OK, Everyone, Time to Pull Up Your Tithing App…

I was at a birthday party for one of my son’s friends last week, and got into an interesting conversation about tithing. One of the moms explained that her church has provided a giving page on its website for tithing, and also provided a direct-deposit option for recurring giving. She also described a church in a more hip area that appeals to “the younger folks” by inviting folks to whip out their phones and give via app during the service while the traditional pass-the-plate offering is being held.

This conversation made me think about my upbringing, the various modes and methods of giving in the congregations I’ve been part of, and what the biblical text has to say about evolving methods of giving.

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I grew up attending both Messianic congregations and evangelical churches. In most Messianic congregations, following more of a Jewish tradition of giving, there was a wooden box in the back of the sanctuary for donations before and after the service. When we started attending a Baptist church (I was about seven), I was puzzled when they passed around the offering plates. I had been taught that giving should be a private matter between me and God, and that the “left hand should not know what the right hand is doing,” so to speak–so passing a plate where everyone could see seemed crass to me.

What’s more, the Baptists also passed the plate at the Sunday evening service! (Remember when churches used to have those, before football became religion?) Passing the plate a second time in the same day made no sense whatsoever. After all, if you gave your 10% in the morning, how much money could anyone have realistically earned between noon and 6pm on a Sunday, such that they would need to give 10% of that?! It seemed like an utter waste of time. And yet, when I broke the rule that applies at the church offering and at the urinal–“Both eyes forward!”–by daring to peek at what others were doing, there were indeed folks giving cash and envelopes at the evening service (though I don’t know what was in those envelopes–maybe nothing!).

As I grew and started to learn more about the liturgical function of the offering, it made more sense to me that giving tithes is a spiritual act of worship and could therefore be part of the worship service. Thus, even a Sunday evening service could and should have a moment for giving tithes. Even those who had already given all their offering in the morning service could still reflect in their hearts on God’s provision for them and pray for God to use the monies for His glory.

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As technology evolves, so also the worship service evolves. But often the church does not reflect adequately on the non-neutrality of technology–that is, its impact on our theology and spirituality. I’m always encouraging my students to think about the implications of innovations such as PowerPoint and tablets for music and scripture in the service (and I’ll probably write about those at some point). But what does the Bible have to say, if anything, about the effect of evolving technology on giving tithes and offerings?

Many Christians who read the Bible get bogged down in the particulars of law code in the Pentateuch, and the sacrificial system in particular. Those who do read the law code don’t always read the different codes (Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy) in comparison to one another, and therefore miss the fact that in the narrative structure of the Pentateuch “the Law” as expounded in Deuteronomy is a revision/expansion/exposition of the earlier law codes (Deut 1:5). One revision in particular is relevant to the issue of technology, pragmatism, and giving.

According to Leviticus 17:3-6, all slaughter of domesticated animals (cattle, sheep, goats, etc.) needed to be part of a sacrificial ritual performed by the priest at the Tent of Meeting:

“If anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or slaughters it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, to present it as an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, he shall be held guilty of bloodshed; he has shed blood, and he shall be cut off from the people. This is in order that the people of Israel may bring their sacrifices that they offer in the open field, that they may bring them to the LORD, to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and offer them as sacrifices of well-being to the LORD. The priest shall dash the blood against the altar of the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and turn the fat into smoke as a pleasing odor to the LORD.” (Lev 17:3-6 NRSV)

Now, if the population figures given in Numbers 1-2 and 26 are taken literally, this means that Aaron and his sons were quite busy with butchering animals all day long! However, the command is completely infeasible once the Israelites take possession of the land of Canaan, which is the situation anticipated by Deuteronomy 12 and 14. In these chapters, several revisions to the sacrificial system are made.

First, even though ritual sacrifice will still be centralized, it will no longer be focused on the Tent of Meeting, but rather in “the place in which YHWH will choose out of all the tribes to set his name to dwell there” (Deut 12:5, 11, 21, 26). This is Deuteronomy’s way of referring to Jerusalem, which would first become a cultic site under David (2 Sam 5; 6; 24) and later be the site of Solomon’s temple (1 Kgs 7-8).

Second, domestic slaughter is no longer a ritual act: “Yet whenever you desire you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, according to the blessing that the LORD your God has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as they would of gazelle or deer. The blood, however, you must not eat; you shall pour it out on the ground like water” (Deut 12:15-16). This command even comes with a pragmatic rationale (12:21): it would be completely unreasonable to expect Israelites to travel several days’ journey to a central location whenever they ate meat! Ritual offerings are still to be conducted in Jerusalem, and pilgrimages would be made to Jerusalem for the three festivals that are mentioned in Deut 16.

Third–and most relevant for our topic–when the time comes for ritual sacrifice (for a festival or, presumably, for a propitiatory offering), the Israelites are permitted to sell their produce in their hometowns, take the money with them to “the place where YHWH’s name will dwell,” and purchase the sacrificial offerings there:

“Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. In the presence of the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. But if, when the LORD your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the LORD your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the LORD your God will choose; spend the money for whatever you wish– oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your household rejoicing together.” (Deut 14:22-26)

Initially, this doesn’t strike us as that big of a deal. I think this is because most of us do not give our offerings to God “in-kind,” i.e., from the sort of good or service that we actually do for our jobs. We are used to being compensated in the form of money for making widgets, processing documents, teaching math, etc., and then giving a portion of that money to the church/missionaries/charity/etc. But sacrifice of one’s own produce (animals, grain, oil, wine) was common in the ANE, as a way of connecting the worshiper with the deity. Indeed, the first instance of sacrifice in the Bible involves Cain and Abel offering the direct fruits of their own labor (Gen 4).

Deuteronomy 14:22-26 could viewed negatively as severing the connection between the worshiper and YHWH–or, it could be understood as strengthening that connection by saying, “The important thing is that you are giving of what you have worked for, your household is communing with YHWH, and you have a heart of obedience and rejoicing.” It doesn’t matter whether the sheep you actually raised from birth is sacrificed here, or traded for money in your hometown and another lamb is purchased here for the same money.

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So, what does this mean for giving today? I typically write one check to the church per month, because I have a formula on our budget sheet that tells me how much to give based on the whole month’s earnings–and because I’m a millennial and hate writing checks. I’ve never attended a church that does direct deposit, but for a while, I set up “online bill pay” with my bank to send a check to the church with whatever amount I chose. (See above: I’ll do anything to avoid actually writing a check!)

I eventually stopped sending the check online, and went back to writing it out and putting it in the giving envelope. Part of it was that I wanted my children to actually see us giving (Daniel gets it, and Elizabeth will understand soon). But more than that, I feel it’s important to participate in that part of the service. Obviously, I’m inconsistent on that, because I only actually do it once per month.

The direct-deposit idea is no doubt driven by concerns of convenience and pragmatism, and I understand that. In every other area of my life, I hate involving cash or paper in financial transactions; I prefer credit cards, PayPal, and the interwebs (even Bitcoin). But by setting our tithe on automatic every two weeks like a retirement-account contribution or the cable bill, is some reverence or worshipful thought lost along the way? When my online-bill-pay check arrived at the church on a Tuesday afternoon, there was no less of my efforts and intentions behind the contribution–but what of reverence and corporate worship? Perhaps people once thought this way when churches started accepting checks as well as cash in the offering plate.

Which brings us full circle to the use of a “tithing app” during the service. If one of the objections to other forms of intermediation (recurring direct deposit, check-by-mail) is that the gift occurs outside the context of collective worship, then using a tithing app during the offering would seem to overcome that problem, wouldn’t it? OK, you could be playing a game or checking email on your phone and lead others to think you’re giving. But you could also drop an empty envelope in the plate to make people think you’re giving. What’s the problem?

My hesitancy regarding the use of an app is the singularity of the smart phone experience, and the appearance of that singularity to others. I sometimes like to bring my tablet to church as my Bible, because it has a bajillion translations and the original languages (though lugging my Hebrew and Greek Bibles lets others know how spiritual I am). But aside from the distractions on my phone or tablet, how does the eleven-year-old boy across the aisle know what I’m doing? Am I reading my Bible, or looking up whether Val Kilmer was in the movie Willow? Will he think, “Gee, Mr. Giffone doesn’t pay attention in the service, so why should I?” Similarly, during the offering, I could be giving simultaneously with all my brothers and sisters–or I could be playing “Angry Birds.”

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What do you think? Has your church begun to adopt various options for giving? Obviously there are advantages: more consistent giving, and less time spent counting/recording. But do these come at a cost, and is the gain worth the cost?

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, exiled to the land of Phillies fans…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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2 Responses to OK, Everyone, Time to Pull Up Your Tithing App…

  1. Benj says:

    Report: Everyone Who Sits Behind You At Church Thinks You Do Not Tithe Because You Give Online: http://babylonbee.com/news/report-everyone-sits-behind-church-thinks-not-tithe-give-online

  2. Pingback: Best of 2016 | think hard, think well

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