e-Giving still has plenty of room to grow, but various surveys show that churches have adopted it at a steady pace over the past few years to offer contribution options that today’s churchgoers prefer, no matter what their age.
The trend in e-Giving at churches goes hand-in-hand with a growing preference for electronic payments in general. A Federal Reserve study of the payments system in 2016 documented the change: From 2000 to 2015, the number of checks paid declined by more than 50 percent to 19.4 billion per year as payments through cards, direct deposit and other services more than tripled to 103.3 billion per year. And a recent study by Bankrate.com reported that most Americans carry less than $50 with them. Forty percent have less than $20 at any given time.
Together, these trends suggest a shift in how churches should be collecting money to support their ministries. With alternatives such as electronic giving on the rise, they bring up an important but complex question: Should churches stop passing the collection plate?
Consider this story from The Rev. Dennis Sawyer. After struggling with the timing and regularity of taking a weekly offering at a small church he once pastored, he made a challenge to his church board: “Let’s mount offering boxes on the wall at each sanctuary exit and discontinue the collection of tithes and offerings during our services.” After board members recovered from their shock and asked questions, they agreed to give his suggestion a try for three months, then evaluate the results.
“In fear and trembling, we mounted the boxes, stopped passing the offering plate, and waited,” he writes. While for six weeks the weekly offering ran far below normal, people started to realize they hadn’t given in a long time, and overcompensated to make up for it. Attendance also started to accelerate. Pastor Sawyer instituted the same system at his next church, and in the first year, that church collected more in tithes and offerings than in any previous year, he says.
There are, of course, different points of view. 82 percent of the regular attendees who responded to our own Churchgoer Giving Study indicated that their churches still use a donation plate or basket. Our survey also showed that tangible signs of contributing are important even to people who prefer e-Giving.
For many, passing the plate is not just about collecting money – it’s an important act of worship that provides believers the chance to respond in gratitude to what God has given them. As Chris Willard, director of generosity initiatives for the Leadership Network, wrote in a recent article about taking church offerings, “When a pastor really plans and thinks about what to say and do during the offering time of church services, we’re seeing the number of givers increase, we’re seeing people’s enthusiasm for responding increase . . . When you give, it grows your heart, it addresses greed, it stretches your faith.”
In the end, the answer to the question of whether to continue passing the collection plate may not be a simple “yes” or “no” but the start of a journey on the road to innovation. If now isn’t the right time to stop passing the plate, maybe tomorrow will be. In the meantime, in today’s electronically enabled environment, perhaps churches can aim for a happy medium: e-Giving while continuing to take an offering during services. That kind of combination has led to its own innovation, with some churches providing contribution cards or chips to e-Givers to drop in the plate so they can still participate in that tradition.
The shift from cash and checks to electronic payments already is sparking growth in e-Giving; it will be interesting to see what other changes it might bring to our churches.