Churches try cash prizes to fill pews

The Rev. Rod Loy is like a lot of ministers. In a time when distraction is only a Web page away, he'd like to lure more people to church and away from TVs and computer screens. To do this, however, he's taking a cue from TV itself.

A few months ago, Mr. Loy launched the church's own "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" game here at First Assembly of God. The two winners won $1,000 each when they correctly answered biblical questions.

Loy has also been known to bring tigers, camels, and elephants to the sanctuary for the annual Christmas pageant - all to attract new members. "It's a bit intriguing for members and visitors," he says. "It's important to keep things visual because people remember it."

As church attendance drops, Loy typifies how many ministers are turning to attractions beyond the sermons to fill pews.

To the churches, worship services with fancy food courts or glitzy entertainment are well worth it if they bring people into contact with the Bible.

Yet to others, the fanfare is more in line with Madison Avenue than Matthew or Moses, and cheapens religion.

Perhaps nowhere is the shift more meaningful than here in the South, where more people attend church on Sunday mornings than anywhere else in the country.

"Among rural Southerners, the church has continued to play a much larger role in community life than in the North and West, and thus rural Southerners remain the most faithful church attenders in the nation," says Glenn Firebaugh, a history professor at Penn State University.

But those numbers are dropping - in Dixie's urban areas, and even in the traditional country churches. In recent decades, Dr. Firebaugh says, rural Southerners appear less inclined to darken church doors just to follow their neighbors.

Church attendance, say theologians, declined in the past two decades for a variety of reasons. Young Southerners and their contemporaries around the United States have proven more likely to attend church out of "individual choice or in a spirit of volunteerism" than out of a sense of duty or tradition, says Firebaugh.

Baby boomers, by contrast, have sought out their own religions. Many of today's new churchgoers pondered heightened awareness in the 1960s, gravitated to gurus and self-actualization movements in the 1970s, and dabbled in New Age nostrums in the 1980s.

More recently, a more widespread interest in spirituality has grown, as have highly successful megachurches. But that hasn't necessarily translated into a broader interest in churches and organized religion nationwide.

Churches, however, have had some success attracting boomers and Generation X-ers by merchandising the gospel, a phenomenon that has crisscrossed the country and Dixie in recent years.

Indeed, churches in the South are realizing they program- and people-oriented incentives can be successful ways to fill their sanctuaries.

"When you have variety in a church, it adds to the experience," says Ann Weeks, a visitor to First Assembly of God on a recent Sunday. "I'm looking for a church that offers various elements - like the Millionaire game. It's not so much about denomination, but what I am getting out of the service.... I certainly don't want to be bored when I am sitting in a pew."

To keep people like Ms. Weeks returning, some churches in the South are turning up the hospitality, sending gift baskets filled with fresh bread and fruit to visitors after their visits. Other churches offer newcomers gift certificates to local restaurants.

The Fellowship of Las Colinas in Texas even makes sure to conclude its Sunday services in time for Dallas Cowboys football games. The games are then shown on a big screen outside the church as part of their post-worship fellowship.

Many churches are now also offering Saturday night services for late sleepers.

Perhaps the starkest move, though, is to simply pay people to attend church services.

In Bryan, Texas, the Rev. Rick Sebastian cruises around homeless shelters, cheap motels, and housing projects in a big blue bus emblazoned with this plea: "We will pay you $10 to come to church on our bus."

Mr. Sebastian defends his methods. "It gets them into church, and if we can get them into church where they can hear the word of God, their lives can be changed," he says.

Still, some theologians question such blatant tactics as misguided and improper.

"Our influence over men must not be human manipulation, but divine inspiration," says the Rev. Joseph Chambers of Paw Creek Ministries in Charlotte, N.C.

Others maintain that such incentives are part of a bigger trend of many churches turning more toward "side door" instead of "front door" evangelism.

In other words, they're sponsoring local clinics and workshops instead of going out to preach the gospel in order to make converts.

"You'll see church seminars on marriage enrichment, divorce recovery, dealing with grief," says Flavil Yeakley, director of church growth at Harding University in Searcy, Ark. "These days it's about building a relationship with each other as opposed to a higher being, which is often secondary."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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