or millions of parishioners across the country, there is a new way to give to their local church: charge it.
From Lutheran congregations in the Middle West to Greek Orthodox parishes in Florida and Manhattan to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., a rapidly growing number of churches are embracing electronic giving, a fund-raising tool common among charities and nonprofit groups, but, until recently, little used by religious organizations.
Instead of sending cash, coins and personal checks up to the altar on a collection plate, parishioners can use special envelopes to charge monthly donations to their credit cards, or they can add their offerings and gifts to God to the list of monthly bills that can be paid online or through automatic bank account transfers.
Those who choose to contribute this way can donate while they are away on vacation, manage their church accounts by computer and earn frequent flier miles. And churches, which draw most of their money from donations, can count on a steady stream of revenue, even when summer vacations or winter snowstorms keep people away.
"The church needs to keep up," said the Rev. Michael T. Kontogiorgis, assistant chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which is based in New York City, and which will test electronic giving at roughly 20 of its 520 parishes around the country in the next few months. "It's the 21st century. We don't pay with chickens and grapes anymore."
Moving donations from wicker baskets and wooden collection plates into cyberspace or onto credit card and banking statements has given rise to a profitable new financial-services industry aimed at churches, one that already has a major player in a Queens company called ParishPay. But it has also fueled a debate about God and money, spirituality and financial reality and whether technology is interfering with the core rituals of worship.
The Southern Baptist Convention, which represents 16 million American Baptists and has been otherwise quick to embrace technology — its Web site features the slogan "One people, one purpose, one click" — does not permit electronic giving.
"God says you bring the offering as an act of worship," said Jack Wilkerson, vice president for business and finance for the Baptist group. "My concern is, we're trying to approach a spiritual problem in the heart of people mechanically. One of these days we're going to wake up and say, `What happened to our churches?' "
ParishPay, a Long Island City company that was founded last year and has already become a driving force behind the growth of electronic giving in churches, has seized on the economic troubles of many churches and is seeking to capture a huge piece of the Catholic market. Company officials say regularly scheduled donations by credit card or through automatic bank withdrawals can only help the churches.
"When people commit to give regularly to the church, they are much more likely to get involved in other activities of the church," said Joe Mohen, a practicing Catholic, who founded ParishPay. "It tends to make people more involved in the sacramental aspects. From the point of the church, the reality is that it's a win-win-win."
Even as many churches move toward electronic giving, credit cards have been slow to catch on until now. The Lutherans are not accepting credit cards, for philosophical reasons, church officials said, but the Greek Orthodox Church will take plastic, including the Discover Card.
ParishPay has also made significant inroads into the Roman Catholic Church, a tantalizing and largely untapped market with 65 million American Catholics.
The Diocese of San Jose is to announce this week that it will offer the electronic and credit card payment service to its 600,000 parishioners through ParishPay. The Archdiocese of Chicago, the country's third-largest Roman Catholic diocese, with 2.3 million Catholics, is expected to sign a contract with ParishPay within a few days and plans to offer the service at about six parishes this fall and throughout the diocese next year, in addition to the option of charging the tuition for parochial schools, officials there said.
In Chicago, participating churches are likely to provide parishioners with a sticker to place on their offering envelopes that says "I'm using ParishPay," so that the ritual of passing the collection plate and sending a financial gift to the altar will not be lost, said Tim Dockery, director of development for the archdiocese. He added that he expected the new program would ultimately increase donations significantly and level out the church's cash flow, which often rises and dips with the seasons.
Churches across the country that have been experimenting with electronic giving say that, on average, it has increased their donations, although it is too early to tell precisely what the financial impact will be.
"We don't want to create the impression that as long as you give money, we don't care if you show up," Mr. Dockery said, "but there's a convenience factor."
"Support for the church shouldn't be arbitrary," he added. "It should be planned and thoughtful."
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, with 1.2 million parishioners, became one of ParishPay's first clients, and officials there said that if the pilot program is successful, they would offer it to all 520 of the church's parishes early next year.
ParishPay officials said they were close to agreement with several other major dioceses and are holding discussions with many others.
ParishPay, which processes the credit card charges and automatic bank payments for the churches that enroll also offers an online donation service, at www.ParishPay.com. It charges a 1 percent fee plus $1 monthly per donor.
That money is withheld from the donations that are made through ParishPay before it reaches the churches.
With the company's promise of steady income that will not dip in the summer or during bad winter weather when worshipers do not make it to services, ParishPay promises to sharply increase — if not double — a church's contributions, officials said, citing data they collected from test-marketing the service.
Among Catholics, not everyone is buying the underlying concept. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, which serves 1.6 million Catholics in Brooklyn and Queens, has rejected the idea of electronic giving and the services of ParishPay. The Archdiocese of New York, however, which serves 2.4 million Catholics in Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island and seven counties north of New York City, is in discussions with ParishPay, company officials said.
The policy of the Brooklyn diocese is not to solicit credit card payments, diocesan officials said, although parishioners who offer to make pledges and donations with credit cards or through automatic transfers may do so. Some churches have said that they do not want to encourage people to incur debt through the use of credit cards.
"We have made a conscious decision not to actively encourage this," said Francis Galligan, the Brooklyn diocese's chief financial officer. "I don't think it's what we want to do from a spiritual perspective." In some churches and synagogues, individual worshipers have made arrangements with their own banks for automatic payments. Electronic giving is not expected to have a major impact on how Jews give, because there are no weekly offerings, but instead annual synagogue membership fees that are required.
The Lutheran church, which introduced electronic giving in 1998 with a fund-raising program called Simply Giving, was the only religious organization offering electronic giving on a national level until ParishPay signed up the Greek Orthodox church and others. Now, 4,500 of its 18,800 Lutheran congregations are enrolled in the service, with the electronic payments processed by Vanco Services, a Minnesota company that has also just enrolled several Methodist churches in a pilot electronic-giving service, officials said.