This section is from the "How To Pay Church Debts And How To Keep Churches Out Of Debt" book, by Rev. Sylvanus Stall. Amazon: How To Pay Church Debts And How To Keep Churches Out Of Debt.
Many churches which are using a sort of "give what you please, or as little as you please" system, try to dignify the same by the scriptural title of "Free-Will Offerings." This is a misnomer, a perversion, a degrading of the term from its Biblical meaning. What free-will offerings were, and still are, will be shown later in its proper place. Even the other term, "voluntary contributions," is, or at least may be, according to circumstances, susceptible of grave misapprehensions, and we use it simply to designate the system which is known by that name.
In speaking of the voluntary contribution plan, the pastor of a church in New York city says: "In a general way, it may be said that the ideal church would be absolutely a free church.
"Built by a free subscription and dedicated free from debt, it would provide for its expenses by freewill offerings, brought as an act of worship, at each service. Each member would give each week as the Lord prospered him; no man would know the amount of another's gift; it would be a sacred confidence between the giver and his Divine Master.
"This ideal method could be successful, practically, if the Millennium had dawned, and all Christians were absolutely conscientious and truly devoted to their Lord. In practice, men left thus entirely to the dominion of conscience fail as signally in this duty as in every other. It is more interesting from a psychological than a religious point of view to notice how many Christians there are who seem to care very little that the Lord knows how stingy they are, if it is reasonably sure that no one else knows it.
"When I was in Paris, twenty years ago, the Sunday collections of the American congregation, then worshiping in a hired chapel, were gathered in a hat. Some shrewd Yankee suggested that it would pay to buy open plates. It was done. It was reported that immediately the contributions were nearly doubled. No one meant to be mean; but there is an unconscious, involuntary, almost automatic connection between the publicity and the amount of a contribution.
"If such ideal plan for supporting a church has ever been tried, the career of that church has been so brief that it has left no history."
Here is just where the term "voluntary," as applied to this system is vague and indefinite. All giving of tithes, free-will offerings and alms is and ever has been voluntary, the same as all moral action.
If the author of the above means that a congregation composed of persons who have no knowledge of what amount it is their duty to give, and are left to contribute as little as selfishness may suggest, will not, under these circumstances, give sufficient to support a church, then his last statement is true - true to the very letter. But if he means that Christians left to the dominion of an enlightened conscience will not contribute alike religiously and liberally, then his statement tends to mislead, as it is not in accordance with facts. Without much mental effort we might name at least several congregations where the duty of giving is faithfully preached, where all the contributions are strictly voluntary, and where the amount is left for each contributor to determine in the fear of God, with a knowledge of the fact that no human being shall know whether the contribution be much or little. Personal pride, public display, a spirit of emulation, business interest - none of these have any influence upon the congregation, and yet the annual contributions aggregate thousands of dollars. Let a single instance suffice;
The New York Observer, in noticing the valedictory services of Rev. J. D. Bruen, pastor of the Presbyterian church, at Summit, N. J., gives the following account of the congregation: "Mr. Bruen is the first pastor, and came to the church in 1871. It was just organized with nineteen members, and was without property. Seven years and a half have passed. The parish has now a beautiful church building and parsonage, and the church has received into her member-ship 102 by certificate and 101 by profession of faith. In all, 203 members added to the original 19 in eight years. Remarkable as this work has been, yet the most remarkable thing about the church is its financial system, or rather lack of system. They used no envelopes, had no pew rents, said nothing about money matters, and left it to every man's conscience to keep him to his duty. The plate was passed morning and evening, and by this means they received over $18,000 a year. We do not like the plan, but we cannot help confessing that its marvelous success in these most trying times shows conclusively that more depends on conscience, and less on envelopes than we had thought, at least in congregations like that at Summit, composed largely of people of education."
In a general way concerning the "voluntary contribution" system, it may be said, that, if introduced where no due sense of obligation to the divine command already exists, and where the duty is not clearly, frequently and faithfully preached, it will become one of the most unbusiness-like, unscriptural and unsuccessful of all plans. But, on the other hand, if accompanied by a faithful presentation and clear understanding of the divine requirements, it may then approach, or even attain, to the scriptural standard. It is capable of rendering the church, or its ministers, either princes or paupers. A Presbyterian pastor says of it:
"It is a plan that will not run itself. It must be constantly pushed, and always kept before the congregation. It is a little apt to weary in the end. It has often proved successful when managed by a pastor or officer who is an enthusiast in regard to it; but as often it has signally failed. As a matter of fact, the history of 'free churches' in this city (New York) has been disastrous. Among Presbyterians they have always failed."
But few congregations have been sufficiently instructed to use this plan successfully without considerable machinery, and therefore the envelope system, with its various modifications, 1ms been much more successful.