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The Electronic Demise of Generosity

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April 23, 2012 – One of the many joys of the internet age is the ability to pay for things online.  Most, if not all of our bills are payable online now.  In fact, for most companies, online payments are preferable to the old “mail it in” variety, since the former uses up less paperwork and it is all but instantaneous.  This new form of making payments is a boon to consumers as well: we avoid the use of ever more expensive postal stamps and, without hard copies of our bills to deal with every month, we reduce the amount of unpleasantness in our daily mail box sortee.
There is, however, one casualty in the midst of this glorious electronic wonderland.  It is the physical giving of offerings in our churches.  I think it is probably true that the majority of churches today still have one primary mode available for giving: the offering plate.  These churches either pass the plate in the traditional manner or leave boxes clearly marked at their doors.  Some of their homebound parishioners send in offering checks in lieu of giving in person.  Perhaps there are a fair number of these churches with PayPal accounts that allow them the ability to accept online donations from visitors to their websites.  But there is also a growing number of churches which have made electronic giving their modus operandi.  The members of such congregations either pay their offerings on a regular basis online or set up automatic debits from their checking accounts, ostensibly to insure that they never forget to “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse.”  Larger, more financially able churches even have the option of setting up special electronic-giving kiosks in their lobbies as another means of collecting from their congregants.
However well-intentioned these means of giving may be, I fear that something important is lost when we cease the practice of physically laying our money in the offering plate.  What is lost is the sense of loss.  This might be true even for those of us who give our offerings in the form of a check, but it is certainly true for those who merely set up an automatic draft on some electronic account.  We have forgotten what it means to feel the financial loss that comes with giving to the kingdom work of our God.  Consider the believer of a few generations ago: he pealed paper bills out of the stack in his wallet and he became tangibly aware of what he was relinquishing.  His wallet was lighter as a result; there was now less money to spend on the other needs of the household.  There was (and still should be!) a palpable sense of loss.  When we give, we should feel the resultant absence of what was given.  Eliminating this cognizance of loss moves us from the situation of joyful and generous Christian sacrifice to mindless and consumeristic charity.
Automatic draft and other forms of online giving allows a church to take the pragmatic approach: the church gets the money, the programs get their financial support, and it is as painless as possible to the individual.  Yes, but giving is supposed to be a little painful!  Why else does God instruct the Israelites to give from the first fruits of their harvests (Ex. 23:19; 34:26; Lev. 23; Deut. 18:4)?  Wouldn’t it have been more practical to wait until the entire harvest season was over and then evaluate what could be spared?  God’s intention in having his people give to his kingdom is not primarily so that his work can proceed fully funded.  His intention is that his people learn to give generously.  Biblical generosity requires selfless abandon for the sake of another.  It demands a willingness to experience loss so that another might experience gain.  The pattern is set for us by Jesus: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9).  Automatic debits, e-giving and the rest reduce the feeling of loss.  In so doing, they constrict the growth of generosity, leaving us all a bit more impoverished as a result.

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