Some churches stop passing collection plates

Departure from traditional offering comes as churches try to distance themselves from scandals and welcome visitors.

Like many pastors, the Rev. Eric Likkel has parishioners who get nostalgic for bygone vestiges of their youth – things like passing the offering plate during worship.

Though most congregations across the country still send ushers to solicit from every pew, Emmaus Road Church in downtown Seattle is among a growing number that have dropped the collection tradition like a handful of spare change.

It's not that they don't have bills to pay. But for reasons ranging from church scandals to changing generational attitudes, many churches are trying a softer approach to fundraising.

While many churches still opt for a traditional collection – often emphasizing it as a concrete way to respond to God's grace – congregations that experiment don't find their coffers running dry.

Emmaus Road Church, for example, has covered its $100,000 annual budget without passing the plate once since 1996.

If any of the 20- and 30-something members get sentimental for a traditional offering, Mr. Likkel reminds them why the church instead points would-be givers to what he calls "the little white box" in the rear of the office space they rent for worship.

"There are so many people who have experienced the abuse of finances by religious figures that we wanted to remove that barrier," he says. Passing the plate to curious newcomers makes them "feel a sense of pressure to give."

What works in a Seattle workspace is bearing fruit in other regions and more-traditional settings, too:

• At New England Chapel in suburban Franklin, Mass., five years of warehouse worship without passing the plate has produced a $300,000 budget, a weekly attendance of 500 and a confidence in the Rev. Chris Mitchell that passing the plate would produce less revenue.

• At Sagemont Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, donors put their money in a central collection basket without being asked – and anyone in need is welcome to take from it on the spot.

• At St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church in Middleton, Mass., parishioners rocked by child sexual-abuse scandals never have a plate put in front of them and consequently feel able to give "without a feeling of obligation," according to Msgr. John McDonough. Giving levels are roughly the same as when ushers passed the plate.

'No. 1 negative concern'

At Bethany Congregational Church in Foxboro, Mass., the Rev. Paul Sangree is preparing to ask his board of deacons for permission to stop taking an offering at the church's year-old contemporary service.

"My highest value is reaching out to lost people, because I think lost people matter to God," Mr. Sangree says. "And surveys say their No. 1 negative concern about the church is that all they want is your money.... The only way they'll come back is if they really have a sense that the church is open and welcoming."

Though data on offering habits are sparse, scholars have found that those who stay away from religious institutions often resent the constant pressure to give money, according to sociologist Phillip Hammond at the Center for the Study of Religion at the University of California, in Santa Barbara.

He cites studies in which Jews who choose not to affiliate with any synagogue explain that they are most often turned off by appeals for money.

Yet discontinuing the worship offering is not something congregations do lightly, for reasons both financial and theological.

Tithing and discipleship

Most congregations depend on weekly collections to pay lighting bills and salaries, a situation that makes plate-passing seem like an indispensable lifeline. Pastors and stewardship committees also emphasize the importance of regular giving, even tithing, as a key discipline in religious life.

To discontinue the offering, some worry, would gut the service of an important expression of discipleship – and deprive visitors of opportunity to act concretely and meaningfully.

"Why would you rob people of the chance to make this life significant?" asks the Rev. John Hughes, Pastor of First Parish Church Congregational in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass. "That's what I would ask these churches that don't take up a collection."

When churchgoers recall their most meaningful experiences, Mr. Hughes says, they almost always point to sacrifice, such as skipping a meal and giving the money saved to the poor. The offering, he said, "incarnates" the community's sacrificial response to God's grace in a way that all need to see – and participate in – whenever the body of believers gathers to worship.

Welcoming the newcomer

Those who forgo the offering, however, say they see sacrificial giving as something reasonably expected from seasoned disciples but not from first timers in the pews.

"You can't expect that to happen in one Sunday service," Mitchell said. "You can't make them feel served and then turn them into a servant, all in one day."

Even where churches pass the plate every week, more and more are taking pains to make clear that visitors ought not feel obliged to contribute.

Most Southern Baptist churches strive to dramatize an experience of grace through unconditional acceptance into the assembly, and that means assuring newcomers they don't need to pitch in, according to Dr. William Merrell, spokesman for the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"It would almost stand out to me now if I heard a pastor say, 'We're going to take an offering. Now everyone give," Merrell says. "The church should really be an outpost for hospitality. The last thing we want to do is say, 'We're glad you came. Help us meet the budget."

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