- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006

MARTINEZ, Ga. — At the Stevens Creek Community Church, God takes credit cards.

Debit cards, too.

Two “giving kiosks” sit just outside the church’s chapel, next-generation collection plates that allow churchgoers to use their credit or debit cards to instantly make donations to the church.

The Rev. Marty Baker likes to call the black terminals ATMs — “automatic tithe machines.”

“We’re just trying to connect with the culture,” he said. “And that’s how the culture does business. It’s more than an ATM for Jesus. It’s about erasing barriers.”

Mr. Baker came up with the idea three years ago when his east Georgia church was preparing for a fundraising drive. He realized that, like many in his 1,100-member congregation, he rarely carried cash. So he hired developers to find a way for his flock to pay with plastic.

Eventually, they cobbled together a prototype that he set up at his church in early 2005.

Since then, the evangelical church has seen an 18 percent rise in donations — and an average gift of more than $100 each time a card is used.

The results encouraged Mr. Baker and his wife, Patty, to form a for-profit company, called SecureGive, that sells the terminals for between $2,000 and $5,000 each and charges a $50 monthly subscription fee. By the end of the year, they expect to have terminals in 15 spots across the country.

The kiosks are fairly simple to use. After typing in a phone number and personal identification number, users swipe a credit or debit card. The terminals allow users to give to a specific fund, such as a building drive or a mission. Afterward, it spits out a receipt.

At Stevens Creek, where services begin with flashy light shows and an in-house Christian band plays salvation songs, the embrace of technology has helped foster a sense that this congregation is on the cutting edge.

“We’re real. We’re in today,” said church volunteer Dorna Adams. “We’re here where society is at.”

Mr. Baker compares his technology to the days of the Old Testament when people stopped offering sacrifices and started offering coins. “It’s the same now with bringing plastic,” he said. “It’s an evolution — and this will take root.” And to placate churches concerned that parishioners will donate money they do not have, the company offers to build machines that only accept debit cards.

At the Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, it was the price that was galling, not the concept. The church considered buying the kiosks before deciding to build a homemade version for a few hundred dollars, said Jeremy Turgeon, the church’s information service manager. “It’s still a theory whether we could do it or not, but other churches have, so we know it’s possible,” he said.

In some ways, the rise of the kiosks are a natural extension of the online donations that many church Web sites now accept. Phill Martin of the National Association of Church Business Administration said he expects even some of the most resistant churches to eventually offer some sort of credit-based donations.

“Whether we’ll have an offering plate with a card reader one day, who knows,” Mr. Martin said. “But we’re certainly not far from that.”

The real market, though, may wind up being nonprofit groups. Mr. Baker said he is in talks with New Orleans boosters to set up kiosks around town so visitors and residents can donate to a rebuilding fund. And the company just reached a deal with the Oregon Ballet Theatre, which will debut two of the kiosks in December during the “Nutcracker” performances.

“The onus is on all of us in the business to explore new and innovative ways of encouraging private giving,” said Erik Jones, the theater’s marketing director. “We see the kiosks as a low pressure and convenient way for our patrons to donate to the Oregon Ballet Theatre while they’re actually at a performance and still in the glow of what they’ve witnessed onstage.”

The machines haven’t signaled an end to traditional collecting.

At Stevens Creek, proceeds from the machines account for only one-fifth of the money the church receives in donations. During a recent Wednesday night baptism ceremony, volunteer ushers proudly sprang to attention when called to collect offerings, ready to pass the basket.

Even so, the modern-day donation plate in the church atrium usually grabs most of the attention.

Amy Forrest, a 31-year-old who drives an hour from her South Carolina town on Sundays to attend services, said she knew the church was the right fit for her the first time she saw the kiosks. “This church gets how I live,” she said.

And an added bonus: They make it much easier for her to chip in her weekly $40 donation.

“If you give cash, you think about it. And if you swipe a credit card, you don’t. It makes it easier to type that 4-0,” she said.

“And it makes it easier to break down to the Lord.”

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