(RNS) – In the 1984 film “Mass Appeal”, Father Tim Farley, played by Jack Lemmon, gives a young aspiring priest a lesson in church finances.
Give a good sermon and the church coffers will fill up. But a bad sermon comes at a price.
“It’s no coincidence that the collection comes after the sermon,” warns Farley. “It’s like a Nielsen note.”
Nowadays, preachers may be able to avoid the sting of a bad sermon, at least in the short term – as the shift from the plate of offering, once a staple of worship, has grown in importance. party shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And with the rise of a cashless society – and the popularity of electronic donations – the days of the plate shift may soon be over.
At City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, online donations were already in place before the pandemic, and many church members have taken advantage. The congregation passed the offering plates while a leader spoke about the ministry of the church, followed by a prayer.
This has changed – as have a number of regular features of worship services – because of COVID-19.
“It seemed like everything that had anything to do with human contact had to go – serving coffee, handing out ballots, shaking hands, passing plates,” said town church pastor Dean Inserra. . “We just thought that was what you were supposed to do, so we got rid of all these things.”
The stopping of the offering during services initially worried Inserra, as did the disruption of weekly in-person worship. He wondered if people would stop giving if they couldn’t go to church.
“I was terrified, just to be honest, when the pandemic first occurred about what would happen to the church financially,” he said. “These fears have not been met.”
Instead, church donations have increased during the pandemic. He credits the automated nature of online giving making it easier for people to support the church.
“They don’t forget, or they have a fixed amount, so it’s not some kind of impulse donation,” he said.
Online giving has become almost universal among churches in recent years.
In 2006, only 1 in 4 (27%) congregations in the United States accepted donations by credit card or electronic funds transfer, according to the study of national congregations.
In 2018, 48% of congregations Recount the NCS that they accepted electronic donations. Churches that have websites were more likely to accept electronic donations. According to the NCS, 59% of churches with websites accepted donations online, compared to just 22% of churches without a website. Some churches without websites have told NCS that they can still accept electronic donations through an app, credit card, or other electronic means.
The 2020 COVID-19 congregation study of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving found similar acceptance for online and electronic donations. Before the pandemic, 73% of churches were already able to accept donations online, “and of those that did not, 39% were quick to add online donation options soon after they ceased services in person”.
Almost all (94%) churches with more than 100 people could accept donations online, according to the Lake Institute study. In contrast, more than half (54%) of churches with fewer than 50 people in attendance said they did not have online donation options.
At St. Luke’s Christian Community Church, a small United Church of Christ congregation in Morton Grove, Ill., Just north of Chicago, donations have remained old-fashioned.
“People pretty much send checks,” said Reverend Elizabeth Jones, pastor of St. Luke. Because it is a small congregation – only around 30 members – the church was able to meet in person during much of the pandemic, with some modifications. The church broadcast services and Bible studies, but was not ready to allow online donations.
Jones said some church members are uncomfortable with giving electronically. Others like the ritual of passing the plate. The church stopped doing this when the pandemic began on the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and faith-based officials, said Jones, who still insists on COVID-19 precautions. Now that most of the congregation has been vaccinated, some church members want to go back to where they were.
“I had two people who told me that ‘if I don’t see a physical plaque pass in front of me I forget to give my offering,’” Jones said.
The idea of churches accepting offerings dates back to the New Testament and was often a way of raising money to help the poor, said James Hudnut-Beumler, author of “In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar,” said an economic history of the protestant churches in the United States.
The spiritual practice of tithing by ordinary Christians was primarily aimed at making offerings to the needy – the offering through a “poor man’s box” – rather than paying for the running needs of the church. Instead, churches relied on wealthy patrons and political leaders for their support.
Eventually, churches in Europe would be financed by taxes collected by the government, which is still the case in some countries.
While some American colonies had state-funded churches early on, most churches in the United States had to find new ways to pay their bills. The prohibition of religions established by the Constitution essentially turned pastors into fundraisers.
A popular idea was to rent benches from worshipers, with better seats costing more money.
“The rental of benches was quite typical. You have a better bench up front, just like a theater ticket, ”he said.
Revivalist Charles Grandison Finney and other evangelicals opposed the rental of pews and began building churches where seating was free in the early 1800s, Hudnut-Beumler said. They also popularized the idea of passing the plate for a collection. By the 1900s, the practice had become commonplace.
The collection plaque may be making a comeback in some churches.
Josh Howerton, pastor of Lakepointe Church, a multi-site congregation in Dallas, said his congregation stopped spending a collection plate last year, following CDC Recommendations. Now that the CDC has informed that the risk of COVID spreading on surfaces is low, Lakepointe has returned to using paper “login cards” that visitors must fill out during services.
Passing the collection plate will likely make a comeback soon, Howerton said.
At the town church and in many other congregations, those who wish to donate in person can drop off their offering in a collection box set up at the church or can send it by mail. Some older members of the town church even drop off their dedication at the church office during the week.
“We think it’s great,” Inserra said.
(This story has been updated with corrected data from the National Congregation’s study.)
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