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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

At Church, an `ATM for Jesus'

Pastor Marty Baker's `Giving Kiosks' are catching on. Members say they use credit cards for everything else -- why not tithing?

September 28, 2006|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Pastor Marty Baker preaches that the Bible is the eternal and inviolate word of God. On other church matters, he's willing to change with the times.

Jeans are welcome at Stevens Creek Community Church, the 1,100-member evangelical congregation Baker founded 19 years ago. Sermons are available as podcasts, and the electric house band has been known to cover Aerosmith's "Dream On." A recent men's fellowship breakfast was devoted to discussing the spiritual wages of lunching at Hooters.

It is a bid for relevance in a nation charmed by pop culture and consumerism, and it is not an uncommon one. But Baker has waded further into the 21st century than most fishers of American souls, as evidenced one Wednesday night when churchgoer Josh Marshall stepped up to a curious machine in the church lobby.

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."

Baker came up with the kiosk idea a couple of years ago. He had just kicked off a $3-million building drive, but noticed that few people seemed to keep cash in their wallet anymore for the collection bag.

So he began studying the electronic payment business. He designed his machine with the help of a computer programmer who attends Stevens Creek, and found ATM companies willing to assemble it for him. In early 2005, he introduced the first machine at his church.

Since then, kiosk giving has gradually gained acceptance among his upper-middle-class flock. The three kiosks are expected to take in between $200,000 and $240,000 this year -- about 15% of the church's total donations.

"It's truly like an ATM for Jesus," Baker said.

This summer, Baker and his wife, Patty, began selling the devices to other churches through their for-profit company, SecureGive. They are its only employees, but a handful of contractors help them custom-tailor the machines for churches.

The kiosks can let donors identify their gift as a regular tithe or offering, or direct it to building or missionary funds. The machines send information about the donation to a central church computer system, which shoots the donors an e-mail confirmation.

The Bakers charge between $2,000 and $5,000 for the kiosks, which come in a variety of configurations. They also collect a monthly subscription fee of up to $49.95 for licensing and support. And a card-processing company gets 1.9% of each transaction; a small cut of that fee goes to SecureGive.

So far, seven other congregations have installed or ordered the machines. All of them are Protestant, and most are in the South. If the idea takes off and makes the Bakers rich, Patty says they will thank the Lord -- and give a significant sum to their church.

The concept is in its infancy, but it is part of a broader attempt among houses of worship to boost donations using modern technology. Among the most popular are "e-tithing" systems, which allow churchgoers to set up automatic contributions from their bank accounts -- much as they would their Netflix dues.

But Baker -- a 45-year-old preacher who grew up in the Pentecostal churches of South Carolina -- sees a more dramatic change afoot in the culture of church giving, as Americans increasingly turn to plastic for their everyday expenditures. That has certainly been true outside of church: Six years ago, debit cards were used in 21% of in-store transactions; today they account for a third of them, according to the American Bankers Assn.

At church services, Baker said, the next few years could be comparable to another upheaval centuries ago, when offerings of grain and animals were replaced with what was then the newfangled medium of money.

"I'll bet that caused a stir, too," he said, chuckling.

Baker assumes many churches are not yet ready to change. The need to generate earthly revenue can be a sensitive topic for the clergy; lampooning their less subtle solicitations has been a sport for generations of critics, from Chaucer to heavy-metal bands.

The Bakers have heard naysayers at trade shows mutter disapproval of the kiosks: Some church leaders apparently fear that a technology so closely associated with commerce might come across as crass.

"Not in our church," Baker recalls one group saying as they passed a SecureGive display.

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