A crowd of 1,300 gathered last May in an auditorium in Dallas to hear megachurch pastors and ministry leaders talk about casting vision, building church community, and promoting spiritual growth.
But even with familiar names like Life.Church pastor Bobby Gruenewald and Catalyst president Tyler Reagin on stage, this wasn’t just another ministry conference.
Pushpay—a tech company that made $98.4 million last year processing mobile giving for churches—put on the event, its fifth summit.
“It not only gives us an opportunity to see our customers and talk to them,” said the company’s chief ambassador, Troy Pollock, “but it creates an environment for people to grow in their jobs, which goes beyond digital giving.”
The popularity of online tithing coincides with moves to incorporate more technology and strategy into church operations.
Congregations have offered digital giving options for well over a decade, often relying on marketplace tools like PayPal and online bill pay (which still involves banks sending checks each month). But the latest batch of resources has more specialized, high-tech options to cater to churches in particular.
Companies like Pushpay, Tithe.ly, easyTithe, and SecureGive let members tap their way to a tithe through smartphone apps, text messages, websites, or kiosks at services.
Many congregations are now eyeing new technology as mobile payments become mainstream and paper checks fade from regular use. Plus, these tools can track giving trends, send off annual receipts, and integrate with programs for managing volunteers and communication.
Though most churchgoers still give the old-fashioned way, by cash or check in the offering plate, 15 percent now pay through their church’s website, app, or text, according to a 2018 LifeWay Research survey.
Last year, Pushpay—a public company traded on the New Zealand Exchange—processed a record $4.2 billion in giving, up 40 percent from the year before. Its clientele includes a majority of the 100 largest US congregations, including some bringing in $140 million a year and staffing more than 500 people.
“These are not just your little mom-and-pop churches,” Pollock said. “These are enterprise organizations, and the folks running [them] are high-ranking executives.”
At that size, churches are forced to operate like a business in many ways, including speaking frankly about finances and operations. But that’s a lesson that churches are starting to learn regardless of size.
“If you’re afraid to talk about money, you’ll be afraid to talk about the technology to make giving easier,” said Dean Sweetman, cofounder and CEO of Tithe.ly, a private company whose platform is used by 12,000 congregations around the world. “Here’s the truth: Churches that talk about money grow, and churches that don’t, generally don’t.”
Digital tithing companies boast trends and testimonies—congregations where giving went up 30 percent, 50 percent, and more than doubled after adding their options. One reason they work so well: Churches avoid the summer slump since recurring transfers continue to process even when people aren’t in worship, Tithe.ly found. It adds up year-round, too, since the average churchgoing family isn’t as likely to be there every week.
Plus, digital givers tend to donate more and more often. Pushpay found users give $17 digitally for every $10 in the plate, and recurring donors were five times more likely to keep giving a year later.
But there’s a real cost to the digital options. Companies charge to process transactions (usually 1%–3%) and add other fees for software or special features. Some, like Tithe.ly, invite users to cover fees—for example, giving $412 instead of $400.
These options can be intimidating for pastors with tight budgets: How much is too much to pay? For those worried that the technology is too hard or too expensive, church fundraising expert Richard Rogers recommends starting with online bill pay and direct deposit, which are usually free on both sides.
For churches to benefit from new platforms, they have to make sure their congregants are actually using them. “Availability just gets you to the starting gate,” said Rogers, senior vice president at Horizons Stewardship and author of The E-Giving Guide for Every Church. “Churches that have strong participation have made sure that their congregation is always aware of digital giving options, and they intentionally drive engagement.”
Advocates for digital giving say it’s important that congregants still see their transaction as a spiritual discipline even if it looks like paying a bill or ordering a pizza.
“Philanthropy, whether it is online or in person, is a spiritual exercise,” said Peter Greer, author of The Giver and the Gift and president of the microfinance ministry Hope International. “It’s about something much bigger and more important than meeting an annual budget.”
Pastors don’t need to skip the offering on Sunday just because they expect—or hope—people in the pews will give online. Nor should digital options be confined to a footnote on the bulletin or announcement slides.
“Drawing lines around digital giving, as opposed to ‘normal’ giving, widens an artificial chasm in our minds, instead of keeping our giving the way it should be—holistic,” said Leighton Cusack, who cofounded a platform called Kindrid, in a session for the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
Churches are still experimenting with how to incorporate digital giving in services. Some ask the congregation to log on to an app, then pray together with smartphones aglow. Others pass the plate and provide laminated cards for congregants who gave online to drop in so they can still participate, Rogers said.
They can also set up kiosks to make a payment during the service. It may be a technological leap from the days of bringing literal firstfruits, but the motivation is the same, said Sweetman, who founded Tithe.ly after three decades in ministry in Australia and the US.
“We do a lot of education, not only how to use the technology but to help [pastors] see how this enables the members of their church to follow one of the precepts of Jesus, to be generous,” he said.
Giving to churches and other religious organizations is down, dropping 1.5 percent last year, according to the Giving USA 2019 report. If digital giving translates into bigger offerings, it sets up ministries to do more for the sake of the kingdom and stave off pending decline.
“It’s bringing more and new revenue into these organizations … that allows them to have a wider impact on their community,” said Pushpay’s Pollock, a former executive pastor.
For companies like Pushpay and Tithe.ly, the trend toward digital giving represents a form of contemporary stewardship.
“You want to minimize the effort in the mundane things,” Sweetman said. “You leverage technology to do those things for you, so you can actually concentrate on the things that are really important in ministry, like caring for people and discipleship.”
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