As the ushers moved forward with their plates in hand during a crowded Christmas Eve service, the pastor said, “We’ll now receive the offering, which will support the apportionments our church owes.” There was no further explanation, no description of ministries, no connection to the purpose of the church. The plates passed from hand to hand among the members (both active and occasional) as well as among all their nominally-involved or un-churched relatives and friends. It circulated also among the zillions of Christmas Eve visitors. Only a few dollar bills were dropped here and there into the offering.
I couldn’t blame the congregation for their lack-luster response. I found myself second-guessing whether I would put in the plate the check I had already written out. The pastor might as well have said, “Please give to a distant bureaucracy, even if you don’t understand anything about it.” None of the visitors and very few of the members would have any idea what the word “apportionments” means. It’s an insider term, a phrase used and understood by long-time United Methodists and church leaders, but hardly accessible to first-time visitors. Many of the ministries supported by apportionments are important and life-changing, but the use of the term during the service that is the most highly attended of the year by visitors just doesn’t work. I’d be surprised if the 300 people in the room managed to give $400.
Imagine a pastor taking the additional moment to tie the offering to the mission of the church, to tangible ministries, and to changed lives. For instance: “Tonight’s special offering, over and above our regular giving, helps support the continued ministry and mission of this congregation locally and around the world. We are changing lives and making a difference year-around with children, youth, and adults through worship, outreach, pastoral care, and mission, and your gifts make this all possible. Thank you for your generosity throughout the year, and I pray you feel blessed in the giving of these gifts even as you are a blessing to this church and its ministry. Thank you.”
In this simple statement, the pastor ties the offering to the mission of the church, a church that is close to the hearts of people. The invitation points to the effect the gift has on the ministry of the church, and upon the giver. It is appreciative. Such a statement, true and genuine in every regard, helps people align their personal mission, ministry and generosity with the mission of Christ’s church. This message helps the giver, and helps the church. I would guess that such a purpose-driven invitation would elicit a response to the offering that would be 3-4 times greater than in the previous example.
But let’s not stop there. Imagine a congregation that has appropriately planned its annual budget, and is meeting all of its ministry expenses and beyond-the-wall responsibilities through regular tithes and offerings. Let’s imagine that this congregation prayerfully considers how to focus its Christmas Eve offering on an outward-serving, life-changing ministry that will channel peoples’ charitable impulses (members and visitors alike) to do the greatest good. Then the invitation to the offering might go, “This congregation supports the work of XYZ throughout the year. XYZ reaches out and makes a difference in the lives of people by…..(fill in the blank: feeding and helping the homeless? Helping children? Victims of violence? Fighting malaria?). They serve X number of meals, or reach X number of children, or house X number of people, and the only limit on their ability to serve is the level of generosity that supports their work. We invite you to help us help them. One hundred percent of your offering tonight goes directly to help XYZ change lives. Thank you for your prayerful consideration and great generosity as we work together in this important ministry.” The invitation might be supplemented with photos on the screen or a special envelop in the bulletin.
With this level of genuineness, transparency, appreciation, passion, clarity, and accessibility to members and visitors alike, the offering now might well jump to several thousand dollars. With a little planning and prayer, the pastor has helped people to help other people, and has furthered the ministry of Christ in new ways. Clarity of purpose, a focus on fruitfulness, and a tie to real people in need….this approach cultivates trust, a sense of mission, and generosity of spirit.
People want to give. People need to give. During this season of Christmas, the whole culture reminds us of the importance of giving. But to help foster giving, congregational leaders need to think ahead, and focus on mission: What difference will this offering make in the lives of people? How does this offering and the cause it supports help visitors learn more about our church and who we are? How can the church become a channel for the generosity of people who are genuinely stimulated by the Holy Spirit to make a difference? Whether the offering goes to the general ministry budget of the church or a specific mission, effective stewardship requires intentionality.
The other day I heard of a pastor whose church regularly focuses on a specific mission project for the Christmas offering. With great authenticity and honesty, he lifts up this project during the Christmas Eve services, talks of its importance and fruitfulness in very specific ways, and then challenges attenders to think about how much they will personally spend this Christmas on each of their own children or grandchildren. He then asks them to prayerfully consider giving an amount to this project that is equal to what they will spend for each child of their own. Got six grandkids? Act like you have seven, and give as if you are adopting this mission into your family. What a cool way of cultivating generosity, making a huge impact on a ministry, and helping people see the larger family to which they are related! Both the givers and receivers feel blessed; both the givers and receivers give thanks for the presence and power of God that changes lives.
What will your Christmas Eve offering support? How are you planning to describe it so that people feel motivated and blessed by the opportunity to give and to serve? How can we sharpen its impact, strengthen the mission of the congregation, and invite people to a greater generosity for the purposes of Christ?
Yours in Christ,