Keep the faith: Churches are embracing bitcoin

Friday 12 September 2014

Living in a scientific and technology-driven world, there are many who question whether religion still bears relevance in today’s society, with science challenging some of the ideas found in religious doctrine. However, likewise, there are those who would say that science and religion are not mutually exclusive and the two can co-exist rather than competing with each other. So, perhaps it is not too surprising that the technologically-advanced payment system and currency, bitcoin, is also being embraced by some members of the Church.

ChurchAt first thought, there may seem very few similarities between bitcoin and the Church, but once you start thinking about it, there are certain inescapable parallels: The self-proclaimed evangelists, the weekly ‘meet-ups’, and don’t both bitcoin and Christianity (indeed, most religions) seek to solve some of the problems in this world: greed and poverty to name just two. The list may well be longer but fundamentally, there is a moral teaching that can be applied to both. Some might even argue that for them, bitcoin has the potential to solve more of society’s ills than any religion can.

Equally, as with anything that involves trust, there are those non-believers; the sceptics; those who are scared, wary, or feel as if they don’t understand enough.

When looking at the ever-expanding bitcoin economy and the number of businesses accepting bitcoin, it was interesting to note that several churches were among the listings and a few more have recently taken the decision to use bitcoin. One such place, The Universal Life Church of Russel, Kentucky, even calls itself The Bitcoin Church.

The Church of St. John the Evangelist in Goshen, New York, believes it is the first Catholic Church to start accepting bitcoins for donations.

The Connections Community Church in Meridian, Idaho, also began accepting bitcoin in January. They discovered bitcoin through a former staff member who believed “it was a worthwhile investment,” explains Allegra Metcalf, who works for the church. He had even purchased some bitcoin miners and was active on several forums, which is how he started learning about it.

The church’s executive pastor, Jeremy Wright, when asked why they started taking bitcoin, said in one interview:

“Why not?... Why would any business who understands Bitcoin not give people more options to pay for their services?”

Remaining Relevant

Despite many in the congregation not necessarily understanding or knowing about bitcoin, when they announced that they would start accepting it, Metcalf says, “there were several approving hollers from the crowd!”

Since then, bitcoin donations have started slowly, but three or four have already been made. For Connections, it has been more about remaining relevant and in touch with the wider world than receiving more donations. “It certainly would encourage someone who isn't involved in a church to perhaps feel that we aren't archaic and stuck in the past, but that the Church is alive and we worship the Living God,” says Metcalf.

“We at Connections don't take an offering, because we don't want to propagate the myth that churches are all about your money, but we totally believe in giving as worship to God, and if people want to do that via bitcoin we are more than happy to facilitate that!”

St.Paul's Church, Ashgrove takes bitcoinThis idea that taking bitcoin can help make the church more relevant is shared across the pond, on the Pacific side, by Reverend Tiffany Sparks at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Ashgrove near Brisbane. They are Australia’s first church to take bitcoin and are already a few months into accepting cryptocurrency after making it available as a payment option on New Year’s Eve 2013.

The decision was part of a move “to become more relevant in the world, and to be a part of a bigger, online, global conversation,” Reverend Sparks explains.

She initiated the move for the church to take bitcoin after she and her husband had been following cryptocurrency for years. They are no newcomers to the volatile world of bitcoin either. “We have watched it rocket from being worth $10 - $1200, back down to $40 and up again over the course of the last few years. While our parish bitcoin has not been effected by the insolvency of of MtGox, our personal bitcoin has,” she tells BitScan.

At St. Paul’s the reaction has been one of “caution and excitement,” according to Rev. Sparks. “The idea that we can be involved in a larger conversation online and to highlight that the online world has real world consequences lead the day. Because bitcoin contains the same anonymity as 'real cash' but has an instant global reach means that we really need to be using our brains and our integrity with how we behave online. Sites like the 'Silk Road' demonstrate the seedier side to virtual currency and how we can effect people around the world with the click of a button,” she says.

From a charitable point of view, the Church is well-placed to help take bitcoin to a wider audience and help those charities, which can lose out from dollar donations. Sparks agrees. “It may take a while for it to seep into the wider Church. As for whether in this way bitcoin or cryptocurrency is the better way to go? Well there is no middle man taking fees and charges and that does mean that your bitcoin could go further than the dollar.”

A long-term marriage?

"Virtual currency seems to be the way of the future.

Whether that is bitcoin, namecoin or one of the others, I really don't know.

I just feel it is important that we stay relevant and accessible to the larger and global society."

- Rev. Tiffany Sparks, St.Paul's Anglican Church, Ashgrove, Australia -

Despite these views, one man who does not see bitcoin as part of the future for the church is Christian and economic historian, Gary North. He has written extensively on Christian theology and economics. His argument that current economic practises in the form of Government-owned money violate the Bible’s teachings of money has been around for nearly thirty years, since the publication of his book, Honest Money The Biblical Blueprint for Money and Banking, was published in 1986. On his site, he notes three legal principles in the Bible, which are violated by modern economic policy, however he does not believe bitcoin to be a solution, telling us he thinks it is “a dead end.”

He has written his thoughts on bitcoin previously, and he does not take the view that bitcoin could align with the Church, saying, “They go out of their way to avoid relevance.”

What is happening at Connections and St. Paul’s seems to contradict this and show that some churches are embracing this new technology and proving that they can move forwards with current developments. “People can donate or pay for services in bitcoin. We have our bitcoin wallet details on our pew bulletins and website in the form of a QR code,” says Rev. Sparks, adding, ““We have had a number of people enquire and donate bitcoin.”

Of course, for many of the churches taking steps to accept cryptocurrency it is still early days, and people are still wary of virtual currency. However, Rev. Sparks makes a point about the irony of such a situation. If you want another parallel between bitcoin and the Church, then there is one similarity, which seems most striking. Sparks says, “It is ironic that I have to try to convince Church people to believe in the intangible.”

Louise Goss

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