I am calling for a ban the following practice that I observe in many of our churches: the free-will offering basket placed at the refreshment table during coffee time.
At a stewardship seminar I recently attended, Nelson Searcy of the Journey Church in New York City said that a theology of abundance underlies everything his church does in terms of stewardship. If we expect people to be generous in their giving to the church, he said, then the church needs to model that generosity and sense of abundance.
He further chastised churches that serve day-old, halved doughnuts during the coffee time. Churches need to treat people with the really good stuff!
His church welcomes first-time guests by sending them a public-transportation pass card and gives second-time guests a gift card to a coffee shop—and offers all a Bible. To those who think all the church does is ask people for money, he wants to communicate that the church is a place of generosity and wants to bless people.
Now, you need to understand that this church makes no bones about asking people to give to the church—and, in fact, they urge people toward tithing. They take seriously and have a system for moving people from being first-time givers to tithers.
They also know that to help people grow into that kind of generosity, they need to see and experience God’s abundance. So many of the things we do as a church can communicate scarcity and quid pro quo: you pay for what you get. All the small things we do can send unintended messages.
Here is a good practice from Rev. Amy Jo Bur, pastor of Good Samaritan United Methodist Church, our new-church start in St. Peter. Between worship services on Sunday, her church offers a catered breakfast of egg bake and giant cinnamon rolls from a local restaurant. One of her colleagues asked her if they put out an offering basket to help defray the cost of what is not a cheap breakfast. Her reply was instantaneous: No. In the first place, the donations would not cover the cost. Second, that would send the wrong message. One of their core values is hospitality, and this is one of the ways they live that out. Everyone is welcome at the table.
When I ask United Methodists what they value about being United Methodist, they usually mention the open communion table where everyone is welcome, no matter age, church membership, or background. Have we considered the irony of welcoming everyone freely to God’s communion table and then asking them to pay for their doughnut and coffee at the refreshment table afterward?
How much money do you get in that offering basket at the coffee hour anyway? Not enough to offset the implicit message that we can’t afford to be generous. And how much is that costing us in the development of generous Christians?
It is time to get rid of the coffee-hour donation basket—and bring on some really good food. We have been blessed by the extravagant love of God. It is time we showed it in the little things as well as the big!
Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church