Let there be gasoline

The Baltimore Sun

Forget knocking on doors or preaching on street corners. Some churches are trying a new approach to spreading the word of God: pumping gas.

Middle River Baptist Church in Baltimore County, for example, plans to subsidize gas prices by 50 cents per gallon for three hours at a BP gas station Monday, and volunteers will clean windshields and check oil. The offer comes with no strings attached - but if it attracts some drivers to Sunday services, so much the better, church leaders say.

Consumers are used to seeing appeals from car dealers, hotels and auto rental agencies offering free or cheap gas. But now a handful of churches around the country have discovered they, too, can market themselves using consumers' anxieties over high fuel costs.

Middle River Baptist's pastor, the Rev. Don Satterwhite, said he got the idea from several New Jersey churches that tried to help consumers pinched by high fuel prices a few years ago.

"We're all experiencing a great deal of displeasure at the pump," Satterwhite said. "We have some resources that have been made available to us to give people some temporary relief."

The Soul Factory, a Forestville church, gave away $10 worth of free gas in 2006 and $5 last month, according to news reports. Churches in Ohio, Georgia and Missouri have also tried variations on that theme.

Such efforts are "a new twist on an old pattern," said Ronald Crandall, dean of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. Giving away gas, car washes or cold drinks at a Fourth of July event are usually considered "pre-evangelism," Crandall said.

The theologian said giving away gas might be a goofy - and expensive - example of an outreach program. But the idea behind it is the same as those successfully used by various commercial enterprises: promoting themselves by acknowledging people's frustration over high fuel costs.

The Internet-based travel agency Expedia.com, for example, will give you a $50 prepaid gas card if you book a three-night hotel stay by today; some bed-and-breakfasts have a similar offer. Hertz offers a free tank of gas for rental car reservations through June 30. And after sales were down 23 percent in April compared with last year, Chrysler set up a fixed-rate gas plan, promising new owners $2.99 a gallon for the first three years.

The offers have become so common that consumer advocates have issued warnings. Jeff Bartlett, a deputy editor at Consumer Reports Online, says people should not react to the hysteria over rising gas prices by jumping at gas incentives, particularly for a long-term purchase such as a new car. Consumers should research all factors that affect value.

"The American public is really feeling the pain at the pump, and these types of offers do reach out to them on an emotional level and directly impact their immediate finances," he said. However, "People should look at the long-term costs. ... If you rush into a rash decision, you may find it actually hurts you more than it helps you in the long run."

Churches, of course, say they are asking for nothing in return - at least nothing of monetary value. "We're not here to take from them but to give to them," Satterwhite said.

"They don't even have to talk to us. We're just going to give them the gas and say, 'God bless you.'"

First Baptist Church of Snellville, Ga., gave church members or visitors one raffle ticket for every night they attended a revival this month. The top prizes were two $500 gas cards.

"It was our opportunity to get to know them and present the Gospel," said the Rev. Rusty Newman, the church's senior pastor. Although the church focuses on serving others, he said, he believes Jesus "cares for more than their temporary needs and temporary pleasures in life - he cares about their eternity."

On Mother's Day, Spirit of Faith Christian Center gave away $25 gas cards along with its usual cash gifts to 100 mothers - members and visitors - at its three locations, including Ellicott City.

"The price has just been outrageous," said Elder Tim McLean, its director of partnership services.

Middle River Baptist's plan is part of Embrace Baltimore, a multiyear initiative of the Baltimore Baptist Association, 69 churches that are part of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The "Gas Buy-Down" is Middle River Baptist's first major Embrace Baltimore event. The church will also offer free or low-cost music, basketball and creative arts camps this summer. Other churches are planning health clinics or block parties.

It's done "to try to connect with people in the community, just to say we care," said Mitch Dowell, Embrace Baltimore's associate executive director.

The more than 1,000 members of Middle River Baptist are not eligible for the discount themselves.

The church is working with Mohammad Hamid, who owns the BP station at Compass and Middle River roads. Hamid said he is happy to participate and will change the price-of-gas sign out front as well as on each of his four pumps. The church will reimburse him for the subsidy.During the gas buy-down from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., traffic will be directed into the station from Compass Road and exit on Middle River Road, Hamid said. Only vehicle tanks will be filled - no portable containers - and the station does not sell diesel fuel.

"I'm more than happy to do that, because it's a lot of help," he said. "Everyone is complaining" about high gas prices, even Hamid.

But the demand might be overwhelming. Motorists started lining up at 6:30 a.m. when North Point Church in Springfield, Mo., offered a gas discount of more than $1 per gallon earlier this month, said Greg Marquart, the church's director of church ministries.

The original plan was to subsidize gas for 52 minutes, but they ended up pumping more than 4,000 gallons to nearly 500 vehicles over three hours. Some of the cars ran out of gas during the wait and had to be pushed up to the pumps.

Marquart said the program was not a membership drive; volunteers did not give out information about the church or put up banners. That might have piqued curiosity, he said.

Jesus often cured the sick, alleviating their most pressing worry and freeing them to hear his message, Marquart said. In the same way, events like these respond to the immediate needs of consumers - which may prompt them to inquire further about the church's mission and teachings.

"They're asking the questions instead of us telling them," he said.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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