Churches embrace online credit, debit card donations

Offerings can be made by vestibule ATMs or even by smart phones

When it comes to giving, churchgoers increasingly are asking for options beyond dropping a check or cash in the plate.

Choices have expanded to include swiping a debit or credit card on PIN-protected, ATM-like kiosks in a church lobby, giving electronically by logging in to a church website and even pressing mobile phone buttons to make an offering.

Houses of worship seem to fall into three camps in online giving. There are those that have no interest in it or are so small they don't see the need. There are those that are comfortable accepting donations with everything but credit cards. Finally, some accept donations via everything from a piggy bank to a smart phone.

Growing popularity with churchgoers

Writing a check or donating cash continues to be the most popular way for churchgoers to give. But a growing number of churchgoers are opting to give electronically using a plastic card or an app on their phone -- thanks in part to growing acceptance from churches.  

According to a 2017 survey of more than 1,000 Christian churchgoers by Vanco Payment Solutions, 62 percent say they’d rather give to their houses of worship through a phone, tablet, card reader or computer. Young adults are especially likely to embrace “e-giving,” with 75 percent aged 25 to 34 saying they’d choose to give electronically if they could.  

Older churchgoers are more reluctant to pay for a donation with a card. However, even those who are in their 50s, 60s and beyond are warming to the practice. For example, 62 percent of churchgoers aged 45 to 54 said they’d rather give with a card or through an online transfer, up from 50 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, 58 percent of churchgoers aged 66 to 74 said the same, up from 39 percent.

Not yet mainstream

Despite churchgoers’ growing enthusiasm, the percentage of people who are actually giving to their churches via card is still relatively small. A 2018 survey of more than 1,000 protestant and nondenominational churchgoers by Lifeway Research, for example, found that less than a quarter of churchgoers give to their churches electronically. Most churchgoers, instead, give via cash or check, either because they prefer to give that way, or because it’s their only option.  

According to Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, some longtime churchgoers may still be reluctant to embrace electronic giving because they have tithed with cash or a check for years.

“Giving that gift to the church is a religious act,” says McConnell. For some churchgoers, giving with a click of a mouse or through a phone may not feel as meaningful to them as dropping cash in a collection plate while sitting in the pews, he says.

Churchgoers may also be worried about the processing fees that churches incur when they accept credit and debit card donations.

“That money, they’re giving, they’re not seeing as their own,” says McConnell. They see it as God’s money, says McConnell, and so they may hesitate to use a payment method that causes the church to lose a percentage to extra fees.

Younger cardholders, on the other hand, appear less bothered. They like the convenience of paying electronically and have grown up with a wide array of digital options and so are more comfortable with high tech giving.

As a result, the number of churches that accept electronic donations has soared in recent years, thanks in part to increased demand from younger churchgoers.  

“Back in 2010, just 14 percent of protestant churches offered online giving,” says McConnell. Since then, far more churches have embraced it.  

Why it's growing

The potential benefits for churches are clear: Recurring online payments set up to transfer funds from bank accounts or charged to credit cards help even out cash flow for weeks when attendance is down, and reflect a reality that people are carrying far less cash and using fewer checks. The 2018  Federal Reserve Payments Study found credit and debit card payments increased significantly in recent years, while payments by check continued to shrink.

Younger churchgoers, especially, are less likely to bring a checkbook with them to church and are more likely to embrace paying by phone.

“People who are 18 to 34 are the least likely to give a check at church,” says McConnell.

Givers who use a card get convenience, sometimes miles and rewards, as well as a receipt. That last one is important since it gives you proof of your donation to give the IRS for tax deduction purposes.

Churchgoers also have more options for giving with a card than they did just a few years ago. For example, a number of mobile phone apps, such as Tithe.ly and Givelify, have popped up in recent years, making it easy for churches to collect donations through text messages or mobile payments.

However, not all churches are embracing the trend.

Reluctant to embrace plastic

With many U.S. consumers struggling with credit card debt, some churches are hesitant to allow credit card giving.

First Baptist Church Joelton in Joelton, Tenn., is among them. The church allows gifts by debit card, but not credit card. Tennessee ranks seventh in the nation in per capita bankruptcy filings.

"We do not want to encourage people to go into debt. But people, especially young people, want to have the option to give electronically," says Danny Davidson, First Baptist's minister of education/administration.

Web-savvy larger churches have seen demand soar for electronic services. Friends Church, which operates three separate campuses across Southern California, started accepting online giving in 2006. It saw its online giving increase from 5 percent to 45 percent in just the first five years, a spokeswoman said.

At Seacoast Church, which has 14 campuses in the Carolinas and Georgia and more than 14,000 people attending on any given weekend, electronic giving has also jumped significantly, says Glenn Wood, church administrator.

"We talk a lot about giving responsibly and budgeting," Wood says. "We also have people who want to collect the air miles. What we have said is, 'You are welcome to give via credit card. We ask that if you do, you pay it off on a monthly basis, so we do not, in essence, finance your giving to the church.'"

It's not just Christian congregations that are accepting credit cards. A growing number of Jewish synagogues offer the option as well for temple dues and other funds. For example, Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport, Conn., began offering the option in 2011 for dues, programs and donations. It's convenient for members and helps the synagogue regulate cash flow, says former Cantor Jason H. Green.

Preaching responsibility

Many churches offer classes on responsible spending. Willow Creek Church, which operates eight churches around Chicago, Illinois, not only accepts credit and debit card donations online. It also offers courses such as "Freed up from debt," through its Good $ense movement. In addition, it trains other church leaders to become financial coaches and help churchgoers get out of debt.

Personal finance is a significant issue for churches, says Matt Branaugh, editor of Christianity Today’s Church Law and Tax team.

"A lot of churches recognize the debt issues a lot of people face. There's a sense from church leaders that they need to meaningfully offer resources and classes that help people with their financial management," he says. Some that offer online giving feel even more responsibility to offer that, Branaugh says.

Electronic giving offers a spontaneity that can benefit churches. Think Hurricane Maria and other natural disasters that have occurred in recent years. Donations mount quickly when people are encouraged to text $10 to the Red Cross after a high profile disaster. Similarly, the nonprofit immigrant advocacy group RAICES recently collected more than $20 million in electronic donations in just over a week after a Facebook fundraiser benefitting the group went viral.   

Mobile phone options can help churches if there's been a local natural disaster and the pastor asks for a special donation.

According to McConnell, electronic tithing may become more widespread in the future if younger churchgoers start giving more of their incomes to their houses of worship, prompting churches to work harder to accommodate them.

"Younger adults are still getting in the habit of giving,” he says. “The most faithful givers are the ones that have always given by cash and check. If the biggest givers were the young ones, we’d probably see some really fast swings in the technology.”


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Updated: 10-21-2018