Mainstream media are digging into church finances again -- or, better put, how churches collect finances. As time passes, religious institutions adapt to new technology, trends and even tacky fads. Christian churches are by no means different, as one might note the television screens in the Washington National Cathedral, the growth of drop-down screens for PowerPoint presentations and even something as seemingly mundane as sound amplification systems. A change in church tradition is always good for a good local story or two, depending on the level of controversy generated by the change, but rarely will a church operations story raise many eyebrows.
Richard Fausset of the Los Angeles Times picked up on one of these changes Thursday's paper -- the growth of ATM-style credit card machines -- and did a very thorough job exploring the various concerns and issues raised as Americans' propensity for carrying cash dwindles and plastic becomes more pervasive. Fausset did a great job making the story personal and, through a fairly extensive level of reporting, uncovered many issues that will raise the eyebrows of many a churchgoer:
It was one of Stevens Creek's three "Giving Kiosks": a sleek black pedestal topped with a computer screen, numeric keypad and magnetic-strip reader. Prompted by the on-screen instructions, Marshall performed a ritual more common in quickie marts than a house of God: He pulled out a bank card, swiped it and punched in some numbers.
The machine spat out a receipt. Marshall's $400 donation was routed to church coffers before he had found his seat for evening worship.
"I paid for gas today with a card, and got lunch with one," said Marshall, 30. "This is really no different."
Fausset seems to agree with Marshall that tithing is little different from purchasing gas or food. Except that it isn't. Tithing is by no means a sacrament, but it started as far back as Abraham and is referenced repeatedly in the New Testament. There is no established biblical way of collecting a tithe, but the passing of a basket or collection plate has a long tradition.
Many issues arise in the piece, including the desire to earn airline miles through charge cards, the potential for promoting credit-card debt and the fact that if church ATMs spread, a Georgia pastor and entrepreneur named Marty Baker could become very rich (he receives a small percentage of every dollar charged on the machines). An interesting tidbit that touches on the spiritual nature of tithing during a church service notes that some people drop their credit-card receipts into the offering plate.
But credit cards are the way of the future, right? Why would the church want to resist the changes of the future? Why didn't Fausset explain why kiosks necessary? Don't a lot of churches allow members to tithe through automatic debits and credit-card deductions? Is it because there is something special about actually making the tithe while at church? Could the following be where churches are headed?
At the Wednesday service, 27-year-old Sally Rice chose the traditional method of giving. As a Gap Kids store manager, she's more familiar than most with the way debit and credit cards work. But she hasn't made the switch at church.
"I still balance my checkbook the old-school way -- I write it all down," she said.
Rice, however, said she had no qualms about the machine itself. She said she might make the switch when she runs out of checks. "I think it's cool."
The Bakers figure most people will give up on checks before they give up on their faith. The question is whether churches will adapt.
If they do, the Bakers say they will be ready with their next idea: donation machines that attach to the backs of pews.
Read through the story and let me know if you noticed a void of spiritual content. There are elements buried within the story, but I think the issues could have been addressed more directly.
Satirical image: FreakingNews.com.