How passing the plate becomes the 'Sunday morning stickup'

Churches have devised all sorts of ingenious ways to use guilt and distort scripture to compel people  to give, some say. They call it the "Sunday morning stickup."

Story highlights

  • Pastors and churches routinely manipulate people to give, some say
  • One church leader calls offerings the "Sunday morning stickup"
  • Some religious leaders say tithing is not mandatory for Christians

(CNN)David Lee had just opened his wallet for two successive offerings at a church one Sunday morning when a pastor walked onto the pulpit to pass on a request.

"You all going to think I'm crazy, but God says give again," the pastor said.
    The congregation rose from their seats to march to the front as the church organist played a soothing melody. As they dropped off their offerings at the altar, the pastor urged them on with, "God says give everything; don't hold nothing back."
    The organist then picked up the tempo, and the pastor shouted, "God says run!" The offering ended with people surging toward the altar like music fans rushing a concert stage.
    "It was pandemonium. They weren't just giving money, but shoes, watches and diamond rings," Lee says. "There were people dropping alligator shoes on the altar."
    Were these people cheerful or gullible givers? For Lee, a church elder who spent 30 years marketing and selling church products, they were victims of the "Sunday morning stickup" -- his term for manipulative tactics pastors and churches use to get your money.
    "They bypassed their common sense," says Lee, author of "Sunday Morning Stickup," which examines church giving. "One lady took off her wedding ring and dropped it of on the altar. That's how charged the atmosphere was. People got caught up."
    People widely condemned an Atlanta megachurch pastor who asked his church to buy him a $65 million private jet. Yet there is no condemnation for countless church leaders across America who have turned the Sunday morning offering into a form of spiritual abuse, Lee and other church leaders say.
    Creflo Dollar, an Atlanta-based televangelist, persuaded his congregation to buy him a private jet.
    If a pastor or church leader has ever told you that the Bible commands Christians to tithe or give 10% of their income; hit you up for multiple offerings during one service; made you march up front to give; asked you to donate to a mysterious "building fund" or give a "first-fruit" offering; or even given special recognition to big givers in your congregation, Lee and other pastors have a message for you:
    You are getting played.
    These rituals, they say, violate New Testament teachings about how and why people should give.
    Quibbling over how churches collect money may seem trivial. But the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was sparked, in part, by outrage over how the Roman Catholic Church collected money.
    Church leaders sold everything from "indulgences" to people who wanted their sins pardoned to holy relics of dubious value. And researchers say that today's surge in "nones," or Americans who claim no religious affiliation, is driven by people who complain that religions organizations are too concerned with money and power.
    No wonder the Apostle Paul, who built the first Christian churches, refused to take money from his followers, one pastor noted. Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 9:15-18 that he would only "present the gospel free of charge." He supported himself as a tent maker.
    "Saint Paul refused to take money because he didn't want to be influenced by it. He wanted to be able to proclaim the gospel," says the Rev. Dave Albertson, pastor of Living Grace Lutheran Church in Maryland, who has written about the evolution of giving in the American church.
    Contemporary churches, though, are not just spiritual enterprises; they are businesses. They have budgets, staff, building repairs -- they need cash and converts. And when the cash gets tight, some go into Sunday stickup mode by deploying three tactics.

    No. 1: The myth of the mandatory tithe

    Here's a challenge for all the Bible sleuths out there: Find a New Testament passage that explicitly declares that all Christians must tithe, or give 10% of their income.
    You won't find it because it doesn't exist, says Lee.
    While Christians are commanded to be generous, there are "absolutely no references in the New Testament church of anyone ever paying tithes, '' he writes in his book "Sunday Morning Stickup."
    But mandatory tithing is the cornerstone of many churches' teaching on giving. It's not unusual for them to provide special offering slots or envelopes for tithers.
    What Lee says could virtually get him stoned in some churches.
    "That's ignorant; that's absolutely not true," says the Rev. Timothy McDonald, senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta.
    "Jesus never condemned tithing," says McDonald, who says he's a regular tither. "He supported tithing."
    A preacher could argue that Christians are commanded to give more than their tithes, McDonald says. He referred to the second chapter of Acts, verse 44-45, when the first Christians embraced what some might call communism by "selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all, as anyone might have need."
    "The early church, they did more than tithe," McDonald says. "They sold everything they had."
    Passing the plate, seen here in early church drawing, has become  a church tradition rife with abuse, some say.
    Lee acknowledges that there are four references to tithing in the New Testament: Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42, Luke 18:12 and Hebrews 7:4-9. But none of those passages suggest a predetermined percentage of giving for Christians, and no money exchanges hands in any of them, he says.
    Tithing is an Old Testament prescription for Jews, not a rule for Christians, he says.
    "Jesus came to release us from the law; we are no longer bound by it," Lee says. Tithing is "not required."
    It's has become such a sacred duty in some churches, though, that members can't enjoy certain benefits unless they do it, says Tyrone Jacques, a former Church of God in Christ pastor and founder of PimpPreacher.com, an online website devoted to exposing pastors who prey on congregations.
    The pastor of one church refused to eulogize a 93-year-old woman who was a member of his church for years because she had stopped tithing, Jacques says. When he called the pastor to ask why, he said the pastor replied: "Membership has its privileges." (That same pastor wouldn't return calls to CNN about the incident).
    Some churches deny nontithing members other privileges as well, Jacques says.
    "You have churches that if you cannot contribute financially you cannot be in church leadership or you can't be part of the choir," Jacques says.

    No. 2: Elevating the biggest givers

    There is no record of Jesus taking an offering. According to the eighth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was financially supported by a group of women who were among his earliest disciples. Yet he did prescribe rules for giving: quietly and anonymously.
    In the sixth chapter of Matthew, Jesus told his followers "do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets" when giving to the poor. He said that people should give "in secret" and should be careful "not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them."
    Go into many churches on a Sunday morning, though, and there's nothing quiet or secret about the way people give. The offering time has been transformed into theater.
    The choir stands to sing a rousing hymn. People participate in "wave offerings" by joyously wave their offering envelopes in the air. Preachers, barking out encouragement from the pulpit, exhort people to give back "God's money." The experience is communal and loud -- nothing secret about it.
    The pressure to give is enormous, Lee says. In many churches, smiling ushers beckon people to march up front to deposit their offerings. Someone who has no money to give is left to sit alone in the pew for all the church to see.
    It's give or be shamed, Lee says.