What’s Wrong With This Picture?–Part 2

Last week, my post linked to a story and video concerning Bay Area Fellowship in Corpus Christi, Texas. While the church normally sees around 7,000 people walk through the doors each week, it swelled that number to over 23,000 for Easter services. The draw? Giving away literally millions of dollars in prizes, including 16 cars.

I closed the post by posing the question of whether there was anything wrong with the church’s strategy, so I thought it might be good to come back and offer a few thoughts on the subject—especially after the flood of comments (editors note: “flood of comments” = one).

First, I agree with Jared Wilson on several points regarding this story, including:

1. In principle, I think it’s possible that offering some kind of gift to guests at a church or some other Christian event can be appropriate.

2. I think there were sincere motives behind Bay Area Fellowship’s decision. From the story I read, it appears they genuinely desired people who don’t normally come to church to hear the gospel.

3. As I initially thought about it, I felt strongly the church had gone pretty far off the right path, but I confess I had a hard time pinning down exactly what I thought was wrong with the whole thing. That’s part of the reason I ended the original post by asking the question I did. I wanted people to have to think a little bit.

I’d also note that the pastor of the church seems to have made a significant effort to help people see the giveaways in the proper light, i.e., he pointed to them as illustrative of Jesus’ ultimate gift of his life on the cross. He also was careful to let those present know the latter gift was the only one that would last.

And before finally getting to the criticism I do have, I want to point out one more thing. I think it’s healthy for those of us who are shocked, appalled, etc., when we see a story like this to ask a few questions of ourselves, questions like: What am I doing to be welcoming to people outside of the church? How am I seeking to share the gospel? If I’m indignant at people attending church with mixed motives, am I upset at myself?

Having now put down the pitchfork and calmed the angry mob, I do have some serious reservations about Bay Area’s choice to do what they did (here again some of my thinking has been spurred by Wilson). Here are some of them, in no particular order:

1. We live in a culture where people are particularly cynical about strategies like this. Having been bombarded with advertisements and the like that employ attention getting hooks and attractive promises that don’t ultimately deliver, most of us are always asking, “What’s the catch?”—even if there isn’t one. Sure, many were happy to attend Bay Area’s services and have a chance to win something. But how many had their jaded and suspicious opinion of Christians reinforced when they heard this story?

2. Jesus certainly blessed numerous people with miraculous “gifts” in his own ministry—food, safety in dangerous circumstances, physical and spiritual healing, and even raising people from the dead. But as Wilson points out, “Jesus healed people and fed them. This is not the same as giving un-poor people and iPod.”

3. It’s also worth considering this biblical fact: the crowd that Jesus materially blessed with food was the same crowd that quickly stopped following him when (a) he no longer provided the bread and (b) began to talk about the true significance of the miracle (see John 6).

4. In light of the previous point, it’s worth considering the old adage: what you win them with is what you win them to. Does giving people such gifts contribute to a perception of Christianity that says, in effect, “Believe in Jesus and you can expect more cool toys”? How does that compare to faith that understands following Jesus means taking up a cross, being willing to suffer to the point of losing everything in this life, and yet understanding that it actually would be foolish not to pay that price in the end?

5. Again, offering those who attend church some kind of “free gift” can contribute to good ends—think offering coffee and donuts to show hospitality and facilitate people spending time talking with one another. But does a giveaway on this kind of scale give the impression, unintentionally or no, that the gospel is some kind of deal that we need to sweeten? If so, are we really doing justice to the gospel?

6. I also wonder if a giveaway like this is an attempt (again not necessarily consciously) to find a shortcut to the harder work of making the gospel attractive with our lives on a daily basis, i.e., living out compassion, grace, holiness, integrity, forgiveness, love. These efforts are far less splashy initially, but the attention such lives get over the long run is far more effective at pointing to the wonder and power of the gospel.

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