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Electronic giving raises techno-, theo-logical questions

The preference among churchgoers for electronic giving is clear. A recent study showed that 79 percent of 24-34 year olds prefer to give electronically with 60 percent of all attendees stating the same preference.

The results of the Vanco Payment Solutions study are supported by the responses of pastors to a survey on online giving conducted by the United Methodist Communications' connectional giving team last spring. The General Council on Finance and Administration endorses Vanco as a provider of digital giving resources.

"Remove whatever obstacles might be in the way for individuals to practice generosity," the Rev. Matt Lipan wrote in response to the survey. "It has only been a positive experience for our congregation as more and more individuals sign up for online giving. It is also something I actively encourage from the 'pulpit.'" Lipan leads Gateway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis.

The challenge with meeting givers' growing preference is both technological (see page 57) and theological. Less than one quarter of all churches offer the option of electronic giving. People continue to make the lion's share of their offerings in person during worship. As more and more churches do adopt electronic giving, there is concern that people will lose an understanding of giving as an act of worship.

Connecting worship, giving

It is important not to let the means minimize the ancient connection between giving and worship, said the Rev. Thad Austin, an elder from the Tennessee Conference and a doctoral candidate at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. "The first act of giving as part of worship happens in the first family in the Bible with Cain and Abel."

Giving during a worship service carries power as it physically expresses a spiritual act. Giving the resources under their stewardship to the church lets worshippers match actions to their words as they sing about the sacrifice of praise.

The lack of "emotional connection that comes from putting something in that offering plate when it passes" concerns the Rev. Dwayne Scoggin, pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church in Mississippi. "Personally I don't see any harm in offering a digital way to give, but we do not need to stop the offering in worship services either."

Families moving to online giving may also complicate teaching children and youth about giving (see page 35). When youngsters see their parents and grandparents placing checks and cash in the offering plate, they begin to understand the importance their family places on financial faithfulness. Without provisions for some sort of symbolic offering – in lieu of money – Austin said, "Children might see the plate pass by and never see their parents put something in it."

To address the dilemma of plate vs. electronic offerings, Austin said churches first "must allow people to give in their native language." That means the church cannot ignore the shift to electronic transactions any more than it could ignore the shift from using cash to writing checks.

"Why would we ever want to limit someone's ability to give in this ever-changing world just because we may not be comfortable giving this way?" asks the Rev. Russell Corben, pastor of West Freedom United Methodist Church in Parker, Pennsylvania. "My experience is that congregations that have integrated digital giving options have seen the level of generosity in the people gathering together go up significantly."

Offering congregants new ways of giving – online, texting, electronic point-of-sale tablets and church kiosks to name a few – also provides an opportunity to teach about the theology of giving and money in general. That can be through a sermon series or even a teaching video placed on the church website that explains how the new giving system works.

Offerings in the plate

When it comes to placing an offering in the plate, churches are finding creative solutions to that as well.

As congregants of Michelson Memorial United Methodist Church in Grayling, Michigan, register to give electronically, each receives 50 cards that say, "I gave online." At the end of each service, ushers remove those cards from the plates and store them to be sent again when the traditional givers are sent their box of offering envelopes.

First United Methodist Church of Childersburg in Sylacauga, Alabama, encourages people who give electronically, as well as those who give in person only once a month, to place a dollar bill in the plate each week to help them engage more fully in the worship service.

Austin knows of at least one church that gives members pebbles to place in their metal plates. The practice both gives worshippers something to put in the plate and engages another sense when the stone hits the metal.

Eureka United Methodist Church in Kansas invites people to take a gold card from the pew rack and place it in the plate to signify that they have given in another way. Still other churches have people simply place their attendance sheet in the plate when they have given online.

"By not embracing modern forms of giving, we are actually excluding people from being able to participate fully in worship," Austin says. "Opening the door to electronic giving does not have to mean closing the door to participating in the offertory in the worship service. With careful thought and planning, church leaders can both remove the barriers to giving and increase participation in worship."

The Rev. Jeremy Steele is Next Generation pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama. An author, speaker and blogger, he regularly contributes to the Technology department for Interpreter and Interpreter OnLine,

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