I was stunned the first time I read about the plan of a church in the area where we then lived to give away prizes at an Easter gathering. And they were not just going to give stuff away, they were planning to create a frenzy. A helicopter was leased, piloted by some guy in an Easter Bunny costume (which alone raises questions). With people gathered at a rented junior high school soccer field, the Easter Bunny would drop plastic Easter Eggs each filled with either candy, cash, or with redeemable certificates for such items as i-pods, cell phones, etc. And they did this on Easter Sunday right after their services. It just seemed wrong, but I held my tongue.
For two weeks leading up to the “drop” the local newspaper contained a full page ad promoting this “celebration”. But it was not until I read an interview with the pastor the day after Easter that I could stand it no longer. His statement that set me off? He said: “We’re just loving on our neighbors.”
While that statement may seem benign enough, I felt compelled to respond. So I shot him an e-mail. I had met the guy before, though did not know him well. But I hoped he would at least consider his actions, or the potential effects of them. So I wrote him a note challenging his notion of “loving his neighbors”.
I told him that he was not so much loving his neighbors as he was buying them, or bribing them. True, he had gathered a large group to an Easter event, but it was not because of the proclamation of Christ crucified and resurrected (- though I assume that was mentioned at the actual church service). How many in attendance were actually members of other congregations who were enticed only by the promise of goodies? (No, no one from the church I served attended their event.) I conceded that perhaps such a giveaway would have been an expression of love had they chosen to hold it at one of the local public housing projects, and limited the participation to those with minimal incomes. After all, that would have given to those who are without, and given to those who can give no more to the church than their presence. But they had been advertising for weeks to the whole city – wealthy, middle-class, and poor alike. They were merely buying potential “customers” – just like Wal-Mart, Best Buy, or any other consumer-driven business does.
Perhaps not surprising, I did not get a response to my e-mail. The next year the church added a giveaway at the worship service – a new car to some lucky person with the correct number on their Easter Sunday worship bulletin. I did not bother to send another e-mail. I just mused in disappointment about what seems to be replacing the gospel in too many churches.
Apparently I am not alone in my distaste for this practice. I recently read a post by Jared Wilson, who also has some concerns about it. In his post Wilson gives ten spot-on-right reasons why he thinks luring people in with cash and prizes is not a good idea:
1. It creates buzz about cash and prizes, not the Easter event. When the media takes notice, nobody wants to interview these pastors about the resurrection. They want them to talk about the loot.
2. It identifies the church not with the resurrection, but with giving toys away. It makes us look like entertainment centers or providers of goods and services, not people of the Way who are centered on Christ.
3. Contrary to some offered justifications, giving prizes away is not parallel to Jesus’ providing for the crowds. Jesus healed people and fed them. This is not the same as giving un-poor people an iPod.
4. It appeals to greed and consumerism. There is no biblical precedent for appealing to one’s sin before telling them to repent of it. This is a nonsensical appeal.
5. Yes, Jesus said he would make us fishers of men, but extrapolating from this to devise all means of bait is not only unwarranted, it’s exegetically ignorant. The metaphor Jesus is offering here is just of people moving from the business of fishing to the business of the kingdom. There is no methodology being demonstrated here. (But the most common one would have been throwing out nets anyway, not baiting a hook.)
6. It is dishonest “bait and switch” methodology. Sure, the people coming for the goodies know they’re coming to church. But it’s still a disingenuous offer. The message of the gospel is not made for Trojan horses.
7. It demonstrates distrust in the compelling news that a man came back from the dead!! I mean, if nobody’s buying that amazing news, we can’t sell it to them with cheap gadgets.
8. It demonstrates distrust in the power of the gospel when we think we have to put it inside something more appealing to be effective. What the giveaways really communicate is that we think the gospel needs our help, and that our own community is not attractive enough in our living out of the implications of the gospel.
9. The emerging data from years of research into this kind of practice of marketing/evangelism attractional church stuff shows the kind of disciples it produces are not strong. I have no doubt these churches are going to see decisions Easter weekend. They’ll herald them on Twitter and on the blogs. As questionable a practice as that can be, I’d be extra interested in how discipled these folks are in a year or two years or three. Hype has always produced “decisions.” Would anyone argue that after 30 years or so of the attractional approach to evangelism the evangelical church is better off, more Christ-centered, more biblically mature?
10. What you win them with is what you win them to.