When retirees at Lakeside Baptist Church in Granbury, Texas, embarked on their after-Christmas vacations, the church missed their physical presence but not their offerings.

Seniors are the most avid participants in Lakeside's two-year-old automated giving program, which encourages systematic checkbook withdrawals. "A good percentage of these folks travel a lot, and it guarantees consistent giving," says administrative minister Brian Hill.

Only a tiny number of Christians nationwide give through an electronic transfer of funds. The practice may accelerate, though, as more people become more skilled in using the technology.

Dick Schulte is overseeing a pilot project for the 2.6 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. "This is something for the future, and that's the way we're billing it," Schulte says.

Just how many congregations use such fund transfers is unclear. Len Thiede, a manager for Vanco Services in Minneapolis—which processes electronic payments for more than 3,300 congregations and 1,000 businesses—says many churches establish plans with local banks, making an accurate national count difficult.

Nevertheless, Thiede sees a trend, reflected by a business upswing last fall during 2001 stewardship campaigns. "The momentum is clearly there," Thiede says. "We're getting contracts every day."

The Lutheran Brotherhood, an insurance and investment services firm that markets solely to Lutherans, is one of the most active supporters of fund transfers. It encourages automated checkbook withdrawals as part of its mission of supporting Lutheran churches.

Simply Giving

Enrollment in the Lutheran Brotherhood's "Simply Giving" program skyrocketed from 600 churches in mid-1999 to 3,100 by the end of 2000. That is 17 percent of the 18,000 churches affiliated with the Minneapolis-based nonprofit agency. By contrast, only 2 to 3 percent of church members participate in the program. Brotherhood Vice President Royce McEwen attributes that to the difficulty of promoting the concept through mostly volunteer stewardship leaders.

Among grateful participants in the program is a New Jersey pastor who told McEwen it translates Old Testament "first fruits" offerings into a modern conveyance. "He said it helps them concentrate more on ministry and less on financial issues," McEwen says. "Simply Giving is simply a modern tool for modern times."

Others have seen increases in giving. Regular electronic giving offers benefits to both churches and individuals by making offerings convenient, consistent, and accurate. If a large number of givers donate electronically, some churches may be able to cut down on the time volunteers spend in the weekly ritual of counting the Sunday offering. Still, some Christian leaders strongly object to the concept. Jack Wilkerson of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee believes it ignores biblical principles of bringing tithes to church as an act of worship and obedience.

In addition, Wilkerson believes, it fails to teach young people about giving. "It removes the heart from the issue," Wilkerson says. "It rolls up to a real damaging trend. We're going to hit a wall in 10 years and say, 'What happened?'"

Noted church historian and former pastor Martin Marty does not agree. He sees no more revealing symbol of the heart's condition than the dollar sign: "If leaders and stewards can get people to commit themselves to sustained, regular, habitual response, they are better off."

Related Elsewhere

Visit the Lutheran Brotherhood site to learn more about e-tithing, Lutheran financial services, and church resources.

The leading electronic tithing company in the U.S., Vanco Services, also offers fund transfer services information on its Web site.

The NewTitheCalc online is designed to help you budget your giving based on your total assets instead of just your income. The tithing calculator at this Presbyterian site allows you to figure your tithe based on the percentage of income you want to donate.

E-tithing has been in the news a great deal this past year:

Try e-tithingThe Detroit News (Dec. 15, 2000)
Automating Your Church OfferingsThe New York Times (Nov. 19, 2000)
E-bank Tithing Comes OnlineThe Wall Street Journal (April 13, 1999)

Previous Christianity Today stories about finances include:

Is the Stock Market Good Stewardship? | I see more of our Christian brothers investing in the market. Is this a healthy trend? (Oct. 23, 2000)
We're in the Money! | How did evangelicals get so wealthy, and what has it done to us? (June 9, 2000)
The Culture of the Market: A Christian Vision | A Coptic bishop explains biblical economics to a Muslim newspaper. (Dec. 6, 1999)
Keeping Up with the Amish | We evangelicals have made a too-easy peace with the inroads of consumer culture. (Oct. 4, 1999)
Pious Profits? | 'Socially responsible' investing grows popular. (Sept. 6, 1999)

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