By Mark Brooks
Americans have changed the way they do commerce.
Sit at your local Starbucks or McDonalds, and you can see it. When was the last time you saw somebody writing a check? For that matter, how often do you see anyone paying with cash? More and more Americans are turning away from the traditional means of payment towards plastic and digital commerce.
The decline of paper checks
How many paper checks a month do you write in your family? Probably it’s few, if any. The younger you are, the fewer you write. In the last decade, check-writing has declined significantly.
Consider the following facts from the Federal Reserve:
- Paper check use declined from 61% of all payments in 2000 to just 26% by 2010.
- In 2011, the number of checks processed by the Federal Reserve fell at its steepest rate yet — just one-third of the volume processed 20 years ago.
- The average check size has approximately doubled, rising from an average of $879 in 2001 to $1,460 in 2011, as many smaller-value payments are transacted with debit cards or have been automated.
- Reserve Banks estimate that check volumes will have declined another 14 percent in 2012, to about 5.5 billion items.
The Federal Reserve summary of why check writing is in decline states: “One key reason for the decline in check writing is the public’s rapid adoption of new and convenient payments service technologies. Today’s payment technologies allow households and businesses to pay by cash, checks, automated payments through automated clearinghouse (ACH) payments networks, debit cards, credit cards and prepaid cards.”
Commerce today is more digital than ever before, and this trend is only going to continue.
How the church has responded to this change
For the most part, the church hasn’t responded. In a 2011 study by Lifeway Research, only 14% of churches surveyed offered online giving. For the past few months, I’ve been conducting a survey of churches and their online giving activity. You can take that survey yourself.
While the results of our own survey show a higher percentage of online use by churches (58% of respondents say they offer online giving), it reveals some startling facts nonetheless.
- 42% of churches that do offer online giving take in less than 10% of their incomes this way. Even churches providing this tool have a ways to go towards effective use.
- “We don’t feel our people will use it.” That was the No. 1 response given by churches that didn’t provide online giving.
- “The cost is too much,” was the No. 2 reason for not offering online giving. It was followed closely by, “We don’t understand how it works.”
Clearly, the church has a long way to go to catch up with the rest of how society is doing commerce! Many churches that do have online giving aren’t using the tool effectively.
Those that feel their members won’t use it should ask how many of those same members have automatic bill payments set up.
As for costing too much, would Wal-Mart or McDonalds offer plastic payment options if, in the long run, it didn’t pay for itself? Transaction rates are fractional, and providing ease of use will increase giving — which will more than pay for any costs.
As for not understanding how this technology works, did that stop church leaders from buying computers? It’s the 21st century, after all.
When we don’t offer online giving, we’re forcing those who attend our churches to adapt to our 20th-century means of collecting money. Fewer of your attendees come to church with their checkbooks, and they have little cash on their person. Could this be one reason why giving to the church continues to decline?
What the decline in check writing means for your church
If not met, this technological and cultural shift will have drastic implications for the church as a whole, including yours. As your congregation gets younger by attrition, you’ll see check-writing become more infrequently used. If we don’t change our process for collecting the offering, we’ll see our offerings decline!
The reason is simple: The harder we make it for people to give, the less likely they are to do so. If our only means of collection remains the traditional offering plate, people will put in the few dollars they have on their person. The percentage of what you collect will decline, if it hasn’t already.
The Bible teaches us that we must give; it doesn’t say how. The offering plate came into wide acceptance in the U.S. only in the late 1800s to early 1900s. It’s not the 11th commandment that gifts be put in a basket or plate.
The offering plate is a tool. It will remain, for some time, an effective tool for collecting gifts. However, if it’s your only tool, and the demise of paper checks continues, then you’re in trouble.
Smart churches provide multiple ways for people to give, thus increasing their ability to receive funds. Since check-writing is in decline, isn’t it time you offered online giving?
Mark Brooks is founder and president of The Charis Group and Charis Giving Solutions (www.TheCharisGroup.org).