“On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come” (1 Corinthians 16:2 NKJV).
An old country ballad (“Picking Time”) includes the lyrics, “Last Sunday morning when they passed the hat, it was still nearly empty back where I sat.” I don’t remember an assembly of the church in the United States where an actual hat was used to gather the collection. However, not long ago in Asia we visited a small congregation where, when it was time for the offering, it was discovered that there was no bag or pan or other vessel suitable for the purpose. I did however have a hat with me, so it was used. I enjoyed sharing with them the expression “passing the hat” and its tradition in our country.
With almost all aspects of Christian activity the physical facilities that are used are always of less importance than the fervent expression of one’s faith and love. The acceptability of a contribution does not depend upon the beauty, value, or supposedly sacred nature of the receptacle used for gathering it. An ordinary hat gets the job done quite well.
The same is true of the place where Christians meet for worship, the furniture upon which they sit, or where the preacher stands, or any other material facility employed by the Church. It is what the believers do and how it is done, rather than where, that Scripture always emphasizes (John 4:21-24).
External tangible things often seem necessary for success. When congregations struggle to become established and grow, conventional wisdom usually suggests, “If we only had a nice building so people could see us and know we are here, our message would have more appeal.” However, experience demonstrates that this is not always the case.
Among other factors, Jesus’ comment about the defining characteristic of his Church is applicable: “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). The Indian leader, Gandhi, reportedly stated, “If the followers of Jesus actually lived by his doctrines, all India would be Christian today.” Whether that is literally true may be argued, but the point is valid. The Christian message is much more dependent upon the faith and obedience of its proclaimers than on the external packaging in which it is presented.
In today’s technical and materialistic cultures, the methods by which the Gospel is preached are carefully researched and enthusiastically argued. Certainly, there are advantages to mass evangelism, outreach via the internet, and well-designed campaign efforts. But the true effectiveness of any method will always ultimately depend upon its fidelity to the person of Jesus and to the sincere faith of his followers.
Jesus himself said, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself” (John 12:32). God’s love, manifested through the gift of his son (Romans 5:8) is the compelling force which brings lost humanity to faith in him and obedience to his word. Pomp and ceremony (i.e., human efforts to impress) may actually detract from the simple message of the cross, blinding hearers to the purity of God’s power to save (Romans 1:16).
We are grateful for those material facilities which contribute to comfort and effectiveness. Let us never mistake them, however, for necessary means or substitutes for that which is essential to Christian success.