Have You Ever Wished You Had an “I Give Online” Token?

Last November, Christianity Today asked me to write a short piece that answered the question, “Which new technologies hold the most promise—and the most peril—for use in church ministries?”

Instead of discussing a particular technology (as Brad Abare and Mark Keller helpfully did), I said:

I believe that the technology that has the most promise in the church is not the latest thing that comes off the assembly line. Rather, it is the technology—any technology—that church leaders openly discuss with other leaders and with their congregations. Conversely, the technology that is most perilous for a church is the one that leaders immediately adopt without thinking through and addressing how it will subtly reshape our spiritual lives.

I went on to give the example of how a seemingly unimportant technology like online giving is worth thinking through spiritually:

For years my wife and I would spend the final minutes before leaving for church frantically searching for our checkbook. So when our church announced that we could set up automatic draft payments, we jumped at the chance to streamline our life and give more consistently.

After a little while, though, we noticed that our new plan was changing our giving in ways we hadn’t expected. Every week, when the person next to me passed the offering plate, I started to wish secretly that I had an “I give online” token so that he or she would know we were faithfully paying customers. A few months later, when our pastor gave a sermon on the joy of giving, I started wondering if we were missing out on the intimacy with God that can come through repetitive acts of devotion. Instead of worshiping through sacrifice, I seemed to be sacrificing the chance to worship for a little convenience.

The point isn’t that there is a problem with online giving itself. The problem was with my approach to the technology. I didn’t think it through spiritually or communally. Instead, I simply decided that convenience was the only criteria I would use to evaluate the technology.

With online giving, the dollar amount I give is the same (or more since I never miss a payment) and yet Jesus himself argued that the amount we give is irrelevant. It’s how we give that matters to him (Luke 21:1-4). Back when we used checks, I kind of liked the idea that people would see me pulling out my checkbook and trying to write the numbers down before the plate arrived. Now that we use automatic draft, I wonder what the people around me are thinking when I don’t put anything in the plate. In addition, I feel as though we are missing out on a regular, sacrificial act of worship since giving is not a conscious act for us.

[Update: Just to clarify, we ultimately choose to keep using online giving, but we did so after thinking it through more carefully. My encouragement is to make your choice with more thoughtful criteria than just what’s newer or more convenient. Some of the commenters below offer some great suggestions.]

Again, the point is not that one technology – cash, checks, or automatic draft – is better than the other. It’s that the technology we use is never spiritually neutral. Rather, each technology presents us with a different set of spiritual choices. This means that when we neglect to think about our technology, we are neglecting to think spiritually.

Though we ultimately chose to stick with automatic draft, here’s a letter from someone who read the article and decided she needed to do something about it:

Hi, John,

I thought you might enjoy knowing how you had influenced me.  Today I decided to set up my tithe on a weekly basis instead of the automatic credit card draw as  had been the case for the last two years.  When I read your article pertaining to the issue, several weeks ago, it hit a strong chord in me.  I knew it was the answer to that niggling angst I’d been experiencing every time the collection plate was passed.  I hadn’t given it any thought once I sent in my commitment.  It was automatic; it wasn’t a decision.  Decisions are far better.  It calls for an interaction between me and God.  What a concept!

Happy 2010!

How about you? What technology do you use to give? How does your technological choice help you grow in intimacy with God and maximally glorify him?

Update: Adam Shields pointed out that some churches do in fact have “I give online” cards. See the 8th comment on this post as well as the the second to last question on this church’s giving page.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

23 thoughts on “Have You Ever Wished You Had an “I Give Online” Token?”

  1. John, thanks for latest post, “Have You ever wished You Had an ‘I Give Online’ Token? It is a catchy title with some good applications. I like your reference to Luke xxi,1-4, the story of the widow’s mite. Jesus said that ‘she gave more than all the wealthier people because she gave all she had to live on while others gave out of their surplus.’ I remember one local pastor said years ago,’they just gave God a tip!’ While technology has many good uses,let’s not forget the real reason for giving-gratitude for what Christos has done for us-‘tetelestai!’ My prayers are with you and the staff and student body as you start a new semester! Mike

  2. Isn’t it less pharisee-like to give in secret? Is the point of giving really so that those in the pew next to you know you are ‘doing your part’? Isn’t it a choice to give every month when you don’t change or cancel the bank draft? It sounds to me like the ‘choice’ is an excuse to make sure others know you are giving.

    1. Absolutely!

      Again, the point is not which one is better, but just to surface the issues caused by the introduction of a new technology into an area of spiritual practice. Personally, we stuck with online giving in part for the reasons of what people think, but also because we have one small child and another one the way and we almost never use checks, so it makes more sense to us to use automated giving. But we try to do this in a way that is not unaware of the spiritual trade-offs in doing it this way.

      Hope that helps clarify!

  3. John, great questions as always. Personally, I wonder if there’s an argument for churches not passing an offering plate (or bag) at all. Consider your experience, which I’ve certainly also had: “I kind of liked the idea that people would see me pulling out my checkbook and trying to write the numbers down before the plate arrived. Now, when we use automatic draft, I wonder what the people around me are thinking when I don’t put anything in the plate.”

    Is giving meant to be a little shame/honour operation, where we measure our brothers and sisters in Christ by how much or when they give? It certainly was in Jesus’ time, but Mt 6:1-4 suggests that may be inappropriate.

    At the same time, we give so little in North America that perhaps we should be shamed into giving more.

    1. As with Sarah’s comment, perhaps I should clarify that we have chosen to remain automated givers, while still recognizing that it is a spiritually significant choice, and should not merely be made in terms of that which is newer is automatically better.

      I too wonder what it would be like if instead of checks or automatic draft, we went back to “cash” as it was in Jesus’ example. That would force a different set of circumstances and choices, again highlighting that how and by what means we do things is often as important as just the end results.

  4. I just don’t use checks any more. I have written 4 checks in the last 4 years. And I know you said that you still give online/automatic draft. But if you want to feel the weight of the cost then it would be cash according to most economists. We don’t feel any electronic (or check) transaction as much as we cash. I will assume that it isn’t about being seen to be giving as much as your desire to participate in the act of giving with community. I know that in the past I have attended churches where everyone went up to the front to give as part of the liturgy. In those churches there was always envelopes in the pew so that if you didn’t have money to give you could always drop a blank envelope in the offering. In these churches it was more about the community participation rather than the actual giving.

    I personally don’t give automatic draft. I send in no more than twice a year (usually just once) to each of the churches/charities that I support. I asked World Vision on year how much they spend on processing a monthly gift vs an annual gift and at the time I asked they said about $18 a year more (or about 5 percent of my gift was going to processing fees.) So I always save up my gifts and give in large amounts. Not so I can look like a larger giver (because I am always giving online) but because I want more of my money to actually be used.

      1. By the way, I just saw on another blog that someone said that their church gives card stock “I give online” cards to people so they can put them in the plate.

  5. In line with Adam’s thought, I find writing and bringing a check an act that helps me remember worship is something I’m called to participate in not simply consume. When I use to give online, I often felt left out when the plate passed and I don’t think it was all vanity. I came to understand the offering as one of the significant places in our worship service for the laity to contribute to the service.

    I think the more we can encourage participation and sacrifice (even as small as the sacrifice of filling out a weekly/monthly check) as part of our regular worship the more we reinforce key theological ideas – esp. if we talk about it (like you said in CT).

  6. I thought I’d mention what we do for our giving to missionaries and charities. When we were deciding who to support, we made the decision not to set up automatic monthly drafts from our checking account, even though that would mean that our missionary friends and charities would be able to reliably count on our support each month. We decided that we preferred the fact that each month, our giving to them is a conscious act, and in doing so, we remain more aware of the sacrificial nature of giving — that this amount of money that I am now sending to these other people and causes could have been spent on our own amenities or needs, but I am deciding to do this with it instead. If it were withdrawn automatically, I think we would miss out on that awareness; our giving would no longer be an active, but a passive thing.
    I was a little concerned at first that I might forget some months to send in our money, but I think I’ve only forgotten a couple of times in the past couple years, and of course the following month we give twice as much. Every once in a while, I ponder clicking the little “authorization to debit my checking account monthly” checkbox, but currently our plan is to continue with the monthly conscious giving.

    1. Oh, and I just wanted to clarify, that we don’t send checks (it’s a waste of postage which keeps getting more expensive); we do the giving online, but just select the “give a one-time gift” type of link.

  7. As a missionary, lots of people give in support of my personal ministry. This has been a neat window into such things, but outside the offering plate example. We have people who intentionally give a check because they take that opportunity to pray for us each month. Others do the same through PayPal. Jennifer has the same ideas as some of our friends above. Let me share the other side of that coin.

    I’ve begun to encourage people to consider keeping the giving in their own control. While many give automatically through our agency, they must come to the mission to make changes and it’s a bit of an effort to change rather than an effort to give. I rather prefer the person to remain in more close control and so have begun recommending people who want to give automatically first consider online banking. Many already do this with their bills so adding a donation to the list is a good spot to get it into the pipe line and not be forgotten. Additionally, it allows them to make changes whenever they want and even decided that they must go in and click the button for the donation to be sent, giving them that moment to stop and pray for the ministry.

    Anyway, it is a blessing to know that someone has intentionally shaped their procedure of donation so that it will trigger them to also give prayers. When we see that name at the end of the month on our list, we know we’ve been prayed for. That’s cool!

  8. maybe as the culture in the church changes, NOT putting something in the place will mean that you have already given on-line. :)

    @john – it sound to me like it is better for you to give electronically for another good reason… you don’t get the pleasure of people seeing you do it.

    at our church we do not pass the plate – and we do it for many of these reasons, and our on-line giving is now approaching 30% of our total. with our system you get an email every time your weekly giving happens, and it includes a link that lets you change the amount yourself, on-line, without having to tell anyone you are doing it.

    for me it’s a much more committed “act of worship” to schedule a regular cycle of giving – it means that i don’t care how impressed with the speaker or the music i am that week, my gift is already on the way.

  9. JD – you continue to bless the blogosphere with your penetrating questions and insights. you are truly a gifted thinker. thank you for sharing and challenging us, but always with grace. there is freedom in this issue, as you have noted repeatedly, but that freedom does not abdicate our responsibility to be intentionally obedient, regardless of the medium.

    forgive the long reply, but I have several anecdotes for consideration:

    1) while in Mozambique a few years back, I worshipped with a local church. the offering time was one of the most worshipful, jubilant elements of the entire service. they placed a box up front, began playing wildly joyful music, and then commenced with clapping and dancing as everyone formed a single line and worked their way forward to place their gift in the box. it was stunning. these brothers and sisters could not wait to give back to their Lord.

    2) periodically I have the privilege of leading worship at my church. one Sunday, we skipped the passing of the plates and simply placed offering baskets at the entrance/exits, and noted this in the bulletin. we received the same amount of giving that Sunday as any other, and it forced people out of the ordinary to “experience” giving.

    3) there is now a Haiti relief fund on the dts.edu site. my wife and I wanted a way to participate tangibly, and quickly. we were able to do so by giving online. this brought us great joy, and we were so grateful that dts made the concerted effort to provide this chance.

    4) @ jennifer – we are with you. we have consciously chosen to send checks (or manually deduct drafts) from our accounts each month as a visible and physical reminder to pray for those we support. same as with our church giving. I am such a pathetic prayer “warrior” that unless I have a rhythm, I will fail to pray for them. it’s something that helps keep me faithful.

    this area is dear to my heart. thanks for raising our awareness, John. If Christ is who he says he is, and he did what the Bible said he did, then he deserves no less than my very life…

  10. This has been a good conversation. Like you said, John, we have to balance a bunch of different values here. We have to weigh out which we think is most important. And in the end, it may be a matter of personal conviction, not right and wrong.

    Questions that come to my mind include, How important is it to give regularly? Does giving regularly mean I’m giving faithfully? Is it important that I have a sense or feeling of sacrifice when I give? If so, how will I feel that sacrifice most deeply? (Adam Shields suggests cash, which is probably right. But why not a physical object that you’ve purchased with that money? Money is merely representative.) Is it important to be seen or unseen in your giving? Will you be setting an example or puffing up your pride? What is the purpose of giving? Is it to support the church? Is it to discipline myself and prioritize God’s purposes above my own?

    All these questions need to be worked out by each giver as they decide how to give. That can be a lot of work and full of confusion and even uncertainty. Paul keeps it simple, which I appreciate, “God loves a cheerful giver.” Paul seems concerned with the how of our hearts, not the practice of our payment.

    1. Adam, I appreciate your more complete list of questions. And I agree that the how is definitely related to the heart not the system. My main argument is that technology has a set of values of its own which our hearts can blindly assume if we are not thoughtful.

  11. Good stuff. For me the classic example is in a Eugene Peterson book (Unpredictable plant?) where the tells the story of how a church purchased a folding machine for the bulletins. Then the group of ladies who got together to fold the bulletins stops meeting. What that really an improvement?

  12. We actually have just such a token. It’s a little laminated card that we put in all the seat backs along with prayer request cards that EFT donors can drop in the plate.

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