Protestant church members across the country can now choose to have their church pledges paid directly from their bank checking accounts in a new program designed by the National Council of Churches' Stewardship Commission.

All a church member must do to activate the new system, called "First Fruits", is instruct his or her bank on how much to pay the church monthly. The bank, cooperating with a specially contracted data processing system, automatically pays the pledge from the individual's account.

Allan Ranck, associate executive director of the stewardship commission, said that the program was designed mainly for convenience of the giver. "Electronic money transfers are being used more and more in our society," he said, "and the churches should be in line with the general trend. People are used to paying other bills this way."

Through the system, the congregation, he noted, would receive its income regularly rather than having to call in pledges overdue at the end of the year, as is often the case.

"It's also good for the individuals in a mobile society," Ranck said, "because people who travel out of town on Sundays would know that their pledge will be paid."

Those who engaged in a pilot project testing the system in congregations in 10 denominations in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Dallas, Fort Worth, Atlanta and Los Angeles, Said they saw this method as helping them "be faithful to their stewardship," he added.

Ranck said that members can use the program by getting their congregations to agree to handle pledges this way. However, a church would need 25 participants to make the project economical, he said.

A feature of the program that allowed church members to pay their pledges with bank credit cards was discontinued because few in the pilot project used it.

"There was a general reluctance to use credit cards because there is some feeling - which I think is a misinterpretation - that they extend contributions beyond what people can afford," Ranck said.

"We decided to drop this for the time being," he said.

Another program called Cash Management for Mission is being suggested by the commission. It makes it possible for churches to earn a profitable interest rate on small amounts of cash invested for short periods.

In this program, churches can open a special account that will yield more interest than a regular savings account but does not have a minimum required balance. Interest is computed and added to the account daily, and the annual cost of service will not exceed 1 per cent of the amount deposited.