Monday, April 11, 2011

Online Giving

Recently, I ran into a dilemma as I wrote my tithe check. It was the last check in my next-to-last book of checks. Years ago, I would have filled out the little form that said, "REORDER NEW CHECKS NOW" without even wondering about it. But, today, I find that the tithe check I write for church is the ONLY check I ever write. Like so many others, debit cards and online bill payment has replaced my need to use checks. So, my dilemma was this: Should I reorder checks just to write tithe checks, or should I begin processing my tithe through my bank's online bill payment service? This was a difficult question to answer.

For years, I have felt that it was important for me to put that envelope in the plate every Sunday. One reason was biblical. In Exodus 23:15, the Lord said to Israel concerning the Feast of Unleavened Bread, "none shall appear before Me empty-handed." Instructions and examples like this are repeated throughout the Old Testament. Then in the New Testament, we have this pattern for giving in 1 Corinthians 16:2 of setting aside an offering "on the first day of every week." I felt it was important to honor the Lord with an offering in the plate every Lord's Day. The second reason I felt it important to put the offering in every Sunday was practical, or moral. As the pastor, I felt it was important to lead by example in the matter of giving, and letting the congregation see me placing that envelope in the plate was a way of showing that I am not there just to take from the church. I am giving to it as they are. And as important as this conviction was, and continues to be, I was always uneasy about this because of what Jesus said about giving in Matthew 6:2-4. "So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you." I was always torn between my responsibility to lead by example and my responsibility to rest in God's complete knowledge of that which is done in secret. 

As I wrestled with my dilemma (to order checks or not order checks) I came to realize that my desire to lead by example may have actually become an issue of spiritual pride and a seeking after the applause of men. I also came to realize that my adherence to the "letter of the law" concerning "first day giving" and "empty-handedness" had perhaps usurped the "spirit of the law", particularly regarding giving in secrecy and with a joyful heart. Suddenly the answer to my dilemma was becoming clearer. It seemed to me that if checks are no longer a regular part of my personal banking habits, I could continue my stewardship practices in a new way. 

A recent study by Lifeway Research found that 14% of American Protestant Churches offer online giving. The percentages are significantly greater in large churches (55% of those with attendance over 500), and smaller in small churches (9% of those with 100-199 in attendance; 7% of those with 50-99 attending). Though the study does not get into reasons for this, it is easy to speculate that in the smaller churches, the staff is already overburdened and does not have the time to research, implement and administer a system of online giving. In many cases the small church's budget cannot handle the cost of implementing and maintaining a system of online giving. Many of these smaller churches undoubtedly do not even have a website, therefore there is no platform for any online interaction with the church. 

Additional research further illustrated that 53% of Americans were using online banking in 2007. So, lets say that you, like me, are part of that majority. But your church, like mine, does not have a system of online giving in place. What can you do? This is what I have chosen to do, and what I would encourage you to do as well. If you use your bank's online bill-pay system, add your church to your list of "billers", and enter in the relevant information (address, phone number, etc.). If your church relies on "envelope numbers" rather than names to credit your giving, you could enter your envelope number as your "account number." Then you will be able to either set up automatic payments to recur at regular intervals, or process your tithes and offerings as you process your other bills every month or every pay-period. When you do this, assuming that your bank is like mine, they will print and mail your check for you to your church at no cost either to you or your church. So, your bank may have actually solved a significant dilemma for you (in God's common grace). They have given you a portal for online giving that costs your church no time, effort, or money; they have made giving more convenient for you; they have provided you with a "history" file you can use as a check-and-balance on your end of year statement from the church; and they have given you a system that you can use to give more regularly, more consistently, and perhaps even more generously. If you do decide to go this route with your giving, I would recommend alerting your church so that they know to expect that "the check's in the mail," and also so they may be able to reduce the supply of offering envelopes they order. Many churchgoers give little thought to the fact that the church has a significant financial outlay every year in buying those envelopes that they give you. Use them! Or else, if you are going to give online, tell them you do not need them anymore (this may necessitate changing your "number", but I think you can survive the trauma of that).

So, you want to give online, but your church doesn't allow you to? Let your bank handle that for you through their online bill-pay system. And the biggest problem you will have will be letting that plate pass by you on Sunday knowing that someone sitting near you may be thinking that you are robbing God. I heard someone suggest humorously once that churches should provide "online givers" with a badge that says "I Give Online" so people seated near them will not judge them. But remember what Jesus said: "your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you." And if you see someone, say for instance your pastor, not put their offering into the plate on Sunday, do not judge that person. Be more concerned about what you are and are not doing. That person will answer to the same God to whom you answer, and on that day your stewardship will be more of a concern to you than theirs. Prepare for that day here and now.

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