It may be hard to believe, but the time of giving used to be the highlight of the worship service.
I am not talking about 50 or 100 years ago; I am referring to a few thousand years ago. If you recall, people would go to the Temple specifically for the purpose of bringing a sacrifice—an offering to the Living God. These sacrifices would include animals, the rst fruits of crops, grain, and other items of value. They would be placed at the altar as a way of demonstrating devotion to God and of caring for the people of God who were in need.
This tradition continued, though in a different way, as the Church came into being in the New Testament. Offerings of money or food were given to the poor as part of the worship service. Even early second-century documents demonstrate that immediately following most Christian worship gatherings, a portion (or all) of the offering brought by the Church on the Lord’s day (Sunday by then) was taken by the leaders of the local gathering and distributed to those who were poor or in need (see William Willimon’s reproduction of a description of an early worship gathering in his book, Pastor, for example).
Communion (the Lord’s Supper) soon became the focal point of the worship service, with the homily (sermon) preparing hearts for both the giving of the participants to the work of Christ and the receiving of the gifts that Christ gives through Communion.
The understanding was that this act of meeting at the Lord’s Table involved (among other things) the “taking in” of the sacrificial gift so that it may be a defining characteristic as the Church departs into the world. The term for Communion in the early church is still used today: Eucharist, from the Greek word eucharisto, which means “thanksgiving.” The implication: We as the thankful people of God receive God’s good gifts (the bread and the cup, the body and blood of our Lord), so that we may be thankful givers to those in need and our lives can reflect the sacrificial love and the holiness of Christ toward others.
Around the time of the Reformation (early 16th Century), the sermon for most Protestants became the focal point of the worship service, and that is still the case in most Protestant services today. This shift came from the evangelistic emphasis of proclaiming the inspired words of Scripture so that people could be drawn by God’s Spirit toward salvation and sanctification.
This emphasis upon the proclaimed word resulted in unmistakable times of revival and even affected the literacy rates of Christians in a positive way! However, in modern times, it has often served (perhaps unintentionally) to push all other elements of the worship service into the background, including the offering.
The offering, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, music, the sermon, and all other aspects of our gathered worship times work together to shape us into Christlike disciples. When we leave our gathered places of worship, we become examples of the self-giving love of our Lord.
Perhaps if we put giving in its proper context as another of the key elements of worship and as a necessary part of discipleship and formation, we can recapture a holistic approach to living and to giving that will continue to build and strengthen God’s kingdom throughout the world.
Charles W. Christian is affiliate associate professor of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and adjunct professor of religion at MidAmerica Nazarene University. He holds a PhD in theology and ethics, an MDiv, and a BBA. An ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene, he has served as a pastor for over 25 years, and is the former managing editor of Grace & Peace magazine.