Thinking Out Loud

January 26, 2016

“If You’re Visiting, Let the Offering Plate Pass By”

Offering PlateOne of the elements of the seeker sensitive movement which caught on within the wider circle of Evangelicals is the idea of not presenting ourselves as just wanting money. When Bill Hybels founded Willow Creek, it was one of two things that turned up in his community survey: ‘We don’t want to be asked to give money.’ (The other was anonymity: ‘We don’t want to be asked to stand up and give our names or be identified as visitors.’)

The line, “If you’re a visitor with us today, don’t feel any obligation to give;” or “This is an opportunity for our own people to worship through giving; if you’re visiting, just let the offering plate pass by;” has become a mantra in many of our churches. They say this in my church, and if I were asked to do the announcements — something for 20 years I’ve been deemed incapable of — I would certainly echo the same sentiment.

But I’m not sure it applies anymore.

For the four reasons below, I want to suggest doing away with it, or at least amending it somewhat.

First, we had the Willow Creek study, which showed that the spiritual characteristics of seekers had changed over the (then) 25-or-so years the church had been operating. Seekers wanted to go deep, they wanted to sit with their Bible in one hand and a pen in the other. They certainly didn’t see themselves as visitors or observers, they wanted to engage with the service the same as everybody else.

Second, there was the study North Point did which focused on people who had been attending for five weeks or less. This survey showed that what we would call visitors were already wanting to “discern next steps.” They wanted to fully plunge in, including volunteering to help. They saw themselves as potential participants, not outsiders. This echoes the saying that, “You’re only a visitor once.” Both of these studies were conducted by professional researchers.

Third, there is my own observation of what happens at Christmas services where an offering is received; a practice we can debate at another time. It’s assumed that many are visiting these services, so sometimes the line is simply skipped, and on those occasions, I’ve seen people who I know to be visiting reach into their wallets and pull out twenty dollar bills, or more. Perhaps they have a spirit of giving because of the season and want to be generous. Maybe it’s guilt for not having been more philanthropic throughout the year. For whatever reason, they seem to want to give.

Finally, there is simply my own hunch that people want to join in because they see the community value in what is taking place because the church is there. The church I attend is making a difference our town, and is in fact in the middle of a project involving refugee placement that has attracted interest from the broader community and has created some partnerships with local charities. (Matthew 5:16b “…that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.“) I think we’re doing things that people want to encourage.

Having said all that, I do understand the spirit of the original Willow Creek goal of not being seen as simply wanting money. I don’t think we should abandon that altogether. But there are other ways of phrasing it that might stay in step with the spirit of the statements we’re using and at the same time invite visitors to join in if they choose, and hopefully eventually come to a place of entering in with their hearts as well as their wallets.

1 Peter 2:12
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.


  1. “they seem to want to give” — perhaps. Or perhaps they feel obligated/coerced/pressured to give.

    In my way of thinking, people should support the things that they *value*. If you value your church, you should support it. Support can come in the form of money, service, expertise, time, etc. Regulars in the church should have access to the overall budget so they understand where the money goes, and they should understand what would happen if more or less money was donated. Passing the offering puts undue pressure on people to give out of guilt or coercion (for both visitors and members alike) — instead, once a year ask people what they are willing to give, and then provide several means for them to give, including automated withdrawals or a box at the back of the church. If visitors want to participate in supporting the church, they can always drop their $20’s in the box. At the same time, ask people how they would like to serve; how they can use their particular talents to bless the community. And then follow up on these things to engage people and include them in the community.

    Oh but alas. Such thinking is all a pipe dream, because we know statistically that people give more when the plate is passed around than by just putting a box at the back. And though I find it hard not to cast judgment, every church has to evaluate its priories and make those decisions. But how much I would love it for some churches to actually take the risk to treat the collection of money in a low-key way, and focus a Sunday service instead on other things.

    Comment by Mike — January 27, 2016 @ 3:15 pm

    • “…people give more when the plate is passed around than by just putting a box at the back…”
      Not necessarily. I heard of one church that did an “experiment” with a box at the back and offerings went up. But I agree that in our culture, perhaps no offering is better than one containing visitor disclaimers.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — January 27, 2016 @ 3:52 pm

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