act of giving physically. I vividly remember sitting in a remote village in India, for example, watching churchgoers place a handful of rice, a shoe, and other personal items along with their few coins and bills in the offering. I clearly recall how, as a child, I enjoyed dropping a few pieces of my father’s spare change into the plate.
Today, as a pastor, I’ve tried to emphasize that giving is not something we are begging God’s people to do, but it’s an invitation into the joy of generosity, a discipline that brings us further up and further in to the life of Christ. Giving is an act of worship, a way we demonstrate our love, our gratitude, our gospel joy. We pray and praise and give out of the overflow of our lives. We can’t help but give, because of what Christ has given to us.
And yet giving as a practical response—to real human needs in the life of a local church—is no less spiritual. In the Book of Acts, the Christian community dug deep to pool resources together to fund the growing movement and to meet the needs of their impoverished members (Acts 2:45).
My expectation is that churches in differing contexts will resolve the tension between physical and digital giving in different ways. Perhaps we will find symbolic ways to incorporate the practice of generosity in weekly worship services to ritualize giving even those transactions that are made digitally. Perhaps digital tools like text message alerts or weekly email reminders can serve as their own liturgy—a kind of 21st-century spiritual discipline, a reminder of our highest priorities, in a sea of communications and messages. Or maybe, just maybe, our experience journeying through this pandemic has created a hunger for the more tactile rituals of our faith—perhaps even the practice of passing a wooden vessel person to person down the aisle in order to keep this important act of worship front of mind.
Daniel Darling is director of Southwestern Seminary’s Land Center for Cultural Engagement. He is the author of several books, including The Dignity Revolution and The Characters of Christmas.