High-tech tithing

1/31/2013

South Georgia UM churches embrace electronic avenues to collect tithes and offerings

By Kara Witherow, Editor

Last Sunday morning, in an act of worship, Daniel Rock swiped his debit card on a small white device attached to an iPad.

In this electronic age when the majority of people carry cell phones and use cards instead of cash, churches are beginning to embrace electronic avenues to collect tithes and offerings.

Rock, a member of Gateway Community United Methodist Church in Pooler, does all of his banking and bill paying online and says that electronic tithing is convenient, easy and fits his lifestyle.

From swiping a debit card on an ATM-like kiosk in a church lobby to logging on to a church website and giving electronically to scanning a code with a mobile phone, several South Georgia United Methodist churches are providing their tech-savvy worshippers additional ways to give.

Until October, 2011, givers at Cordele First United Methodist Church tithed the traditional way – offerings were cash or checks dropped into the offering plate or sent in the mail.

But today the church offers several giving options in addition to the tried-and-true collection plate.

It all came about when the church launched its contemporary service.

“We thought if we’re going to update everything – hospitality, music, environment – if all of the acts of worship change, then why shouldn’t the offering look a little bit different and be something that is culturally relevant to people,” said Rev. David Thompson, lead pastor at Cordele First UMC.

About the same time, the church’s finance committee was looking at ways to make it possible for those who don’t use checks or who aren’t able to attend worship services to tithe electronically.

Day or night, seven days a week, people can go to the church’s website (www.cordelefirst.com) and donate online. They can choose to give a one-time gift or set up weekly or monthly recurring tithes. The money can be deducted from their checking or savings account by entering the routing and account numbers, or they can give using their debit or credit card.

Like many churches, Cordele First UMC also offers the option of electronic funds transfers (EFTs), or direct drafts. Set up by the giver at their bank, the tithe is automatically deducted from their account each week or month and deposited into the church’s account.

Most cutting edge is the church’s use of Quick Response Codes, or QR codes, as a giving option. QR codes are printed in the two contemporary service’s bulletins, and, after downloading a free QR-code scanner onto their smartphones, worshippers can scan the code with their phone. The code will route their phone’s Internet browser to the church’s online giving page, where they can give their tithe electronically.

“We’re giving them a culturally relevant way to give,” Rev. Thompson said. “We’re adapting other elements of worship to meet the cultural needs of today so that people can get the gospel. What’s the difference? It can be as much a spiritual act of worship to use their smartphone as it is for them to write a check and drop it in the plate.”

A familiar way to faithfully give

The convenience of being able to swipe a card appeals to many people, especially younger church goers who rarely carry cash, never write checks, always use cards and are never without their phones.

Just a few months ago, some dedicated but forgetful tithers would show up at Gateway Community UMC during the week. There because they forgot their checkbook on Sunday or forgot to give their tithe while in church, they now have the option to give just by swiping their debit cards.

Last November, the Pooler church began using Square, an electronic payment service that allows users to accept credit cards through mobile devices.

An iPad loaded with the Square application and device was set up at the church’s information desk, creating a tithing station. Rock is one of several church members who routinely use it each week to give.

“People do all of their banking this way (online) now,” said Rev. Matt Hearn, Gateway Community UMC’s lead pastor. “It’s critical if we’re going to maintain healthy giving patterns that we keep up with where people are and the way they use and organize their finances.”

Rock said it’s simpler for him to give this way.

“I don’t carry a checkbook, but I always have my wallet and debit card,” he said. “It’s super convenient. My wife and I are in our early 30s and we use our debit cards for everything. We rarely have cash or checks on us anymore.”

Rev. Hearn and other church leaders often talk to the congregation about giving and are teaching Biblical, faithful stewardship. In giving worshippers the option of using their debit card to tithe, they are giving them an easy, familiar way to faithfully give.

“We’re not trying to do anything evil or destructive, but are trying to help people follow Christ without unnecessary barriers” he said. “We believe that tithing is commanded by God, it’s a spiritual discipline, and if we can make it easier for people, let’s do that.”

The church doesn’t want anyone to go into debt by tithing, so they request that only debit cards are used when giving online or via Square.

The costs associated with electronic giving are relatively low. The Square application and card-swiping device are free, and the church is charged a 2.75 percent fee per swipe. PayPal, which many churches use to collect online donations, charges between 2.75 and 2.9 percent per transaction.

New Covenant United Methodist Church in Savannah also employs PayPal to process its online payments. They have also set up a “giving kiosk” in the lobby area where people can give using a debit card.

A touch-screen computer terminal that users simply swipe their card through, it takes less than three minutes to complete each transaction. The kiosk also prints a receipt that can be kept or placed in the offering plate.

Giving people the opportunity to tithe with their debit cards gives them full access to the worship experience, New Covenant UMC pastor Dr. Drew Young said.

“Giving is such an important part of worship,” he said. “When people come to worship and the only medium they use to purchase anything is via a card or online, what are we saying … if the only way we can accept offerings is cash or a check?”

In the six months since it’s been in use, giving at the kiosk now accounts for about 20 percent of the church’s weekly tithes.

More importantly, people who hadn’t before tithed are now regulars.

“The numbers of givers have increased substantially – it has added new people that weren’t giving before,” Dr. Young said. “One of the most interesting things I’ve seen is that almost every Sunday when I come out after the service one of our college students is standing there giving using their debit card.”

Cordele First UMC has seen an increase in their giving, too. Nearly 10 percent of those who tithe electronically were not giving at all a year ago.

“It’s increased our overall giving,” Rev. Thompson said. “We looked really carefully over last year to see if the people who gave were just old givers giving in new ways, or if they were new givers. It’s both – it’s about 50/50. About half (who now give electronically) were giving anyway, just in a different form, and this is just easier for them. But the other half of the folks are people who had not been giving and now are.

“That’s the key we were looking for.”