What does the offering have to do with worship? A survey of practices in our churches suggests that we are not really clear what the answer to that question should be. Sometimes we resort to “collection” language: “It’s time to take up the collection.” We often do this with little or no theological explanation and sometimes without any o ertory prayer at all. These practices suggest that collecting funds for the operation of the church is a pragmatic necessity but essentially disconnected from the service of worship. Those sensing this disconnection—and the uncomfortable character of “fundraising” in the middle of a service—relegate the offering to plates or boxes at the entrance to the place of worship outside of the worship service.
Even when we explain the offering, it is often in pragmatic terms. We say things like, “It is necessary to support the church and its ministries.”
When we raise money in special campaigns—a building campaign, for instance—we often explain the reasons for raising money in practical or business terms: We need to expand the ministries of the church, to relocate to a more outreach-conducive area, or to avoid greater expense in the future. All of these may be valid explanations, but they identify the business of giving as simply a means to a higher end: We need money to be able to do the “spiritually important” work of the Kingdom.
But what if our giving is already the work of the Kingdom? What if the offering belongs in the heart of the worship service, as an important part of worship?
The Larger Context of the Offering
It will help if we place the act of giving in a larger context of stewardship. Sometimes we reduce stewardship to a synonym for giving. A stewardship campaign is a “fundraising campaign.” But the meaning of stewardship is much broader than this.
We encounter the idea of stewardship early in the biblical narrative. While the term “stewardship” is a more recent linguistic development, the ideas of stewardship emerge clearly in Genesis (vv. 1:28–30). Humans are entrusted with the care of God’s creation. Stewardship is the management of something entrusted to the steward’s care. God leaves the world in our care.
Unfortunately, the narrative of our stewardship takes a sad turn in Genesis 3. Through Adam & Eve’s disobedience, sin was introduced into the creation that God had just concluded was “good” (Gen. 1:31). The consequences of sin began to be revealed, identified with “the curse” that produces disorder and death. All of life—humans, society, and nature—would suffer from this deadly disorder. Creation was “broken,” suggesting our tenure of stewardship should be over—a brief and failed experiment. However, as God’s “project” turned from managing a “good” creation to redeeming and restoring a “lost” creation, so did His vision of humanity’s stewardship. We are, of course, subjects of that redemptive work. But we are also called to participate in the divine project to restore a disordered and broken world. Paul refered to this divine intention in Ephesians: “[God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:9–10). Everything sin has disordered will be restored into submission to the lordship of Christ and the rule of the Kingdom of God. When this has come to fruition, “no longer will there be any curse” (Rev. 22:3). This is now the focus of our stewardship: not merely managing creation, but participating in its recovery and healing.
This broader vision of stewardship encompasses restoration of people, families, society, and the natural world. We are agents in the work of the restoration of the Kingdom dom on earth and the realization of the New Creation. This is at the heart of the message of holiness. But what does this broader vision of stewardship mean for our finances and giving?
The Implications Upon Our Giving
One of the ways sin has disordered us is in our understanding and use of resources, including our money and goods. A casual survey will quickly reveal the power of money and its misuse in our families and society. As Christians, how we use money is an expression of our faith. Proper management of what we are given is an act of discipleship—making Christ Lord over all of our lives. Struggle with tithing (or with giving God financial priority in any measure) is often a spiritual struggle. The fundamental issue is not financial management but spiritual priority.
God’s lordship over our lives will not be complete until He rules (orders) our nances. The significance of this dimension of our lives is underscored by the prominence of
the topic of money in Scripture. Our struggle to surrender to God’s purposes for our lives is often described in terms of money (see, Matthew 6:24,33; 1 Timothy 6:9–10, for instance). Signi cantly, this struggle refers to both the possession of money and the desire to possess money. Significantly, this struggle refers to both the possession of money and the desire to possess money—a challenging issue for everyone, rich and poor.
God’s reordering of our understanding and use of resources and the full recovery of God’s intention for our lives is a point of serious struggle, with our salvation at stake!
The Offering and Its Relationship to Worship
When we give our offering, we are (or should be) declaring God’s lordship over the financial dimensions of our lives. On any given Sunday, this may be a step of obedient faith by givers who are responding to God’s reordering initiatives. Some people may be tithing, uncertain of how they will make their adjusted budget balance, but committed to the priority of God’s lordship and stepping out in faith. Others may be giving for the first time, an initial step of response, acknowledging that surrendering to God’s will is more important than what they could have purchased with that money. Yet another is a mature disciple and giver who is responding to a special need and giving generously beyond tithe, because this person has submitted all resources to the Lord’s disposal, available on call.
The primary concern of all of these examples is not simply supporting operating budgets or funding timely expansion initiatives. This may be a by-product, but it
is not the main emphasis. When we de ne giving in worship primarily in pragmatic terms, we diminish the meaning and spiritual importance of giving. We also fail to teach and encourage disciples in this important dimension of God’s reordering work in their lives. As a pastor, I understand the pressing nature of these pragmatic nancial concerns. However, I would also call us to teach giving from the Kingdom perspective first. As Jesus said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt.6:33). As we learn to worship in our giving, God will attend to our practical financial needs.
Carl M. Leth is professor of theology and philosophy at Olivet Nazarene University