Editor’s note: Columnist Jim Evans says, “I often get requests for repeats of columns I have written in the past. None is more requested than this one.”
One Sunday morning in my first pastorate, I noticed the lead usher rummaging through the collection plate during the offering. He was taking what looked like money out of the plate and was putting it in his pocket.
I caught up with him after the service. He laughed when he saw me coming.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not embezzling the offering. One of the bus kids put some buttons in the offering plate. I was just taking them out.”
The kids in question were youngsters we picked up each Sunday in a decrepit school bus we bought from the county. These were poor kids who lived in a rundown neighborhood not far from our church.
But kids or not, the worship service was no time to be playing games. I took the buttons from the usher and headed for the bus. The children were laughing and making noise, but fell silent when they saw me standing in the aisle.
“Who put these buttons in the offering plate today?” I asked, holding the buttons in the palm of my hand.
A tiny little girl with big green eyes, bigger now because of her fear, slowly raised her hand.
“I did, Brother Jim.”
“Why did you do that?” Apparently, she heard the disapproval in my voice. Her big green eyes filled with tears.
With her voice breaking, she said, “I didn’t mean to do anything bad. I just wanted to make an offering to God, like you said we should. But I don’t have any money like the other people. So I asked my Momma what could I give and she gave me those buttons from her sewing box. She said maybe somebody could use the buttons to help someone make some clothes.”
The weight of my stupidity fell on me like a brick.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said, fighting back my own tears. “I just wanted to thank you for your special offering. Thank your Momma, too.”
Those buttons in the offering plate have given me much to think about through the years. They have helped me understand how often we make the same mistake with other kinds of offerings.
For instance, in our culture, churches that are able to grow larger and larger every year are regarded as successful, vital churches.
Small congregations that bury as many members as they baptize are regarded as less vital. Sometimes they are called dying churches.
But is that true? Is the offering of worship and prayer in a small church any less important, any less valuable than the mega-church down the road? Does a church only gain validity if it is growing?
And how about the ministers that serve those churches? Is a preacher in a big church more blessed than one who serves a small but faithful rural church?
And how about the many preachers that serve inner city churches in decline? Didn’t Jesus say something about the last being first and the first last?
We make a mistake when we fail to see the value of buttons in the offering plate. Often those buttons represent a heroic level of faithfulness and dedication. I learned that lesson the hard way.
Now we keep all the buttons that come into the offering plate. We know the bank does not want them, but we are pretty sure God does.
James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).