Show me the money
Religion & Liberty Online

Show me the money

I’m a bit behind on this story, but as was reported by numerous media outlets over the past few months, a new trend has begun at some American churches. ATM machines, dubbed “Automatic Tithing Machines,” are appearing at some Protestant churches in the South. The machines are administered by the for-profit business SecureGive, run by Pastor Marty Baker and his wife, who integrated the machines at their Stevens Creek Community Church in 2005.

Proponents point to the transition to a digital age and the convenience of electronic transactions. Stevens Creek Community attendee Josh Marshall said of using the machines, “I paid for gas today with a card, and got lunch with one. This is really no different.”

Amy Forrest said this, “If you give cash, you think about it. And if you swipe a credit card, you don’t. It makes it easier to type that 4-0.”

These attitudes may not be truly representative, but they at the very least illustrate the potential for the convenience offered by these machines to turn faithful giving into something that is unreflective, automatic, mundane, and worldly. That’s certainly not the kind of giving that God wants.

Baker says of his concept, “It’s truly like an ATM for Jesus.”

My initial reaction to this is pretty negative. This strikes me as the culturally-accommodating impulse in evangelicalism at its worst. Something has really been corrupted when the church is run as if it were a business and the different nature of the institutions are not respected.

It is true that this is just the most recent trend in the movement to update giving styles. The Lutheran financial giant Thrivent, with programs like their Simply Giving®, has been at the cutting edge. Thrivent is a Fortune 500 company, but is also a not-for-profit organization.

Does Baker’s status as pastor of the church make his profiting off the offerings of the church (beyond his salary out of the church budget) introduce a conflict of interest? After Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life became a huge bestseller, beyond donating a huge portion of the proceeds, Warren returned the salary that he had received from Saddleback Church throughout the years.

Other churches have balked at the pricetag for the machines (running between $2,000 and $5,000), and decided to build and run their own, avoiding the monthly subscription fee charged by SecureGive. But Baker has set his sights beyond the church: “The real market, though, may wind up being nonprofit groups. Baker said he’s in talks with New Orleans boosters to set up kiosks around town so visitors and residents can donate to a rebuilding fund. And the company just reached a deal with the Oregon Ballet Theatre, which will debut two of the kiosks in December during the ‘Nutcracker’ performances.”

But perhaps I’m being a bit unfair. Is John 2:13-16, where Jesus drives out the money changers from the Temple, a relevant scripture?

Here’s what Calvin says:

To obtain a general view of the passage, it will be necessary briefly to examine the details in their order. That oxen, and sheep, and doves, were exposed to sale in the temple, and that money-changers were sitting there, was not without a plausible excuse. For they might allege that the merchandise transacted there was not irreligious, but, on the contrary, related to the sacred worship of God, that every person might obtain, without difficulty, what he might offer to the Lord; and, certainly, it was exceedingly convenient for godly persons to find oblations of any sort laid ready to their hand, and in this way to be freed from the trouble of running about in various directions to obtain them. We are apt to wonder, therefore, why Christ was so highly displeased with it. But there are two reasons which deserve our attention. First, as the Priests abused this merchandise for their own gain and avarice, such a mockery of God could not be endured. Secondly, whatever excuse men may plead, as soon as they depart, however slightly, from the command of God, they deserve reproof and need correction. And this is the chief reason why Christ undertook to purify the temple; for he distinctly states that the temple of God is not a place of merchandise.

We can see that convenience was a major concern for the money changers and salespersons. And we see too that the priests were profiting from the practices.

True, Calvin later observes that in our day places of worship and the Temple are not to be understood as analogues: “The same arguments do not apply, in the present day, to our buildings for public worship; but what is said about the ancient Temple applies properly and strictly to the Church, for it is the heavenly sanctuary of God on earth.”

Even so, the parallels between the two phenomena, SecureGive’s “Automatic Tithing Machine” and what was going on in John 2, seem pretty damning to me.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.