A Guide to Reformed Worship – The Collection
Historically speaking, the offertory or collection has not had a clear right to be an element in the public worship of God’s people. Looking back to the Reformers, Martin Bucer believed that it was one of the four essential elements of the regular Christian liturgy (the others being preaching, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper). Calvin, however, believed differently:
There are three things that our Lord has commanded us to observe in our assemblies of worship: the preaching of his Word, public prayers and the administration of the sacraments.
While it is conceivable that Calvin included the giving of alms with the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper (which he advocated), this is nowhere made explicitly clear.
The apparent lack of consensus among the Reformers continued into the following centuries. To this day, many Presbyterian churches (among them our sisters in the Free Church of Scotland) do not have the collection as a part of the service. Rather, they will often have a collection plate at the back where the congregation can give their offerings either before or after the service. Closer to home, Dr. K. Deddens related how the Reformed churches in the Dutch province of Zeeland even in the beginning of the twentieth century did not have the offertory as a separate element of the worship services.
All of the above would agree that God’s Word gives clear direction that the church of God is to take offerings, especially for the needy. In the Old Testament already, we find evidence of this sort of thing. 1 Chronicles 16:29 says, “Bring an offering and come before him.” Likewise, Deuteronomy 16:17 reads,
No man should appear before the Lord empty-handed: each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you.
Coming to the New Testament, we find passages like 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, where Paul gives the same orders to the church of Corinth that he did for the churches of Galatia: “On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.” Based on the biblical evidence, all the churches descended from the Reformation have insisted on a collection of some sort in the life of the church.
An Element or Not?
The question that needs to be determined is whether it is properly an element of the worship service. If we look at the passages I mentioned above, I believe a solid case can be made for the inclusion of the offertory in our worship. For instance, the Old Testament passages speak about bringing these offerings into God’s presence. This was a reference to the special presence of God in the temple, a presence which is reflected today in God’s presence in public worship. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, Paul speaks about the collections as something active taking place when God’s people gather together on the Lord’s Day. The collections are not a passive item that takes place at the back of the church, but rather an activity in the assembly. Taken together, a case can be made out of “good and necessary consequence” for the inclusion of the offertory as a separate element of public worship.
As such, the offertory is part of man’s response of thanksgiving to God for the gospel of Jesus Christ (which is why it is best located after the sermon). It is unusual among the responsive elements in that it is the only one that does not directly involve words. Here we communicate something with our actions, by putting some money into a black bag. Nevertheless, there is often a song specifically appended to this element to express in words what we have also expressed with our actions. There can be no objection to this practice and in fact, it may help to focus our minds on the fact that the offertory is indeed an act of worship.
We can now consider a couple of the practical aspects of the offertory. Usually the offertory is introduced with some basic words such as, “You now have the opportunity to show your thankfulness with your offerings” or words to that effect. From time to time, it may be wise and helpful for the minister to introduce the offering with an appropriate Scripture passage which illustrates that the call to make an offering is indeed something that originates with God and not with man. Whatever words are chosen, as congregation members we ought to be focusing carefully on them so that this element does not become a matter of formalized ritual where we give no thought to what we are doing.
I wonder how many of us give any thought to one of the most unique features of a Reformed worship service: the black collection bag. Speaking broadly, in most churches where collections are taken, a plate of some sort is typically used. Reformed churches of a Dutch background are unique for their use of a black bag. But more than some sort of cultural expression, these black bags express a biblical principle:
But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.Matthew 6:3-4
While it may seem strange to newcomers, it quickly becomes apparent that the black collection's bags are a wise way of implementing a biblical principle.
Another biblical principle that needs our attention when we consider the offertory is that God wants our hearts to be focused on Him. In Matthew 15:8, the Lord Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and He quotes Isaiah 29:13, “This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” Surveying what goes on during the offertory in an average worship service, we might paraphrase that, “This people honours me with their money, but their heart is far from me.” Many seem to view the offertory as a time for conversation and even for joking around. This sort of behaviour does not fit with an understanding of the offering as an act of worship. Yes, the organ may be playing, the minister may be silent, but that does not mean that it is a time for conversation. Rather, it is still a time for worship where God’s people should be actively focusing their minds and hearts on Him. If you think about it: how are we responding to God in thankfulness when we are conversing with one another about things that usually have nothing to do with the worship of God? I encourage readers to use this time to reflect on God’s blessings, both for themselves individually and, especially, for the congregation as a whole.
Finally, a word needs to be said about the difference between the offering taken for the needy and the regular voluntary contributions. Even adult believers who have done profession of faith sometimes do not understand this important difference. Usually the collections taken during the worship services are for the needy and for other worthy causes where the compassion and charity of Christ can be shown through the deacons. The money that goes in the collection has absolutely nothing to do with the support for the church building, for the pastor’s stipend, for the heating bills, for the federational assessments, and so forth. That money comes from the regular voluntary contributions of the church members. In our churches those contributions are made with envelopes – in some places the envelopes can be placed in the regular collections, while in other places there is a special box for the envelopes to be placed. But no matter what the arrangement, those envelopes end up with the Committee of Administration rather than the deacons. These are the contributions that are necessary for the support of the church. More could be said on this matter of regular voluntary contributions, but it will have to wait for some other time.