Church giving is serious business. Scores of newsletters, workshops, and books are devoted to it, and consultants exist to advise institutions on how to maximize funds. A five-year study released last year estimated that "tithers"—Christians who donate 10% or more of their income to church or charity—contribute more than $50 billion a year. (And that’s not counting the many who give a smaller percentage of their income.) There's even crime associated with tithing: In March, Texas megachurch pastor Joel Osteen’s church was robbed of $600,000 in donations from a single weekend.
Somehow, though, the offering process, when ushers pass baskets down the rows and worshippers voluntarily drop in checks or cash, has remained basically unchanged since the 19th century. But who carries cash, let alone checks, anymore?
Luckily for churches, a wave of apps and other digital giving options have risen up to bridge the gap.
Call it the 21st-century offering plate.
"The youngest generation does everything with their debit card," says Stu Baker, VP of sales at SecureGive, perhaps the largest company specializing in church giving technology. SecureGive, based in a suburb of Augusta, GA, offers four integrated platforms: Online giving, text giving, mobile giving, and kiosks installed in the church lobby. Most of the kiosks are simply iPads with built-in card readers, installed on stands; a donor types in her phone numbers as ID, taps "Give" (perhaps selecting a specific capital campaign or missions program), and then swipes her card. Subscribing to a software package that incorporates all four giving options costs a church $139 a month, not including set-up and equipment costs. (The iPad kiosks run between $1,500 and $1,800 each.) The company currently serves about 1,500 churches.
Other players in the game include Txt2Give, which focuses on text donations, and easyTithe, which provides similar packages to SecureGive. Devon Weller, a web developer in Nashville, initially designed The Giving App, which allows churches to build a customized mobile app for donations, for his own nondenominational congregation. "Our church is big on branding, and we wanted something that looked and felt like our church," he said. But after it launched, he started getting calls from other congregations, and now about 20 churches are clients, many of them savvy new "startup churches."
"Churches are no different than any other operation in that they need to be relevant and convenient," said RaeAnn Slaybaugh, editor of Church Executive magazine, who has reported on new giving options. "The difficulty is in capitalizing on a moment of generosity."
Church giving, of course, has not been completely immune to technology: Think of the ‘80s televangelists, who may not have always been ethical but were surely innovative in their approach. This new profusion of digital options is perfecting a more more intimate kind of largesse, though: people can now act on their generous impulses whenever and wherever. Over time, Slaybaugh said, churches that don’t adapt will see their collections drop. A recent survey of Church Executive’s readership of churches with at least 1,000 weekly attendees found that 78% accept donations online and 36% by mobile, and 18% have kiosks onsite. Slaybaugh believes all those numbers are likely to rise over the next several years.
For churches, the benefits of digital giving are clear, including access to new donors, easier accounting procedures, and the steady cash flow of automatically recurring payments. It also allows churches to connect with a wider circle of adherents: A Christian in Seattle can listen to weekly sermon podcasts from a megachurch in Texas—and now he can easily donate from afar, too.
But churches have concerns about this new landscape, too. Baker said that in SecureGive’s early years, one of the biggest obstacles was that many potential clients were concerned about the moral and ethical dimensions of accepting donations by credit cards, which allow users to spend more than they have. The company responded by offering a setting that allows donations by debit card only. But Baker said that wariness has declined dramatically in the last several years. Where at least half of his initial conversations used to at least address concerns over credit, he said, today less than 1% of churches opt to restrict themselves to debit card donations.
Some churches also worried initially that kiosks were too large and intrusive. "In the beginning, the whole concept of putting this machine in a church, it was so foreign," Baker said. "You had churches very sensitive to preventing the notion that a church is all about money." Over time, that fear, too, has retreated, especially since newer iPad kiosks are significantly smaller than the older models, which looked more like ATMs.
Inevitably, the Sunday morning worship service itself will change as attendees gain access to a 24/7 online "offering basket." But the old-fashioned basket itself is not likely to disappear anytime soon, even as it becomes something more like a symbol than a tool. Some churches now provide cards printed with the words "I gave online," so that digital donors can still feel part of the offering moment. SecureGive lets kiosk donors print two receipts: One for their records, and one to drop in the basket.
Waller said he initially envisioned the Giving App would be used during that Sunday morning offering time, which is why he designed it to take as few clicks as possible to make a donation. But it turned out that most people prefer to log on at other times. "I don’t know if that’s just ingrained in us not to have phones out during the service," he said. "It’s a tricky balance...to still be worshipful while pulling out our iPhones."