By Bill Leonard
On the first Sunday of 2013 we picked up our offering envelopes at First Baptist Church, Highland Avenue in Winston-Salem, N.C. Our pastor encouraged us to do so, noting that some boxes never leave the building. Eschewing checks or cash, members can also give through automatic bank withdrawal or a PayPal account, a growing trend in American congregations. No need to pass the plate to them.
Just inside the entrance to the newly remodeled fellowship hall at Centenary United Methodist Church, Winston-Salem, sits the PayPal machine, its keyboard and digital screen housed in a kiosk that from a distance resembles a Stonehenge obelisk. Offerings can be credited to your church account or given “anonymously.”
Curiosity about the extent of these practices led me to write 40 minister-friends to inquire about their churches’ funding methods. Responses varied. Some continue traditional practices with envelopes and pledges. About half provide PayPal or online options through their church’s webpage or monthly automatic withdrawal from bank accounts.
One colleague commented that some members wanted a “giving kiosk,” and asked: “When is the last time a 25-year-old wrote a check?” (Check? What’s a check?)
Another noted that his congregation excluded use of PayPal and similar programs since they require fees that would otherwise go to the church. They didn’t want to pay the tithe and pay to tithe.
One pastor speculated that soon churches would equip ushers with digital “readers” for recording credit/debit card donations pew to pew during the offertory hymn!
Since the days when Jesus’ disciples discovered tax money in a fish’s mouth, churches have sought ways to fund ministries, ministers, benevolence and sacred spaces. St. Paul collected multiple offerings for the “saints” in various locations. Gathering funds for widows, orphans and the poor was a task assigned to the earliest deacons.
By the 3rd century as construction of church buildings became more normative, church financing became even more essential. Simony, a practice identified with Simon Magus’ effort to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18-24), involved the buying/selling of church offices. It was prevalent enough to be condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The selling of indulgences helped fund construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and became the catalyst for Martin Luther’s break with the Pope.
“Church taxes” remained normative in many Protestant communions in Britain and the U.S. where members and non-members were assessed certain fees for support of specific religious establishments.
On the American frontier, many sectarian groups rejected a “hireling ministry” of church-funded clergy. Baptists were known for their “farmer preacher” who worked the land and preached on Sundays.
Kentucky Protestants sometimes pledged barrels of whisky, the chief money crop, to their church’s budget. Nineteenth century urban churches often supported themselves with “pew rents” charged to middle and upper class constituents. A gallery or balcony in the back was reserved for those with limited financial resources.
By the 1920s, major American denominations were experimenting with the “duplex envelope system,” the forerunner of the present church envelope tradition. It allowed both contributor and church to retain a record of each donation. The “envelope system” paralleled the growing emphasis on “the tithe” as the funding norm for all members, successfully generating significant ecclesiastical resources.
Today’s electronic giving options reflect the legacy of pew rents and envelopes in a credit/debit card generation.
Beyond stewardship logistics, a serious decline in funding has descended on churches across the theological spectrum. Recent studies suggest that over 50 percent of the members in any given church contribute little or no financial support to the church’s ministries.
Household tithers dropped from 8 percent in 2001 to 3 percent in 2002 (and that was a decade ago). In 2000, some 17 percent of Americans claimed to tithe to a specific religious tradition. But of them, 6 percent actually tithed. In 2004, the average churchgoer gave 2.5 percent of his/her annual income to a congregation.
These financial realities may explain the rise of the so-called “prosperity gospel” with its promise that investing in a specific ministry will produce a divine dividend of spiritual and material success.
It also accounts for multiple church closings, the downsizing or “part-timing” of church staffs, cutbacks for specific ministries, and a rush to secure endowments for building maintenance before more tithers pass off the scene.
What are churches to do? Among other things, they could:
— Come to terms with new financial realities; and refuse to overextend programs built on the hope of funds that may never materialize.
— Consider blending traditional and contemporary options for funding church budgets.
— Nurture a new ministerial generation that recognizes bivocational ministry as a real possibility. Many theology schools have developed dual degree programs that facilitate multiple vocational options.
— Continue to insist that Christians take benevolence seriously, even as churches refine their use of such funds.
— Energize (or re-energize) Christians of every generation — millennial, Gen X, Buster, Boomer — with a holistic sense of servanthood with implications for spirituality, stewardship, mission and public engagement.
John Wesley’s saying, “Make all you can; give all you can; save all you can!” endures, with or without direct deposit.