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Snellville First Baptist fuels members with $500 gas raffle
Minister to seniors James Lee, second from left, talks to congregant Larry Montgomery as Patsy Walsh, right, stands ready to hand out raffle tickets for free gasoline at First Baptist Church in Snellville Monday. - photo by Associated Press
   SNELLVILLE — So much for spaghetti suppers: The First Baptist Church of Snellville is fueling its membership drive with a sign in front of its sprawling campus proclaiming ‘‘Free Gasoline.’’
    There’s a catch, of course. The offer is a not a giveaway. Instead, each time newcomers or members attend a church event during a Sunday-to-Wednesday revival they get a pink raffle ticket for a chance to win one of two $500 gas cards.
    ‘‘We don’t know how far it will go with these soaring prices,’’ said Rusty Newman, the church’s senior pastor. ‘‘But it may make someone’s night.’’
    Newman’s congregation boasts roughly 9,000 members, but only about 2,500 regularly attend Sunday services.
    The church, like others, has long relied on special dinners and giveaways to draw in members, but elders wanted something a little more timely for this latest pitch.
    They set up a sign advertising the offer outside the church’s parking lot on a busy road near downtown Snellville, a traffic-clogged suburb northeast of Atlanta.
    ‘‘How can we capture those people?’’ asked James Lee, the church’s minister to seniors, who came up with the idea. ‘‘We’re strong in door-to-door evangelism, but there’s no way to reach them all.’’
    Soon the calls came flooding in. Church staffer Lisa Gauthier said she’s handled dozens of them each day, some from as far afield as Seattle. Radio show hosts in Oregon caught wind of the idea and invited Newman on air. So many inquiries came pouring in that Newman had to order a new phone line and dedicate a receptionist to answering each one.
    Newman views it as a service to the community, and he’s looked to the Bible for his endorsement. One passage he mentions to support his idea involves Jesus feeding 5,000 with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.
    ‘‘Some pastors have questioned our motives,’’ Newman said. ‘‘If it was just to get people in the building, it would be wrong. But we want to meet someone’s physical need and eternal spiritual needs.’’
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