Churches Introduce Electronic Tithing

Passing the collection plate has been a staple of many Sunday church services since the 19th century. The concept of a person turning a portion of earnings over to God dates back to Old Testament days.

While the act of tithing might be centuries old, churches are doing what they can to provide parishioners with 21st century giving options. The use of cash and checks continues to decline in most areas of day-to-day life. E-commerce sales topped $1 trillion globally in 2012, so churches — institutions that have relied for years on cash and check donations — are finding it critical to adapt to changing consumer habits.

Cross Church of northwest Arkansas provides an example of what those many options can look like.

Anyone attending one of the nine services offered across three main Cross Church campuses can certainly opt for the traditional money in the offering plate route. But the church offers direct deposit and online giving options for the 9,047 people who are involved in weekly ministry there. And this month the church is installing a “giving kiosk” — a method of giving by debit or credit card — in each of its Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale locations.

Currently, electronic giving accounts for 17.5 percent of giving at Cross Church.

“I think one day, it will be the majority of our people giving online, just as the majority of people in our culture do many financial transactions online,” said Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor of Cross Church. “It is secure and convenient. Many churches are beginning to use giving kiosks in their church lobbies for people to take advantage of while they are attending worship. This is all a cultural reality. Either the church can adjust or get left behind.”

While a sampling of congregations in Arkansas seems to suggest that the bulk of giving is still done through cash or check, churches recognize the need to expand the giving options available. Check use declined nationally by 35 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to Mark Brooks, author of a recent blog post that encouraged pastors to implement opportunities for giving beyond the passing of the offering plate. Checks, Brooks wrote, made up 61 percent of all payments in 2000 and represented just 26 percent of transactions 10 years later.

Brooks, founder of Charis Giving Solutions, wrote that churches should no longer force “those who attend our churches to adapt to our 20th century means of collecting money.”

Easy Tithe, SecureGive

Businesses centered on online giving first began popping up in the early 2000s. Larger and newer congregations tended to adopt the platforms first thanks to younger members and regular attenders.

Easy Tithe and SecureGive are two of the more popular services. Both companies are contracted with churches in Arkansas. Easy Tithe was founded more than 10 years ago in Dallas as an alternative to churches that were using PayPal to collect money outside of church services.

Churches that use Easy Tithe have an option of three plans that cost up to $49 per month, plus transaction fees. SecureGive, developed by a Georgia pastor in 2003, charges from $39 to $799 per month. SecureGive services include online giving, mobile giving and giving kiosks.

Business — or as Easy Tithe President Matt Murph describes it, “the economy of the church” — is booming. Murph said the number of churches signing up for his company’s services has increased each year. Things really took off four years ago, he said.

“Really, what I’d call the tidal wave — there’s always that point where something becomes mainstream — it was 2009,” Murph said. “Frankly, after 2009, if you’re not doing online giving and you haven’t done it to any extent, you’re probably playing catch-up.”

Adhering to national trends, larger churches were among the early adopters in Arkansas. Smaller churches are beginning to expand their means of collection.

Little Rock’s Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church has more than 4,000 members and first implemented online giving in 2007. Direct deposit was offered nearly 12 years ago, the church’s director of finance, Mark Barr, said.

A study done by PHUMC in June 2012 revealed that of those who gave, 22 percent chose direct deposit and 7 percent used online or PayPal options. A majority of giving still came through mail (34 percent) or worship services (37 percent), but “as our givers become younger, cash and checks are becoming more obsolete,” Barr said.

Second Baptist Church in Little Rock implemented online giving last fall for its 210 regular attendees. Administrative Pastor Charles Fuller said no numbers are available yet for his church, but providing the option now will help members adapt for the future.

“The few months we’ve offered the option are not a long enough time for it to really establish itself as a part of our giving culture,” Fuller said. “I do believe that it will eventually be the way that most of our contributions come to the church.”

Aiming for Convenience

At Little Rock’s Church at Rock Creek, which averages about 3,500 in attendance, check and cash giving remain the primary options. Nearly 70 percent of giving is done by check, said executive pastor Sean McKean. Online giving sits at about 17 percent, a number that does seem to increase monthly. The church installed two giving kiosks two years ago.

McKean said in his experience visiting with churches of similar size nationally, that online giving is 30 percent or higher. He’s heard of churches reporting 70 percent of donations coming from sources other than cash or check.

“A lot of people get to church on Sunday mornings and maybe they’ve forgotten their checkbook or don’t have cash,” McKean said, “but most people do carry in their wallets a debit card. … We’re trying to make it as convenient as possible to either give online or come to church and be able to use your debit or credit card.”

Digital options don’t simply provide convenience for parishioners. There is also a bit of consistency that can come from methods of giving that don’t require dropping an envelope in the offering plate.

Giving to churches typically cycles up during the months from January through May. That’s when attendance increases for most churches. Attendance begins to dip during the summer months and, not coincidentally, church budgets often take a hit.

Some who give will make it a point to give, even when not attending. Others forget as attention — and money — shifts to vacations or weekends on the lake. Encouraging the direct-deposit option or establishing the habit of giving online could help eliminate some of those major cash-flow swings.

“Periodically, culture influences something good upon the church and we felt [expanding giving options] was good and timely for everyone, the giver and the church,” Floyd said. “Electronic giving is a great asset since so many people are across the world for business or pleasure. This gives them the opportunity to be faithful to giving, even when they are absent.”