VALLEY CITY, N.D. — Carol Umsted got more than the word of God during services this summer at the Congregational United Church of Christ of Valley City.
She also got $50 worth of free gas. For the local farmer, it was a nice side benefit, at a time when gas was more than $4 a gallon.
Churches nationwide are making similar offers, ranging from gas card raffles to 99 cent gas sales at local stations, to boost attendance during the vacation season and attract new members.
But some Christians question whether a financial incentive should be used to draw people into church.
Robert Kruschwitz, director of The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, called the promotions "unseemly" and "misguided."
Umstead, a church official, said a couple of Valley City congregants stopped attending because they considered it "a bribe." But the Rev. Carl Borden, pastor of the congregation, said the overriding goal is to have a little fun and remind people that the church is there.
"It's a method of marketing for the church," he said. "For a $200 investment we've made, we got featured in the local newspaper once, twice on TV, and it's the buzz around town. I can't get a quarter-page ad for $200."
Church leaders have debated for years whether modern marketing techniques cheapen the faith or are an effective — and necessary — means of evangelizing. Even those Christians who believe some marketing is helpful disagree about how far they should take the approach.
David T. Olson, director of the American Church Research Project and head of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church, said independent, Pentecostal and Baptist churches with nontraditional ways of attracting new members are more likely to use promotions like the gas raffles. But he said there are other more effective ways of drawing newcomers.
"I personally would encourage them that having people from their church build relationships with their friends who do not attend church, and invite them as their friend, would be a much better strategy," Olson said.
Nathan White, an Atlanta-area Baptist, was troubled by a church gas card raffle he learned about at a Baptist church in Snellville, Ga. The corporate executive, who plans to become a pastor, thinks gas giveaways are shameful financial gimmicks that undermine the Gospel.
"They are appealing to the natural corruptions in unbelieving people ... . The Bible warns very explicitly about the dangers of greed, the love of money being the root of all evil," said White. "Appealing to the selfish motives of people is not Christianity."
The nondenominational Liquid Church in Morristown, N.J., took its gas promotion outside of the church. Members went to a local service station in August, bought $10,000 worth of fuel and sold it for 99 cents a gallon.
"We canceled services that day, and said our service to the community will be our service," said the Rev. Tim Lucas.
"This wasn't a gimmick, 'Hey, come to our church.' There was no bait-and-switch. We didn't try to convert people. We just wanted to show we care," he said.
He noted that the church also provides money to drill wells in African countries.
There, "water is the most precious liquid," Lucas said. "In New Jersey, it's gas."
Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said there is a fine line between advertising a church and using what he called "huckster" means to entice outsiders.
He called the gas promotions in general "a clever tool."
"There are a lot of worse things that people can be doing in life than getting people to come to church," he said. But Cromartie said the more important issue is what message people hear once they get inside.
Kruschwitz worries that people who come to church because of the enticements won't stick around long enough to listen to the preaching and join the worship. "Are they being tempted to think the church is about such gimmicks and external rewards?" he asked.
But Borden said he has no ethical reservations about the drawings at the Valley City congregation. He just wished that as much attention could be paid to the church's other work.
"The amount of time I've spent being interviewed ... about all the good things we're doing and only hearing about the gas thing on the news is a little disappointing," he said. "It does show what people are paying attention to."
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