One way to get people to church on Sunday: Give away free cars

If the pastor had ever wanted to channel his inner Oprah, this was his chance.

“You ready to give a car away?” Stephen Chandler boomed into his microphone, bouncing in his boots at the altar Sunday.

And then the pastor did it again. And later that day, he would do it again. And again. Five free cars in all, handed out to the lucky winners at Destiny Church in Columbia, Md., on Sunday.

“We were just going for something you would not expect a church to do,” Chandler said. “This is something you would not expect a church to do.”

It was part marketing ploy – but also theology, Chandler said. Randomly giving away cars to people who show up to worship demonstrates God’s unbelievable, no-strings-attached goodness, Chandler preached.

And it sure helps get people in the door on a Sunday morning.

The free-car promotion was Destiny Church’s out-of-the-box idea for drumming up attendance at its first official Sunday in its new location, a building in a Columbia strip mall that the seven-year-old nondenominational church recently moved into after several years meeting in a high school auditorium.

The predominantly African-American church normally draws 1,000 to 1,100 attendees each Sunday, Chandler said. This week, the 2,250 tickets the church gave away online for three services all filled up in advance; the church added a fourth service.

The overwhelming response meant they had to add another car so they could raffle off one at each service and donate one more to a family in need. So out the pastors went again to the used-car dealership, to buy another vehicle.

Sandy Dobson came with her 13-year-old son, Alex. They recently moved to Columbia from Michigan to be closer to family, and she noticed the advertisement for the church giving away cars. (“That’s right, we’re not just giving one car away, we’re GIVING AWAY THREE CARS,” the mass mailing blared, before three grew into five.)

“We were super excited. There really is a car! It’s at the front door,” Dobson said after seeing the first car with its huge red dealership bow. “Who doesn’t need a new car? Different people have different things that bring them to Christ, to church. It doesn’t always have to be traditional methods.”

Angella Cole, who works an overnight shift as a nurse in Baltimore, said a friend of hers who volunteers at Destiny Church has long been trying to persuade her to come to the 9 a.m. service on her way home from work in the morning. This time, the friend tried to lure Cole with the potential of winning a car, and for the first time, it worked.

“She said I could win a car. I said, ‘I already have one,’ ” Cole said as she settled into her seat at the church. “She said, ‘Well, it’s not gonna hurt.’ ”

If she had won, Cole said, she would have tried to trade in both cars to buy her dream ride, a 2018 Chevy Equinox, or would perhaps have given the prize car to her sister.

Cole wasn’t sure about the soundness of leading people to salvation by means of a raffle, but she is looking for a church to join and was willing to give this a try.

“It’s a stretch. But I mean, if that’s what it takes nowadays – in the new age, you gotta come up with some kind of gimmick or incentive or whatever,” she said. “It’s a good way to get people’s attention. Should they do this every week? I doubt it.”

Destiny Church’s bylaws call for the congregation to give away 10 percent of the tithes that come in each year. Chandler said the church typically donates the money to charity, including homeless shelters. This year, they spent the money buying the five used cars: a Chevy Cruze, a Dodge Journey, a Ford Escape, a Nissan Sentra and a Toyota Corolla. He declined to say how much was spent on the cars.

The church asked people to send in stories about why they needed a car, and it received more than 60 submissions that Chandler described as “heartbreaking.” But only one of those cars was given to a needy family – a couple raising four children who need to drive their 20-year-old daughter to Pennsylvania for medical treatments because she’s suffering from liver and kidney failure. The other four cars were raffled off at random.

“I think the idea of generosity is not just something that applies to people that are in need,” Chandler said. “We truly care about this community, whether you’re in financial straits or whether you’re in a good season of your life. We don’t just care about the hurting. We care about every single person.”

The Bible teaches that giveaways are a surefire way to attract a crowd, Chandler argued: The largest audiences Jesus spoke to, he said, came the two times he started distributing free loaves and fishes.

Chandler tried, in his sermon, to explain why giving away cars makes for good theology.

“The response that we got, overwhelmingly, was one thing. It wasn’t, ‘Wow, that’s generous.’ It wasn’t, ‘Ooh, I hope I get a car.’ It was, ‘All right, what’s the catch? Sounds like a scam,’ ” he preached. “There’s just certain things that come across as too good to be true.”

Much of the Christian message also sounds too good to be true, he said: that the God of the universe cares about each individual’s life; that all it takes to receive forgiveness for your sins is to ask Jesus for it.

“Here’s my prayer for you: that you would understand that it’s not too good to be true. That God does see you. That God does know you.”

And then he made an unusual announcement of the weekly offering, as the buckets for donations started going around the room: “Give unto God. And then we’re going to give away a car.”

Zai Chandler, his wife and co-pastor, read the winning name: “Janqueshia Gay!”

Gay, a 27-year-old member of the church, said later that her car’s lease was about to end and she hadn’t been sure what she would do about transportation to work and school.

She came out to the parking lot crying and shaking. “God is amazing. I love my God. My God never fails me,” she said through her tears.

Then she sat down, weak-kneed, in the driver’s seat.