- 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.
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."
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.
"There's no scriptural model for it," he says of the ritual of marching up front. "It doesn't exist in the Bible. It's just another form of control and manipulation."
Another form of manipulation is giving VIP treatment to a church's biggest givers.
Jacques, founder of PreacherPimp.com, says he belonged to churches where the first rows were reserved for the biggest givers. He says he's even seen churches section off those front-row pews with velvet ropes. The message: Big givers have their privileges.
"The most coveted area in the church is the circle around the pastor," Jacques says. "The way you get into that space, you pay to get into it. You have to pay to play."
Paying for status is nothing new for American churches. In the 19th century, some American churches raised money by renting out pews or offering public subscription lists, says Albertson, the Lutheran pastor. Affluent people would pledge big sums to get on the lists.
"That list would be publicized," Albertson says. "It gave you social standing."
It still does. At one Southern California church where Albertson worked, he says, the senior pastor invited the biggest givers to stand before the church and explain how their generosity had strengthened their faith.
"It irritated people in the congregation," Albertson says. "They picked people who were able to give a lot of money because they had decent jobs. It seemed like there was a comparison going on: We're going to value the bigger givers more than the smaller givers."
Sometimes people are induced to give not by a person, but by a building.
Lee says he's seen churches relentlessly goad members to donate to the construction of lavish buildings that become more of a monument to a pastor's ego than a place to worship and to serve the needy.
"If you have a $40 million building that's filled with people who don't have life insurance and are struggling to make ends meet, the priorities are mixed up," he says.
The pressure of conspicuous giving annoyed one pastor so much that he took a bold gamble. He stopped holding offerings.
The Rev. Dennis Sawyer was pastoring a small church in the coastal town of Hammond, Oregon, when he persuaded church leaders to abandon the Sunday morning offering. He based his appeal on 1 Corinthians 16, where the Apostle Paul asked members of a church to "set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income," so that "when I come no collections will have to be made."
Sawyer's church mounted offering boxes in the foyer and held services without offerings for six weeks. Initially, the offerings plummeted. Then something strange happened after about a month -- the offerings surged. The church membership grew as the collection plate disappeared, Sawyer says. Church members said visitors loved coming to the church, he says.
"People wanted to come up and check out a church that didn't take the offering; it put us on the map," says Sawyer, who wrote about his experience in, "Why We Stopped Passing the Offering Plate."
While he was successful, Sawyer hasn't been able to persuade other churches to follow his example. There are many churchgoers who prefer being pressured to give, he says.
"There's a whole group of people who like authority and structure and people telling them what to do," Sawyer says. "They feel secure in that environment."
No. 3: Distorting two popular scriptures
In the language of sports, it's called a "go-to" move. Say a NBA player desperately needs to score in overtime. He will have a go-to move that always works when his team needs it.
Pastors who are trying to raise money have two go-to scriptures: The "will a man rob God" passage from book of Malachi in the Old Testament; and the story of Jesus and the poor widow.
But guess what? Most pastors completely distort the meaning of both stories, some say.
Consider the "will a man rob God" from the third chapter in Malachi. The prophet declares that withholding tithes and offerings invites divine punishment because the stingy person is robbing God.
But Jacques, editor of PimpPreacher.com, says Malachi declared that God was angry at Israel's priests, not ordinary people, for withholding offerings. The real thieves were greedy priests, but pastors have turned the scripture into a blanket condemnation of people who don't give enough, he says.
"Unless they read the whole chapter, they won't know," Jacques says.
Cunning pastors "scripture hop," he says, bombarding parishioners with isolated scriptures to induce them to give more.
"If you're going to get money from people, you can't preach the whole chapter," Jacques says. "Never ever preach the whole chapter."
Then there is the story of the Widow's Mite in Mark 12:41-44. In this story, Jesus is watching rich people throw large amounts of money into the Temple's treasury in Jerusalem when he spots a poor widow dropping "two mites," or a bronze or copper coin into the treasury. He praises the woman because he says the rich people "gave out of their wealth, but she, out of her poverty, put in everything -- all she had to live on."
The message is clear right? Even if you can't pay your electric bill, God says give all you have. But Albertson, the Lutheran pastor, says that pastors often miss the story's meaning. Jesus wasn't telling people to give all they have to the church: He was condemning the financial corruption of the religious system of his day for exploiting the poor widow's generosity.
Consider the context, he says.
Just moments earlier in the story, Jesus had scolded religious leaders in Jerusalem for "devouring" widows' houses to maintain their social status. As he watches rich people ostentatiously drop money into the treasury, Jesus warns his disciples that the great temple would be torn down.
"Now he watches a widow get devoured -- she is giving everything to a religious institution that he has already shown is not worthy of her," Albertson writes in an essay, "Rethinking the Widow's Mite."
"This is not a heartwarming story of a generous giver," he says. "This is a heartbreaking story of exploitation."
Some pastors don't just distort a scriptural passage. They misuse scriptural phrases -- such as the "first fruit offering."
First fruit offerings were agricultural offerings that the Israelites gave to God in the Old Testament, says Lee, of "Sunday Morning Stickup." Yet some pastors invoke that phrase to tell people that God commands them to give the "first fruits" of their financial bounty, which could mean someone giving everything from the first check of the year to the first check one received after a job promotion.
"It's a misapplication of scripture," Lee says. "They encourage individuals that before they pay their bills, before they buy their groceries or do anything with their finances, many of them say 'You have to take care of God first.' ''
If pastors and churches are so cunning when asking for money, what can stop the manipulation? One pastor says technology may be the answer.
The collection plate, the symbol of the offering, is going the way of VHS videos.
The church is on the verge of a digital revolution in giving, says Albertson, the Lutheran pastor. More people are donating through online bank accounts and credit card swipes, he wrote in an essay, "What Will the End of the Offering Plate Mean for Christian Worship."
"Nobody carries money in their wallets anymore," Albertson says. "There's a big movement up ahead of shifting over to various online giving platforms and digital platforms."
Still, Albertson is not so sure that this digital revolution will end the practice of pastors shaking down congregations for money.
"Religious leaders will find a way to use guilt somehow," he says.
Some say that using guilt isn't bad. Shouldn't people be shamed if they're not generous? But how and why someone should be generous -- perhaps that's ultimately up to the person in the pew.
So when the organist hits those celestial chords to signal offering time or a smiling usher beckons you out of your pew, ask yourself:
Am I about to freely give -- or is this a Sunday morning stickup?