Freely Given

Freely Given

One- tenth.

This was the amount of money (your money) required every Sunday morning.
‘Twas your tithe – 10% of your weekly income (though, as a child, I was never clear if this applied to my ‘gross’ allowance or ‘net’ allowance).
Nevertheless, the churches of my youth preached this one-tenth principle religiously.
Tithing was law.
The kind of law of which possession was ten-tenths.

So, your tithes went into the church’s possession – with the understanding that the tithing practice was a mandatory edict from up above.
You were paying these dues in the present, but failure to pay them would greatly affect your future (your final destination in heaven or hell).
Paying anything less than your one-tenth was spoken of in sermons as the equivalent of grand larceny.
You could expect curses, diseases, and/or hardships to come your way if you ever knowingly withheld from the heavens your full and complete tithe.
If you found a dime on the sidewalk Saturday night, you had better find a penny for Sunday morning (or there’d be hell to pay).
And this was just your tithe –
(Your offering was above and beyond your tithe).

There was no set-in-stone amount for one’s offering, but the deacons seemed to make it abundantly clear that no one should be exiting a service with any loose dollars or spare change (lest you be struck by a bolt of lightning in the church parking lot).
The offering often became offering(s) – depending on how much money the trustees had counted from the first round (and how much more they thought could be raised in the room).
It wasn’t uncommon for me to witness 2 or 3 impromptu offerings in the same service – with pastors delivering guilt-laced/fear-based scoldings, Hammond organs scalding, and choirs drummed up to a fever pitch.
My sense now is that those church elders then genuinely felt that they had to rob you to keep you from robbing them.
They didn’t trust that you would feed the church (financially) unless you were forced.
And this seemed to flow from a deeper Calvinist kind of belief that humans were innately depraved (‘originally sinful’), and – given a choice – would take the selfish/evil option every day of the week.
And twice on Sunday.

I had a chance to visit last fall with a friend who had visited our UUCC services a few times that summer.
He’s a lifelong churchgoer – mostly attending the kinds of churches I was raised in and around.
“…You all don’t tithe?…”, he asked at some point in the conversation.
“..Nope..”, I replied.
His jaw dropped.

His shock was threefold;

1)    That we don’t require our members to tithe
2)    That we don’t share the theological belief that our members should be required to tithe (or that the Divine requires it)
3)    That our congregation still manages to keep the lights on, the water running, professional staff paid, a RE program functioning, larger community outreach, small group ministries, new sanctuary, etc.

I told him that we ask our members to pledge annually, but that the amount is up to them. We have ‘Fair Share’ guidelines they can reference (based on their income), but there is no ‘required’ tithe – or offering.
You are free to pledge a dime, in theory. Even a penny.
“..Our offerings are offered..”, I said.
Freely given and gratefully received, as we often say.

He asked what our budget was.
I told him.
His jaw dropped another inch or so.
I gave him some very necessary socioeconomic context (Howard County is usually among the top 5 highest per capita income counties in the country). And then, I asked-
“How much do you think you might give if you weren’t required to give anything?”

He paused.
“..I don’t know..”, he said, after leaning back and looking off into the distance for a while. “..Definitely not as much as I’m giving now. Maybe not much at all, to be honest”.
I could tell he was most shocked to hear those words come out of his mouth – and that he was doing some genuine soul-searching in that moment.
He didn’t have any answers, but I wasn’t really looking for them.
It was a judgement-free curiosity.

I was having the conversation with him that I used to have quietly with myself during those church services in my childhood.
I used to wonder how much those folks would give if they didn’t believe that their lives (and afterlives) depended on it.
I wondered how much I would give.
If there were no fear of hell, how empty (or full) might those offering baskets have been?
How empty (or full) might the pews have been?

For me, it is no small thing that ours is a free faith.
We are a chosen congregation inside a chosen denomination – trusting deeply in the inherent worth and dignity (‘original goodness’) of every person.
The smiling faces I see in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning have freely chosen to be there.
They are not there by fear or force – but by freedom. By choice.
They pledge and/or offer their gifts because they want to – not because they believe they have to (or because they fear what would happen if they didn’t).
And in many cases, they freely give much more than one-tenth.

I find something very pure and uplifting in this.
The self-evident truth that a congregation could not just survive (but thrive) by goodwill invitation – and not because of theological obligation.
Guilt-free generosity.

That’s a hell of a concept.



Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *