I have written before of a church planter who took out an ad in the newspaper offering to pay people $100 to attend his church. Today he has changed his philosophy and is quite embarrassed by his attempts at church growth no matter the cost. It’s sad but true that even good folks can get caught up in some unsound thinking regarding these things.
Many gimmicks have been tried to get people to attend a church’s services. One congregation raffled off a five-hundred-dollar gift card for gasoline. A fast-growing church in my own area advertised free raffle tickets to the first one hundred newcomers who showed up at their Easter service. The winner of the drawing would receive a new car. Another church in my area had added a new service time and offered free popcorn to anyone who would attend the new service, thus making room for other worshipers in the other services.
As churches in an area feel they must compete with each other, they begin to offer special perks to attract attenders. One church starts serving Starbucks coffee on Sunday mornings, and before you know it other churches in town are doing the same. Not only is this seen as a good thing, some would say it constitutes being relevant and hospitable.
I’m not objecting to serving good coffee but I do see danger in the spirit of competition that these tactics reveal. And I don’t mind when my local movie theater offers special deals with free popcorn to get me to become a loyal customer. After all it is a business competing for my dollar. But when the church, feeling the need to compete for attendees and their offerings, adopts the way of the world, we are in trouble. Some churches have exiting pastors sign a “noncompetition contract,” so they will not start a church within a certain distance of the one they leave. This is how far we have ventured into a capitalistic Christianity that treats church like a business, service like a product, and people like customers.
I know of one leader who left a megachurch in Southern California, which had thirty-five hundred in attendance each week, to plant a church in another community. The church plant went from zero to almost three hundred people in just a couple of years, which should be considered phenomenally successful. Unfortunately, the church planter’s model of success was a church of more than three thousand people. His church plant also happened to be in the shadow of Saddleback at the same time as its dramatic growth. The church planter felt like a failure and resigned.