Bay Area Fellowship, the largest church in Corpus Christi, gives away flat-screen televisions, skateboards, Fender guitars, furniture and 15 cars — yes, cars — at its Easter services.
And even those who don’t win big walk away with something. The church gathers 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.
Last week, Bay Area volunteers 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.
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.
A new satellite campus will open Easter Sunday at Cesar E. Chavez Academy on Corpus Christi’s Westside. That location will not have a car but will have between 200 and 300 bicycles for children.
The gift bags will include coupons for goods and services donated by local businesses, such as Corpus Christi Hooks tickets, a free night’s boarding at the Pooch Pad, a free chiropractic assessment and a free professional photography session and 8-by-10 print.
Cornelius wouldn’t allow discounts or coupons that require a purchase. Only purely free prizes.
The church’s children’s ministry will give away age-appropriate prizes for children.