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September 2, 2020
Many pastors face difficult decisions in a digital age.
As generations shift, and elder boards become increasingly populated by millennials, ecclesiological issues at the intersection of orthodoxy and efficiency emerge that every church must answer.
One of those issues is that of digital giving platforms.
In ages past, passing the plate has been a reliable method of collecting charitable funds from church members for the mission of the church.
But now that funds are increasingly electronic, millennials make 41% of their purchases online, and “conversion rates” are three times higher on mobile platforms than on desktop platforms, churches must be able to address the question of digital giving services with theological depth—and this includes the role of mobile phones in church, the legitimacy of for-profit digital payment platforms, and the relationship between form and tradition.
In this article, we will unpack principles relevant to better understanding the issue of digital giving platforms from a biblical perspective.
The Bible speaks at length about money.
We know that there are ethical principles that should govern how we spend money.
But it’s important to know that God cares deeply about the integrity of how money is handled as well.
Don’t forget that how tithes to the church are administered is the only issue in the New Testament books for which God struck a husband and wife dead (Acts 5:1–10).
If the story isn’t clear enough, Paul expressly teaches this same principle when he writes to the Corinthians.
“Thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same concern I have for you. For Titus not only welcomed our appeal, but he is coming to you with much enthusiasm and on his own initiative. And we are sending along with him the brother who is praised by all the churches for his service to the gospel. What is more, he was chosen by the churches to accompany us as we carry the offering, which we administer in order to honor the Lord himself and to show our eagerness to help. We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift” (2 Cor 8:16–20).
Paul chooses a publicly reputable servant to handle the money so that the integrity of the church is protected.
And the church in the 21st century is no stranger to embezzlement, fraud, and theft. In the past year alone several stories of faithful, Bible-believing churches have made their way to the news—with reports of pastors, elders, and church staff stealing from their congregation by poor cash handling and other forms of mismanagement.
Digital giving platforms are one way of maintaining a strict chain of custody on donated funds. Channeling the church’s tithes through a digital giving platform is one way of honoring Paul’s desire—and the Holy Spirit’s desire, according to Acts 5—for gifts not only to have integrity, but to have demonstrable integrity.
Paul continues in 2 Corinthians to explain the standards by which the administration of funds is to be measured: “For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man” (2 Cor 8:21).
What does it mean to “do what is right” in the eyes of the Lord? It means ensuring that those handling money are proven, trustworthy, qualified men/women with a history of faithfulness. And more than that—it means we have a duty to report any mismanagement.
What does it mean to take “pains to do what is right … also in the eyes of man”? It means that the church “takes pains” to abide by the industry “best practices” in ensuring that no financial mismanagement has occurred. One of the ways that businesses guard against mismanagement is to channel every dollar through a credit, debit, or bank transfer, and to use accounting software that allows auditors to track all incoming and outgoing funds. Churches can do the same with digital giving software.
A digital giving platform serves as a reputable “third party” that can guarantee what monies were given and dispensed, and when—as opposed to in-house accounting software paired with cash donations, in which the opportunity for financial mismanagement and corruption never leaves. On a digital giving platform with protections against hacking and fraud, and no involvement in the politics of any single local church, these opportunities are simply impossible—making Paul’s standard much easier to meet.
Elsewhere to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes: “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22).
Paul labored to meet people in their unique circumstances as much as he could in order to advance the kingdom of God, without compromising the message of the gospel.
By offering multiple ways for their congregations to give online, churches are similarly meeting the needs of church members for ease and efficiency in the hopes of lessening the friction between generous hearts and the action of giving.
By failing to adopt a digital giving platform, church members are forced to use ATMs, checks, and ACH bank transfers—all of which are much more labor intensive than debit and credit cards that can be used in a digital giving platform.
This is why businesses take credit and debit cards—to make it easier to buy.
Businesses are happy to pay 1–2% per transaction if it means their overall transactions increase by more than 1–2%, which they do.
For example, churches who use Tithe.ly Giving increase their annual giving, on average, by 146% year-over-year.
Whether you are a church struggling to grow, a church plant, or a booming church strategizing how you can better serve your community, financial resources and the effectiveness of the methods you use to collect them cannot be ignored.
People like using digital methods of transferring money.
Last year, 22% of millennials bought groceries with an app.
And eCommerce is the preferred means of buying and donating by GenZ.
Paul writes in Colossians 3:23, “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.”
A friend of mine, a church elder, had a fellow elder say to him over the issue of digital giving: “Placing the envelope in the tray is an act of worship. Pressing a button isn’t an act of worship.”
Pressing a button may not feel as worshipful for older generations.
But implementing a digital giving platform doesn’t mean you can’t also pass the plate. It just means that you use both methods to make sure your means of financial collection doesn’t alienate (and miss out on) the resources of younger generations for whom digital giving is a much more native experience.
Giving to the church has always been a practice that God desires of his people.
Giving generously is one of God’s ordained ways of worshiping him and serving his church:
“Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine” (Prov 3:9–10). More than that, giving is a blessing: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
The Apostle Paul used giving to the church as a litmus test for spiritual maturity: “I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:8–9).
Whether the issue is worship, blessing, or maturity, giving generously is clearly a critical element of discipleship and spiritual maturity.
Discipleship is hard enough. The church shouldn’t make it harder to give every month by requiring people to opt in every single week and use physical cash and checks. The church should make the spiritual act of giving as easy as possible. There are no extra spiritual blessings for giving God the firstfruits of your labor “the old fashioned way.” The Bible doesn’t celebrate old-timey methods of giving. It just celebrates giving. Full stop.
Some pastors see digital giving platforms as the equivalent of “money changers” at the temple (Matthew 21:12–17).
But we shouldn't think of digital giving platforms that take a percentage as “money changers.”
This metaphor is actually quite misguided for several reasons.
First, the local church isn’t the temple—the people in whom the Holy Spirit dwells are God’s temple (1 Cor 6:19). This becomes evident atf Pentecost (Acts 2:1–13).
Second, what digital giving platforms do today would have been unimaginable in the first century. In fact, digital giving platforms are the opposite of money changers. Rather than taxing worshipers, they enable them to more easily give. Imagine a group of devoted synagogue members in the first century traveling throughout all of Israel, gathering alms to the temple, as a convenience service that made it easier for the whole Jewish community to support the mission of God. That would be the real first century analogy of what digital giving platforms actually do for the 21st-century church. They make worship easier and allow more money to get to the church, rather than stealing from the church as the money changers did.
Furthermore, we don’t consider the cost of collection plates as “stealing” by the collection plate companies.
We don’t consider the cost of envelopes, financial advisors, and other financial consultants an inappropriate cost. Quite the opposite—these systems exist to protect the integrity of the money.
Most digital giving platforms do this better than any human staff could—it protects the money from theft, it automatically counts it, it makes recurring giving easier, and it protects the church from seasonal financial swings so that its resources are both more stable and integrous.
This is admittedly a pragmatic argument.
This is not a theological argument.
But, since there is no theological principle that requires gifts to the church to be made with cash or check, the inevitability of digital giving services makes room for an argument that churches should be early adopters.
The church has always had communities who are suspicious of technology. This is fitting, since the church is called to preserve orthodoxy, and preserving tradition is an admirable instinct—even if it sometimes becomes mistranslated as a desire to preserve old-timey methods.
Nevertheless, churches will only financially benefit from becoming more fluent in digital methods of collecting tithes and offerings now.
With analog methods of giving, it’s not as easy to see who is giving, how much they’re giving, and how regularly they give.
With many digital giving platforms, it’s possible to see how much each member tithes, how frequently, and to what causes they have given special gifts.
This allows pastors to get a better sense of a member’s involvement in the church, which becomes increasingly difficult with churches larger in size.
Churches don’t always express gratitude for financial donations.
This was a priority for Paul, as we see in his letter to the Philippian church:
“I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Phil 4:18–20).
Paul made it a point to thank those who gave to his ministry.
A digital giving platform enables a church to better track and express gratitude to those who gave.
This enables the church to have a better sense of partnership in the gospel, rather than church members feeling a top-down command to give to the church out of obligation.
Paul cherished this kind of partnership, to which the expression of gratitude is key.
Does your method of collecting donations and offerings allow you to easily express gratitude to each member each time they give for the amount they give?
The matter of digital giving platforms in the church has deep ecclesiological implications.
Pastors will do well to discuss it with their elders, consider the theological arguments for implementing one, and consider the ecclesiological benefits likewise.
Whatever course your church chooses, it will eventually adopt digital giving.
If it’s not under the administration of your current pastor, it will likely be under the administration of the next.
This is the world we live in—and Christ is still Lord of all of it.