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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

November 14, 2013

We continue looking at Reformed worship for markers of church authenticity, since Reformed confessions declare that wherever God is rightly worshiped the church is truly present. How does our self-offering mark us as a “true church”?

According to our Book of Order, each Lord’s Day worship service “shall” include three things – that is code for “not optional.” That means that many elements of Reformed liturgy in fact are optional. Indeed, both its order and most of its content are optional. Though I have not yet visited all 150 congregations in our presbytery, I can testify that of the many I have visited, no two have had the exact same liturgy. We permit great latitude, but these three things are required to be present at each worship service: 1. Scripture shall be read and proclaimed. 2. Prayer shall be offered. 3. The tithes and offerings of the people shall be gathered. (Book of Order W-3.3100) Another way to put number three is this: Thanks shall be given.

In historic Reformed worship, the offering follows the sermon. In American revivalism, that was reversed so that the “altar call” following the sermon would be the last thing in the worship service. That pattern of receiving the offering before the sermon is still practiced in some Presbyterian congregations as a hold-over from frontier revivalism, even though our Book of Order recommends the older pattern of placing the offering after the sermon.

In the home-based churches of the early Christian movement, offerings were typically gifts of food and dry goods to share with the needy and to provide compensation for church leaders. The offerings would be placed on the household’s table after the scriptures and apostles’ memoirs had been read and discussed. Before they were distributed to the needy, some bread and wine from the offerings was blessed and shared among those present in remembrance of the Lord.  “Offering” and “Eucharist” were thus united – which is one reason the offering plates are often left on the communion table in many of our churches.

To make an offering is to say “thanks” to God for all God has given us through the fellowship and prayers of the saints, as well as the preaching of the Word. Anything we bring by way of bread or wine, or (today) cash and check, is in essence a way of saying “thanks” to God.

But it is more than just saying “thanks” – it is a tangible acknowledgment that all we have and all we are belongs to God. It is the Reformed version of what revivalists called the “altar call,” where we respond to the good news of the Gospel by offering up our lives as “living sacrifices,” which for Paul is the heart of Christian worship. (Romans 12:1)

We are in the midst of “stewardship season,” which is our Presbyterian euphemism for “pledge drive.” Most of us will be reminded during this season that the Lord is asking for stewardship of our “time” and “talent” as well as our “treasure.” Indeed, offerings of time and talent are in some ways more direct presentations of ourselves as living sacrifices than putting money in the plate. Truthfully, it’s easier to give our money than to give our time or talent. When we give our money on Sunday, we need to remember that it is just the tip of the “offering iceberg” – the most important part of the offering is what lies beneath the surface.

I once pastored a church that retained the old revivalist liturgy of collecting the offering before the sermon. I wondered if they feared that the offering would be smaller once the people had heard my sermon… but I digress. One of the saints there told me, “I want to leave church hearing the words of the sermon ringing in my ears; if we had the offering after the sermon, I would forget the sermon.” I surely didn’t want that to happen! Still, I encouraged them to try for a while placing the offering after the sermon; it was clearly an unwelcome change (mainly because it made those who had to count it late for dinner), so we returned to the old practice.

Regardless of where in the service we place the offering, let us remember that in the authentic church, worship is where God’s people pour themselves out in thanksgiving for the treasures of the Gospel. A community that is marked by gratitude for all the ways God has blessed it is, frankly, far more winsome – and thereby truly evangelistic – than a community that complains about its own lot or that of others.

I am so grateful for all the ways so many folk pour themselves out as living sacrifices for the sake of our common life as a “presbytery.” I mean stuff like serving on presbytery committees. Really – that is an offering to the Lord! And I also mean sacrificial giving of financial support for our shared ministry. Did you know that “per capita” is only two-thirds of what we need from churches in order to maintain our staff and mission? I am most grateful to all who contribute per capita gifts, and I especially thank God for those churches that go beyond their per capita assessment to support the work of our staff and our shared mission!

With utmost gratitude,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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