This internet headline caught my eye: "23,000 attend church's Easter services, featuring 16 free cars, millions in prizes."
The well-seasoned Christian's first reaction might be the same as mine: an eye-rolling Oh, brother. Another generic megachurch with a noisy worship team and "relevant message" using gimmicks to pack 'em in. And, not incidentally, grab national attention from the media and skeptical believers like me.
According to Pastor Bil Cornelius, "The Ultimate Giveaway" was inspired by a church in Minneapolis that offered two cars as a premium to attract the unchurched to morning service. Pastor Bil floated the idea by his congregation, Bay Area Fellowship in Corpus Christi.
BAF is a nondenominational upstart that's grown to several thousand meeting at five locations. Dress is casual and church services are heavy on percussion, flashing lights, and liberal use of the word awesome. Bay Area Fellowshippers come from all walks of life and reflect a cross-section of southeast Texas, which is in recession like the rest of the country. But they ponied up as though hard times were just a rumor: millions of dollars' worth, pouring into the sanctuary like gold into the tabernacle fund.
In a matter of weeks they assembled 15 used-but-sparkling cars, 300 new bicycles, furniture pieces and sets, flat-screen TVs, and 15,000 gift envelopes stuffed with coupons for goods and services valued at $300 each. At special evening services during Easter week the church started giving it all away, building to a grand crescendo on Sunday.
"Come for x, stay for Christ" has been a controversial strategy at least since Billy Sunday. Are circus acts justified to bring them in? Are jumbotrons and skits and 300-voice choirs? Elaborate passion plays? Bicycles and sleek autos displayed in the lobby like the sound stage of The Price is Right? And isn't luring people with the promise of free stuff a kind of bait and switch?
Lots of legitimate questions, even from the secular world. CNN interviewer: "What do you think of that idea, of some just showing up to take advantage of a giveaway?"
"That's exactly who we want," replied Pastor Bil.
The interviewer persisted: But what does that appeal to greed say about our culture?
"That it's not heavenly minded. But this gives us a chance to point to the free gift of heaven."
The commodification of Jesus is an ongoing scandal and a source of the persistent rumor that the church is full of hypocrites. But on closer examination, Bay Area Fellowship doesn't fit the stereotype of glitzy megachurch with shiny preacher who compromises the gospel in order to swell the offering. The pastor isn't peddling seed-money promises to support his lavish lifestyle. He didn't twist arms to get donations; church members gave freely, not to receive tenfold back in material goods, but to bring in the unsaved.
People originally came to Jesus because they wanted something from Him: healing, bread, political freedom. They weren't seeking forgiveness of their sins and life everlasting-but if they stayed, that's what they received. BAF claims that thousands of people received Christ during their Ultimate Giveaway, but even one soul snatched from hell would be worth the material cost. That value scale doesn't suggest "commodification" to me.
At Pentecost, everyone in that polyglot crowd heard the gospel in his own language. Like it or not, materialism is the language of our culture, and the culture responded to BAF on Easter Sunday. But once inside they heard a different message. They were told that the shiny cars would rust and break, but Jesus paid an inestimable price for something of phenomenal value, freely offered to all who would hear. No material gift can match the grace lavished upon us in Christ. Occasionally, giveaways may not be a bad way to make that point.
Careful, though: Once is a bold gamble, twice is a gimmick. And no focus is harder to hold, in a world of distractions, than Christ and Him crucified.
If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.