Growing and giving
As fewer people carry cash or write checks, online giving has become the church standard. (Lightstock)

Church attendance and charitable giving have changed radically, in large part due to the Internet and cellular technology. From electronic giving to live, online services, it's clear that churches must continue to go digital to remain relevant to their tech-savvy congregants.

According to Pew Internet Project's recent mobile technology research, as of October 2014, 64 percent of American adults reported owning a smartphone, and 42 percent own a tablet computer. In a Barna Group study published in February, more than half of pastors polled agreed that the Internet is "a powerful tool for effective ministry," up from 35 percent in 2000. Fifty-five percent of pastors also think that a church must have a significant website or online presence to reach people effectively.

Churches also need to find effective ways to engage online attendees, fostering connections with their community of worshippers as well as encouraging accountability and giving as their commitment to the church grows.

"We just tend to operate on a philosophy that we need to be where people are," says Nathan Clark, online minister and director of digital innovations for Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, Florida. "I believe more than half of our giving each year is now done electronically. I myself write less than a half-dozen checks in a calendar year (now). Everything is online."

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If attendees can click once to watch a church service and a second time to give their tithes and offerings, can going to a building be worth getting out of their pajamas and off of their couch? The short answer is "yes," according to pastors and online-giving service providers.

Engaging Online Attendees

At Northland, Clark says he looks for ways to personally interact with the church's online community.

"I extend an invitation," he says. "I saw somebody online one weekend, and she was not far from where I live. As we started talking (online), I found out she had a son the same age as my son. We were having an open house at my house to get people familiar with the church, so I invited her to be there."

She showed up. After that meeting, the woman and her son started coming to a weekly community gathering.

"So out of this online experience, she became grafted into our (church) family," Clark says.

While some churches offer only an online experience, the majority of American churches meet at a physical space and use the Internet to live stream one or more weekly services. Although the live events may have some attendees who never walk into the building, most viewers worship in both spaces, pastors say. Online watchers regularly attend in person but check in online when someone is sick, out of town or otherwise unable to get to church.

Stevens Creek Church in Augusta, Georgia, has an online campus as well.

"We see the primary attendance there is people (who) just can't get to the church," says Drew Landrum, son-in-law of Stevens Creek Senior Pastor Dr. Marty Baker. "You have some megachurches like Hillsong and Willow Creek that people will log on to because they have some of the best speakers on the planet, but I think the larger amount of people attend online when they can't get to their local church."

Landrum also heads up sales and marketing for SecureGive, an e-giving company Baker founded in 2004 by creating the first giving kiosk. Today, SecureGive also offers church-giving apps for Android and iOS devices, as well as platform for online giving and text-to-give services. Landrum says as fewer people carry cash or write checks, electronic giving is becoming the church standard.

"It's not really about what works better, e-giving versus traditional methods," Landrum says. "It's just that we're reaching a point where God's church is going to very practically say that e-giving makes the most sense."

Landrum is right on the money. As Americans become a "cashless" society, churches are cashing in by installing convenient ways congregants can give electronically. The companies, platforms and emerging technologies seem endless. A Google search of the phrase "electronic church giving" returns more than 37 million results. By employing electronic giving methods, 21st-century churches can advance God's kingdom by achieving more financial security, engaging new attendees through online and mobile technology and helping congregants become more faithful and disciplined givers.

"Churches that are currently offering electronic giving see a substantial increase in giving," says Niel Peterson, co-founder of ChurchLink, a church-giving mobile app provider. "On the contrary, churches that are not offering electronic giving are missing out on a substantial level of donations. Every year this disparity grows larger. Ultimately, every church needs to embrace electronic giving. There is nothing to be afraid of."

Using Tithing Tools

As churches find themselves swept into the current of electronic giving, how can they determine which options provide convenience, reliability and security? They have to do their homework.

The church that wants to offer electronic giving will soon see the many options available: online giving platforms through the church's website, mobile apps, text platforms and electronic kiosks—which are used like an ATM takes deposits—that can be installed in the church.

SecureGive's kiosks have evolved from giving platforms into connection centers, which allows churchgoers not only to give but to register for small groups, summer camp and other events.

"We notice that most churches that implement one of our kiosks see an increase in donations within the first six months of 27 percent, and that's from people who have never given to the church before," Landrum says. "That is pretty powerful."

Pushpay is another popular e-giving option dubbed a "complete giving solution." Pushpay allows congregants to download a mobile app that integrates with church databases. Users can give via text, kiosk and web through the mobile experience. Pushpay also guarantees churches will see an annual increase in giving of at least 5 percent, or the monthly fees will be refunded.

"Making first-time and ongoing giving extremely simple is a great way for churches to grow participation," says Chris Heaslip, co-founder and CEO of Pushpay. "When we give, we also become more invested, both with our heart and the way we volunteer our time."

The company ran a beta test of the Pushpay app in 2013 with a group of 80 churchgoers who had never given before.

"We tied Pushpay to their church app, downloaded it on their phones and then tracked their giving habits over the next three months," Heaslip says. "What we found is that these people were giving an average of $143 (per) month to their church at the end of the three months. These are the results we get excited about."

ChurchLink offers churches an instant ChurchLink-branded app or their own custom-built app. Peterson says the most exciting thing about seeing churches implement e-giving for the first time is the positive difference it makes to their bottom line.

"Giving is an essential part of every church and ministry to advance the kingdom of God," Peterson says. "The more a church embraces technology to receive donations, the more donations they will receive. It's that simple."

Forecasting Church Finances

Two of the big benefits churches say they receive from e-giving are a better ability to survive the "summer slump" and the ability to predict more accurately their financial forecasts.

Constance Free Church in Andover, Minnesota, was an early adapter of electronic giving methods. Today the church offers e-giving options that have increased donations because congregants are able to set up automatic recurring payments.

"It gives us a little more stability in the giving because people tend to give online even when they are not attending," says Jeff Piehl, church business administrator. "Even in summer months, our giving stays pretty consistent. Also, some people just don't have the discipline to give by themselves every month and enjoy knowing that it automatically comes out."

Another advantage is the way technology allows churches to engage with their congregation every day, not just Sundays.

"We see 45 percent of giving happens on days other than Sunday," Heaslip says. "That tells us that churchgoers are just as compelled to give outside the church as they are in the church. Either way, it's great that people have a way to respond generously when they feel led rather than having to wait until next Sunday."

Piehl says electronic giving increases spontaneous gifts as well since congregants can give immediately after hearing a special guest; when asked from the pulpit to give toward a special project; or offer an additional gift on special occasions and seasons like Christmastime.

Freeing 'Miss Brenda'

Providers say that electronic giving platforms should integrate easily with church websites and databases, freeing church treasurers, business managers or the "Miss Brenda" of the congregation from handling some related duties.

"What electronic giving can do for church staff is somewhat revolutionizing," Landrum says. "You have 'Miss Brenda' at the local church who has $2,000-3,000 a week that she has to hand enter as line items. She might get things wrong sometimes, and she may never admit it, but she actually dislikes reconciling. Platforms like SecureGive do this automatically. What I love about our product is that it can help smaller churches like Miss Brenda's, then turn around and handle a church that gets $30-$50 million a year, and serve it with the same level of reporting and accounting."

Landrum says SecureGive frees up about 152 administrative hours each year.

"Churches can now take those hours and shift an administrator's serving capacity because of the e-based giving and e-based reconciling," Landrum says.

"We can track giving more easily now," church administrator Piehl says. "We still pass the plate during the services, and people who give electronically can fill out a card and drop it in if they want to, but it's amazing how many people give electronically during that little five-minute window when the plate is being passed."

Tracking also gives churches the ability to see when donors start and stop their gifts. If a donor who gives substantially suddenly stops giving, church administration can decide the right way to approach the giver and find out why.

"Electronic giving actually makes things easier for church treasurers, not harder!" ChurchLink's Peterson says. "When someone gives electronically through a Church Giving platform, there is an electronic paper trail from start to finish. Additionally, there is no cash or checks to deposit, and the money hits the account usually within two business days. Most platforms also allow importing into all major accounting programs. Lastly, donors also have instant access to their giving transactions, adding a level of convenience and time-saving for administrators."

When considering implementing a new e-giving platform, remember that they all cost money—either monthly fees, charges based on usage, a percentage or some combination thereof. Crunch some numbers, and ask other churches what companies they use. Consider systems designed for churches against regular e-payment platforms. Look for a system that will interface easily with your database and one that has the tracking features you need. Do your research because different systems serve congregations in different capacities. Finally, make sure the company you choose offers good support and troubleshooting.

Pastors and providers agree that electronic giving is here to stay. And that's a good thing for the financial future of the American church.

"Electronic giving is equally convenient for someone sitting in a pew on Sunday morning or sitting at home on his or her couch watching a live stream," Peterson of ChurchLink says. "The fact of the matter is that when someone is ready to support his or her church with a financial donation, there should be a convenient way to give, no matter where they are. Each time someone gives, it starts with a prompting of the Holy Spirit. That can happen anytime and anywhere."

Natalie Gillespie is an author, editor and journalist who has been contributing to Charisma Media publications for 20 years. She can be reached at nataliegillespie@att.net.

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