A number of weeks back, John Dyer blogged about electronic tithing, asking some important questions each of us needs to consider before we dive in. It’s something I’ve evaluated periodically, but his post got me thinking about it again. For my part, I’ve been sending an automatic payment to my church for the past 2+ years now. When I started doing this, my desire was to give faithfully. Before that, I would give only sporadically and forget regularly. Tithing electronically, I decided, solved this problem.
Now, I suppose that when we give our tithes, there’s a right heart to give with and a wrong one. For me, every week at church, when we pray for the offering and then pass the plates down each row, I am reminded of my tithing. This, in my mind, was a sufficient sense of giving, of sacrifice. I assume God’s desires certain emotions and attitudes to accompany my giving. I suppose they should be something akin to humility—recognizing my dependence on God, or his worthiness of my offering. Or perhaps it would be cheerfulness—appreciating God’s provision (or the 90% I get to keep for myself).
Of course, us sinners, we instead often feel a sense of pride when we put money in the plate. For me, though, as I’ve tithed electronically, I’d say my attitude would best be described as a sense of vindication. I have this imaginary conversation with the person who sees me pass the plate without ever putting anything in it. It’s subtle, not strong. It’s fleeting too. In my head, I’m saying something like, “Don’t judge me. I tithe for every paycheck. Yeah, you don’t see it, but I do it. It’s done in secret. You know, I’m probably more faithful than you are, so don’t judge me.” I know. I know. This is pride. It just feels more nuanced, a special form of it. Vindicated.
I guess you’re my priest today. This is my confessional.
Electronic tithing is a 21st-century issue for the Church and for the believer. I don’t think it’s one we can be dogmatic about either. How you give is more important than how you give. What I mean is, when it comes to tithing, the spirit is more important than the method. I don’t think you’d disagree.
But this weekend, I began to wonder if I’m wrong about that, and if maybe the method does matter. Here’s why.
At church this weekend, when the offering plate came by, while I sat mumbling to myself and feeling vindicated, another question occurred to me: “What if everyone tithed electronically?” This didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. It dawned on me. If we did, there would be no need to pray for the offering or pass the plate. It would certainly save us time. That’s hard to pass up when efficiency is such a hot commodity. And I’ve heard pastors encourage it because it promotes faithfulness. That’s sounds like an anointing of electronic tithing to me if I’ve ever heard one. But I think that the church would also atrophy a little bit if we stopped passing the plate.
Call me old fashioned for wanting to keep the collection plate going around. Maybe I am. But imagine this with me. What would happen? Preaching about tithing would seem quite unnecessary. Why would the pastor ever need to talk about tithing? Even if the church was in dire straits, it would feel irrelevant to churchgoers because there would be no visible practice in giving, no ongoing reminder. If it wasn’t part of the church’s experience gathered together, we’d lose sight of it. Perhaps not at first, but eventually. Hearing the pastor pray for the offering or preach about tithing would seem disconnected from the church’s life together. Once it’s disconnected from our experience, it grows irrelevant.
Besides this growing irrelevance, I wonder too whether we’d stop being shaped by our participation in it. In other words, I think there’s something to the physicality of passing the plate. In the same way that an athlete’s muscles and mind are honed when s/he competes, we are changed when we participate in the action. We become actively engaged when we pass the plate. We become participants. In the North American church, where churchgoers are increasingly passive audience members, passing the plate subverts the trend.
If this small act seems insignificant in the life of the church and the shaping of the Body, consider the Israelites. In the Bible, bringing an offering was a significant act for God’s people. It was prescribed by God. Obviously God saw great significance in the physical act of giving an offering. He devoted a whole book to how it should be done. We should not overlook this. Unfortunately, the only time we talk about the book of Leviticus is when we joke about having given up reading through the Bible because of it. Surely we would be fools to believe that God wasted his breath when he inspired the writer of Leviticus.
The consequences of this trend toward electronic giving has not been fully thought through. If we eventually only tithe electronically, we will be divorced from the act of tithing even more than we already are. We will have pulled up our own roots, which connected us to God’s people from ancient times. We will have castrated tithing’s power to shape us into the people of God. If a church is more concerned with meeting its budget than shaping its people, then by all means they can knock themselves out electronically.
Passing the plate is a visual reminder to the church every week. It reminds us that everything we have is God’s. It’s also a physical reminder. In embodying it, we become participants and engage in a bodily obedience to God. That sounds familiar to me. Jesus too embodied himself, made the invisible God into someone tangible; and in obedience to God he endured the Cross scorning its shame for the joy set before him. He didn’t choose to make a digital, invisible transaction. We echo this embodied sacrifice when we drop cash in the coffers. And I’m thinking twice about my own decision not to.