Pastor Josh Shaw doesn’t pass a collection plate.
Every Sunday, as the worship band plays its final songs, Shaw encourages people to take part in what he calls “active” giving. Parishioners at his Lakewood, Colo.-based Lighthouse church can shuffle over to one of the church’s two digital kiosks, and punch in a donation. They’re portable stands with screens that accept credit or debit card donations and look like the things you’d retrieve movie tickets from – except in this instance, you’re giving to God. When Shaw needs to drum up extra funds to send a missionary overseas, he asks churchgoers to pull out their smartphones and use PushPay’s “echurch” app to make a donation. One recent such drive raised $8,000 — double what he aimed for.
Lighthouse is “a little different,” Shaw admits. The 100-person “Jesus-centered” Christian congregation is only about a year old, and meets in a high school auditorium. Shaw’s services attract mostly college students and young professionals who have yet to start a family (Shaw himself is just 28). But what’s most remarkable about Shaw’s start-up church, a sort of Kickstarter project for faith, is what it’s managed to foster in its short life: a millennial congregation that gives generously. About 90% of the Shaw’s congregation are regular donors, he says.
“We’ve made giving more palpable to my generation,” Shaw says of his app-based collection plates.
By and large, church attendance is dropping, particularly among young people. 59% of people ages 18 to 29 who identify as Christian are not attending church regularly, according to the Christian polling firm Barna Group. Church giving follows a parallel decline: of the 1,596 leaders and laypeople polled for the sixth “State of the Plate” survey, 59% saw a drop or stagnation of donations from 2015 to 2016.
For churches struggling to pay their leaders, bankroll outreach projects, and fund other budget items, digital giving could be the light at the end of the tunnel. Automatic payments, like say how you pay your bills, and mobile push notifications keep donation lines open for churchgoers who miss services due to work and family commitments.
“Millennials are not check-carrying, they’re not cash-carrying,” says Brian Kluth, founder of Christian research firm Maximum Generosity and the “State of the Plate” survey. “If churches aren’t creating digital opportunities, millennials won’t give.”
But change is starting to happen, quickly. About 80% of the Christians polled for Kluth’s survey say their church has already adopted some sort of online giving; up from 29% in 2010. A growing number of churches are also starting to “use or encourage” more esoteric technologies like electronic kiosks (32%) and mobile phone apps (51%) like Tithe.ly, a survey sponsor.
Here’s the rub, though. No screen has the power to convince someone to donate to a cause they don’t believe in.
For many millennials, the concept of tithing, the Old Testament view of allotting 10% of your income to the church, is no longer relevant. “People don’t want to hear a sales pitch anymore,” says Tyler Francke, a 28-year old Christian who blogs at God of Evolution.com. “Telling [millennials] they need to give 10% of their income so the church can pay the heating bill doesn’t really resonate.” Neither, Franke adds, does convincing people that God is a “metaphysical IRS” that will hold them to that percentage. Ditching that rhetoric has become commonplace, he says.
Unlike the old days,when Pastors would devote part of the sermon to passing the collection plate, Shaw doesn’t preach about tithing. He’s transparent about where his members’ donations go and works to foster a culture of “radical generosity,” a phrase he uses to encourage members to give generously while remaining faithful to their budget. It’s not like traditional giving has vanished— Shaw’s parishioners can also drop cash or checks into a collection box—but it’s buttressed by options that speak to his audience.
“In 15 years, I think our story is going to be very common,” he says.