Emmanuel Enid receives offerings in our four morning worship services the old fashioned way - we pass plates. Since coming as pastor of Emmanuel in 1992, it has been our standard practice to invite people in the auditorium to either give to the offering or receive from the offering. When we pass the plates we encourage those in financial need to take from the offering if they have genuine need. We only ask that they take the cash and leave the checks and the envelopes because those are checks made to Emmanuel, and they couldn't cash them anyway. We also typically announce that if there is not enough cash in the plate to meet their need, they can see us after the service and we will see what we can do to help them financially. There are no restrictions. Members and guests are invited to take from the offering plate. Money can be taken by the same person every week for fifty-two weeks. We mean what we say, and we have many stories of people who have been helped through our offering, sometimes in surprising fashions. One young lady who was in college stopped me one Sunday with tears in her eyes. She was an only child. Her only surviving parent and grandparent, her father, was dying of cancer. She was driving sixty miles one way from Stillwater every weekend to relieve her father's caregiver. She could not afford the gas, and for the past several weeks she had been faithfully taking her gas money from the offering plate. Her father was not a believer in Christ, though she was, and after she told her dad what we had said about the offering, and what she was doing for gas money in order to get home to care for him, he said, "If that is what Christians are all about, then I want to be one." Anyway, you can understand her tears.
Last Sunday a friend of mine told me at lunch that the lady in front of him took her hand and scooped up almost the entire offering, cash, checks, envelopes--everything. Obviously, that presents a problem, particularly if people are giving to Emmanuel in the form of checks. The problem is not so much that we will not receive the money (the Lord ultimately is in charge of meeting our needs, and we trust Him), but that we don't look real professional if we have someone who has written a check and we have no record of receiving it and they have no record of it being cashed. On occasion we have had different individuals unsuccessfully try to cash checks at banks, and of course, we don't press charges because we just assume there is a misunderstanding of what can and cannot be taken from the offering plate. It's almost worth the adventure just to see the expression on the faces of bank employees when they are told that worship attenders at Emmanuel are encouraged to take what they need from the offering plate.
Anyway, Monday's offering count was the lowest it has been in many months. Emmanuel takes no giving commitment cards. We do not emphasize the "tithe." We tell people to give what the Holy Spirit leads them to give. For the past eighteen years in a row we have exceeded our church budget in receipts. Last year we exceeded it by a quarter of a million dollars. Around Thanksgiving however, we are always behind in budget receipts, sometimes to the tune of $200,000 to $300,000 dollars. Emmanuel has no guarantee that we will meet budget by the end of the year, and we make no special emphasis--but somehow, someway, God has provided.
After my friend told me about the woman who emptied everything from the offering plate, and after I received the news of the low offering this past Sunday, I found myself thinking through our practice of encouraging people to take from the offering plate. After a little reflection, I came up with the reasons why we will not change a thing.
(1). God is quite capable of meeting our needs as a church ministry as He sees fit.
(2). If we ever fall short in our missions and ministry budget, we will cut our budget to reflect the giving we have received (or not received). The people of Emmanuel, having been filled by the Spirit, will give precisely what the Spirit leads them to give and take what the Spirit leads them to take. The answer is not for leaders to demand more, but for leaders to trust more.
(3). Trust in God involves trusting Him to work in the lives of those who give to and of those who receive from Emmanuel. Sure, people can abuse the offering, misuse the church's generosity, and take money from the offering plate for things that some might not consider appropriate, but our God is big enough to handle His people. He neither needs our control or demands our micromanagement.
(4). Thanksgiving reminds us not only to give thanks, but to be thankful for giving. Too many of us are so accustomed to being on the receiving end that the concept of churches being the initiators of giving has been lost.
(5). In time, the lives of people are changed by the love involved in giving, not the control needed in taking.
I close with a Thanksgiving Facebook message I received this morning from a woman impacted by Emmanuel. I have left off her name and current living location to protect her identity, but I believe her message was only a confirmation from the Lord that it is far more blessed for Emmanuel to give than to receive.
I wanted to take time to tell you how much I miss Emmanuel. I had no idea how important and significant Emmanuel was in my life. Now that I have moved to _____, my new husband and I are looking for a church home. We have been to the Baptist Church here 3 or 4 times and it isn't even close to being the church for us.... I wanted to thank you for teaching me what God's Grace is. Grace is God! God knew what He was doing when He called you to preach His word. I have so many examples of how you and Emmanuel have touched my life but there are three that really stand out to me.
1....One Christmas Eve the girls and I were at the candle light service and afterwards you just randomly came up to me and handed me a voucher for $75 in groceries. You couldn't have known how much I needed that...but God did.
2. I had surgery in 2009. I was to be off work for at least 6 weeks which turned into 11 weeks. I had the surgery of state, and I had asked if the church could help me with a donation to "Kathy's House" which is a place for patients to stay who are in the hospital for medical reasons. The donation is what they accept as payment. Well, not only did the church write a check for the donation but they paid my bills for a month. That was amazing! Thank you!
3. EBC helped me raise my 3 daughters and keep God in every part of their life. I pray that God sends my husband and me to a special church like Emmanuel. Please pray for us. Thank you!
Wade and Rachelle Burleson