Advent of e-religion

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In a bid to gain greater relevance within an increasingly young and tech-savvy congregation, some churches in North America are looking to deploy automated kiosks to collect donations from the faithful.

The image of a parishioner swiping a debit or credit card in church might strike some as incongruous – the intrusion of consumerism into the domain of the sacred.

Pastor Marty Baker, however, dismisses such notions.

Baker, of the Stevens Creek Community Church, a Pentecostal church in Augusta, Ga., says the device merely serves to facilitate a religious tradition in an increasingly digital world.

“It’s just like an ATM (automated teller machine) for Jesus,” said Baker, who together with Eric Bradley, a Stevens Creek churchgoer and programmer, began work on the Giving Kiosk back in 2004.

The first unit was beta tested and deployed in 2005 and since then 1,100-member congregation of mostly upper-middle class families has learned to accept the kiosk’s sleek pedestal and computer screen that is not much different from those seen in commercial establishments.

Electronic kiosks are widely used in a variety of industries to facilitate processes such as registration and payment. Stevens Creek appears to be the first church to use the technology to accept donations.

The three ‘Giving Kiosk’ units in Stevens Creek accounted for more than $274,000 or roughly 15 per cent of the church’s total donations for this year.

Reports of the machines’ success have resulted in various churches around North America inquiring about the Giving Kiosk and SecureGive, a proprietary application developed by Bradley and Baker that handles electronic transactions.

“By the end of 2006, we will be in 14 churches and one non-profit organization in 10 different states,” said Baker.

Baker said the idea of installing kiosks in his church came to him when he noticed the increasing reliance of people on their debit and credit cards. “What would these people do if God prompted them to give, but somehow they didn’t have cash in their pockets?”

Bradley wrote the program for SecureGive, while software developer and e-commerce firm Ingenux Corp. of Edmund, Ok. hosted the application. Another software company, Q1-Technology Inc. of Augusta, developed a secure personal identification number (PIN) debit system that integrated with Bradley’s application.

As worshippers enter Stevens Creek church, they find a Giving Kiosk near the entrance. People who want to donate to the church electronically merely swipe their debit or credit card on the device and key in the amount they wish to give. Their donations are routed to the church coffers automatically and the machine gives them a receipt.

SecureGive also flashes images on the screen. “The church site shows images that remind people of their faith and hopefully draw them closer to God,” said Baker.

The kiosk costs between $2,289 and $5,724, there is a $286 set up fee and a $57 dollar monthly hosting and licensing fee. A card processing company also gets 1.9 per cent of each transaction.

The system does have its detractors such as church leaders who deem the machine as crass. “Some people are dead against it and would not hesitate calling me the Devil himself,” said Baker.

At least one Canadian church inquired about the system but recently decided it was not for them. Tim Williams, pastor of the Northview Community Church in Abbotsford, B.C. said he had some reservations about the fees they had to pay Baker and the card processing company.

“It would provide a great deal of convenience, but the fees we have to pay mean money taken away from our church,” said Williams.

Like most churches, Northview solicits donations by passing the basket at the pews. The church, however also uses an electronic PIN-based debit and credit card point of sales system for receiving payment for other functions.

The system is located at a desk in the church office and used by people who want to pay for programs offered by the church.

A New York-based professor, who investigates how technology and religion interact, says he sees Baker’s and similar systems being adopted by churches in the near future.

“It will look weird in the beginning but people will get use to it,” said Robert Geraci, assistant professor, religious studies, Manhattan College.

Geraci said if automated kiosks encounter any resistance, it will be based on economics rather that religion. “Some organizations will probably be constrained by the fees financial companies and the developer will demand.”

Geraci noted that in the past other technologies had encountered some opposition in church but were later accepted. For instance, conservative institutions forbade amplified music and electronic musical instruments.

“Today is not too uncommon to hear rock music played on an electric guitar in church,” said Geraci.

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