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Church ATMs: Collection Plate Evolution

Susan Valadez, left, and her husband, Michael, use a kiosk outside Stevens Creek Community Church in Georgia. Pastor Marty Baker refers to the ATMs as
Susan Valadez, left, and her husband, Michael, use a kiosk outside Stevens Creek Community Church in Georgia. Pastor Marty Baker refers to the ATMs as "automatic tithe machines." (By Rainier Ehrhardt -- Associated Press)

Baker compares his technology to the days of the Old Testament when people stopped offering sacrifices and started offering coins. "It's the same now with bringing plastic," he said. "It's an evolution -- and this will take root." And to placate churches concerned that parishioners will donate money they do not have, the company offers to build machines that accept only debit cards.

At the Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, it was the price that was galling, not the concept. The church considered buying the kiosks before deciding to build a homemade version for a few hundred dollars, said Jeremy Turgeon, the church's information service manager. "It's still a theory whether we could do it or not, but other churches have, so we know it's possible," he said.

In some ways, the rise of the kiosks is a natural extension of the online donations that many church Web sites now accept. Phill Martin of the National Association of Church Business Administration said he expects even some of the most resistant churches to eventually offer some sort of credit-based donations.

"Whether we'll have an offering plate with a card reader one day, who knows," Martin said. "But we're certainly not far from that."

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.

"The onus is on all of us in the business to explore new and innovative ways of encouraging private giving," said Erik Jones, the theater's marketing director. "We see the kiosks as a low-pressure and convenient way for our patrons to donate to the Oregon Ballet Theatre while they're actually at a performance and still in the glow of what they've witnessed onstage."

The machines haven't signaled an end to traditional collecting.

At Stevens Creek, proceeds from the machines account for only one-fifth of the church's donations. During a recent Wednesday night baptism ceremony, volunteer ushers proudly sprang to attention when called to collect offerings, ready to pass the basket.

Even so, the modern-day donation plate in the church atrium usually grabs most of the attention.

Amy Forrest, a 31-year-old who drives an hour from her South Carolina town on Sundays to attend services, said she knew the church was the right fit for her the first time she saw the kiosks. "This church gets how I live," she said.

And a bonus: They make it much easier for her to chip in her weekly $40 donation.

"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," she said.

"And it makes it easier to break down to the Lord."

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