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Church's Hummer prize too worldly?

Clergy debate whether it's better to draw the flock with such a grand giveaway or a personal relationship.

By KEVIN GRAHAM
Published January 10, 2005


TAMPA - Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne stands in the pulpit, preaching the promise of Malachi 3:10 over shouts of hallelujahs and amens.

God can rain down blessings, he says in his native South African accent, until "there shall not be room enough to receive it."

Someone apparently will need room enough in the driveway for a blessing the pastor plans to give away during the revival: A 16-by-10-foot H2 Hummer.

Revival Ministries International will give away a yellow, 2003 H2 Hummer during its Winter Campmeeting, which began Sunday and runs through Jan. 16. The weeklong program features Howard-Browne as the keynote speaker at the River at Tampa Bay, the church he and wife Adonica founded in December 1996.

Church officials declined to comment about the giveaway, saying they didn't want any publicity. Local clergy who spoke about the Hummer either liked the idea or hated it.

"I think it's an excellent idea," said Randy White, televangelist and senior pastor of Without Walls International Church, one of the fastest growing congregations in Tampa with 18,000 members. "If this were MTV or any other secular market or organization, there wouldn't even be anything written about it. I applaud Rodney."

White said that his church has given away homes and paid electric bills for a full year to those attending his services. "It's a bait on the hook to get people in to hear the message," he said.

White readily admits that his approach to religion and preaching can seem controversial. It's to be expected, he said. He's had strip club owner Joe Redner in his pulpit.

"And I've had Bubba the Love Sponge call me his pastor," White said.

W. James Favorite, pastor of Beulah Baptist Church, a congregation of about 600, said churches have given up on simple person-to-person relationships. There's no need for such incentives, he said. Pastors should simply ask people to join them.

"I'm a firm believer that the word of God is what gets folks to come to church," Favorite said. "I don't want to judge anybody's ministry on how they go about getting folks to come, but I thinks it's rather cheap to suggest that you can con folks into coming to church."

According to the official drawing rules and regulations for the Hummer on Revival Ministries International's Web site, www.revival.com people had the chance to register to win the vehicle between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2004. Those eligible for the drawing included first-time visitors to select services at the River during 2004, church members who brought first-time visitors, Bible students, and people who filled out one of several surveys.

The Web site listed two other prizes to be given during the Winter Campmeeting: a scooter and a Play Station. A 2003 H2 Hummer, listed as the "grand prize," is registered to Revival Ministries International, according to the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles. A 2005 H2 Hummer can retail for more than $50,000.

The Campmeeting at the River will double as a celebration of 25 years in the ministry for Howard-Browne. He began pastoring in his native South Africa when he was 18 and calls himself the "Holy Ghost bartender." Howard-Browne is known for spells of holy laughter, where followers are so drunk with the Holy Spirit they fall on the floor in hysterics.

During the summer of 1999, Howard-Browne preached a 24-night crusade at Madison Square Garden in New York City. His congregants have been known to flood the streets of Ybor City on Friday nights, offering free prayer instead of free beer.

Before moving to their current location at 3738 River International Drive, where Drive Time Car Sales used to be off Interstate 75 and the Mango exit, Howard-Browne's congregation did a stint worshiping in the Sun Dome at the University of South Florida.

He told churchgoers on the first Sunday of the new year that 2005 would be the year of blessings. For one person, that begins with a Hummer.

"It's a great idea. Ingenious," said Randy Brummit, pastor of Brandon Assembly of God with about 400 members. "If I could give away a car a week, we would."

But have churches become too secular in their attempts to attract worshipers?

"Religion is trying to fit in," said Dell deChant, a University of South Florida religious studies instructor who teaches a class called Religion and Popular Culture. "Does it fit in by trying to utilize the tools and techniques of a secular society? Or does it fit in by standing out, and saying here's how we're different? Our culture allows for both."

DeChant said a scripture in the Bible warns Christians "to be in the world, but not of it."

"Critics would say (giving away a Hummer) is a little too much of the world," deChant said.

Marc S. Sack, rabbi for Congregation Rodeph Sholom, with more than 500 members, said he would rather see the River give away a more economical vehicle.

"I think Hummers are morally questionable," Sack said. "At a time when Americans think about conserving energy resources, I don't think we should be encouraging or celebrating a vehicle that is the ultimate gas guzzler."

But White, from Without Walls, said churches in the Tampa Bay area have to compete with nearby amusement parks and beaches. Concerts offer million-dollar pyrotechnics, he said.

"We'll have a candle," White said. "It's just sad where the church hasn't stepped up."

White plans to have Rhythm and Blues songstress Mary J. Blige at Without Walls for the Super Sunday service on Super Bowl Sunday. White says he's working to get hip-hop stars Usher and Mace to also attend a service. Churches, he said, should be on the cutting edge.

"What would Jesus do?" asked White, pausing to recite a Bible text from John 14. "If you live right, you get a mansion. That's a pretty good incentive. It's better than a Hummer."

--Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or 813 226-3433.

[Last modified January 10, 2005, 06:21:35]


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