Church to give away cars, TVs at Easter services

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX Bay Area Fellowship, the largest church in Corpus Christi, is giving away flat-screen televisions, skateboards, Fender guitars, furniture and 15 cars -- yes, cars -- at its Easter services this week.

And even those who don't win big will walk away with something. The church has gathered donations for 15,000 gift bags, each with about $300 worth of free goods and services.

"We're going to give some stuff away and say, 'Imagine how great heaven is going to be if you feel that excited about a car,"' lead Pastor Bil Cornelius said. "It's completely free -- all you have to do is receive him."

He hopes the prizes will help Bay Area lure some people who don't normally go to church or those who have lapsed in their faith.

"A lot of people won't come to Easter services because they think, Well, I haven't been good,"' Cornelius said. "Well, that's not free. That's not what it's about. You don't have to be good' to come to church."

The prizes are meant as a metaphor for Cornelius' Easter message of what he calls the ultimate giveaway. Just as the prizes are free for the winners, so is heaven. But someone first had to pay for all the cars and furniture and TVs, as Jesus paid for peoples' sins.

"The ultimate giveaway is that Jesus gave his life for us," Cornelius said. "When we think about the spirit of giving, we always think about Christmas. But really the ultimate spirit of giving is Easter."

Cornelius, a laid-back pastor with spiky hair and bluejeans, has weathered criticism of his megachurch before. Some say its rock 'n' roll band, flashy lights and large size stray too far from Jesus' true message.

So he knows there's bound to be criticism of the giveaway plan.

"We know it's unconventional," he said. "We know some people of faith aren't going to agree with it."

Michael Emerson, a sociology professor at Rice University and co-director of its Institute for Urban Research, said "Wow" several times as Bay Area's giveaway was described to him. He said he had never heard of anything like it before.

"I never have, not to this extreme, not at all," Emerson said. "This is something."

He said some can criticize the plan for the same reasons they might megachurches in general.

"Another critique of the movement is they're extremely comfortable with consumer society," Emerson said, "whereas some believers would say, 'This is not who Jesus was, this was not what he taught."'

Cornelius also isn't aware of a church giveaway before on such a large scale. A search of news reports shows that the giant Lakewood Church in Houston, led by Joel Osteen, gave away $57,000 worth of donated Left Behind video games to its children's ministry last Easter. Another small church in Ohio plans to give away $500 to a member and to a guest this Easter.

Bay Area volunteers recently were busy detailing the cars and putting together bicycles. They had to cut a large space in the back of the chapel's stage for the cars to fit through during Easter services.

Bay Area raised all these donations in two weeks.

The idea started in a staff meeting at The Crossing church in Elk River, Minn. Lead Pastor Eric Dykstra was planning a series he called "Joy Ride," about the ultimate joy Jesus can bring. He wanted to use a car on stage to illustrate his point.

"As part of the series, we thought we should give away a car," Dykstra said. "We were just sitting in a meeting and thought, 'Why not?"'

The Crossing was able to secure one new car mostly donated by a dealership (with a little cash raised from members) and is working on another to give away.

Dykstra is part of a group of young pastors mentored by Cornelius. Dykstra mentioned the car to Cornelius during a meeting a few weeks ago.

"Then he calls me two days later and said, Hey, I think we're going to get several cars,"' Dykstra said. He's been inspired to try to gather more prizes for his members, but he doesn't expect to outdo Cornelius and Bay Area.

"He took our idea and he blew it up," Dykstra said, laughing. "It's not really a competition. It's more like he's going to win."

Cornelius asked church members to donate during services two weeks ago. The response since has been overwhelming. The plan was promoted as a $1 million giveaway, but the actual value is going to be much higher. The 15,000 gift bags alone are worth $4.5 million if all the goods and services are cashed in. The coupons have no cash value.

"Our people have been incredibly generous," Cornelius said. "We have people writing checks for cars for people they don't even know."

Among the 15 cars -- all used but with low mileage -- are an Audi A4, Jeep, Chevy Aveo, Mazda RX8, Volkswagen Jetta, two BMWs, Chevy Avalanche, Jaguar and two Mitsubishi Eclipses.

Bay Area leaders expect more than double their normal weekly attendance -- between 15,000 and 20,000 people -- for Easter services. One car will be given away at each of the main campus services and one at each of the church's satellite locations in Kingsville, Calallen, San Marcos and Alice.

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