COLUMBIA, Md. - If the pastor ever wanted to channel his inner Oprah, this was his chance.
"You ready to give a car away?" Stephen Chandler boomed into his microphone, bouncing in his boots at the altar Sunday.
And then he did it again. And later that day, he would do it again. And again. Five free cars in all, handed out to the lucky winners at Destiny Church.
"We were just going for something you would not expect a church to do," Chandler said. "This is something you would not expect a church to do."
It was part marketing ploy but also theology, Chandler said. Randomly giving cars to people who show up to worship demonstrates God's unbelievable, no-strings-attached goodness, Chandler preached.
And it sure helps get people in the door on a Sunday morning.
The free-car promotion was Destiny Church's out-of-the-box idea to drum up attendance at its first official Sunday in its new location, a building in a strip mall that the 7-year-old nondenominational church moved into after years of meeting in a high school auditorium.
The predominantly African-American church normally draws 1,000 to 1,100 attendees, Chandler said. This week, the 2,250 tickets given away online filled all three services in advance; the church added a fourth service.
The overwhelming response meant they had to add a car , too, so they could raffle off one at each service and donate one to a family in need. So out the pastors went again to the used-car dealership.
Sandy Dobson came with her 13-year-old son, Alex. She noticed the advertisement: "That's right, we're not just giving one car away, we're GIVING AWAY THREE CARS," the mass mailing blared, before three grew into five.
"We were super excited. There really is a car! It's at the front door," Dobson said after seeing the first car with its huge red dealership bow. "Who doesn't need a new car? Different people have different things that bring them to Christ, to church. It doesn't always have to be traditional methods."
Angella Cole said a friend who volunteers at Destiny Church long had been trying to persuade her to come to the 9 a.m. service on her way home from work. This time, the friend lured Cole with the chance to win a car.
"She said I could win a car. I said, 'I already have one,'" Cole said as she settled into her seat at the church. "She said, 'Well, it's not gonna hurt.'"
Had she won, Cole said, she would have tried to trade in both cars to buy a 2018 Chevy Equinox or might have given the prize car to her sister.
Cole wasn't sure about the soundness of leading people to salvation by a raffle, but she is looking for a church to join and was willing to give this a try.
"It's a stretch. But I mean, if that's what it takes nowadays - in the new age, you gotta come up with some kind of gimmick or incentive or whatever," she said. "It's a good way to get people's attention. Should they do this every week? I doubt it."
Destiny Church's bylaws call for the congregation to give away 10 percent of its tithes. Chandler said the church typically donates the money to charity, including homeless shelters. This year, they spent it buying the used cars: a Chevy Cruze, a Dodge Journey, a Ford Escape, a Nissan Sentra and a Toyota Corolla. He wouldn't say how much they cost.
The church asked people to send in stories about why they needed a car, and it received more than 60 "heartbreaking" submissions, Chandler said. But only one car was given to a needy family - a couple raising four children who need to drive their 20-year-old daughter to Pennsylvania for treatments for liver and kidney failure. The other four cars were raffled off at random.
"I think the idea of generosity is not just something that applies to people who are in need," Chandler said. "We truly care about this community, whether you're in financial straits or whether you're in a good season of your life. We don't just care about the hurting. We care about every single person."
The Bible teaches that giveaways are a surefire way to attract a crowd, Chandler argued: Jesus drew his largest audiences when he distributed free loaves and fishes.
Chandler tried, in his sermon, to explain why giving away cars makes for good theology.
"The response that we got, overwhelmingly, was one thing. It wasn't, 'Wow, that's generous.' It wasn't, 'Ooh, I hope I get a car.' It was, 'All right, what's the catch? Sounds like a scam,' " he preached. "There's just certain things that come across as too good to be true."
Much of the Christian message also sounds too good to be true, he said: that the God of the universe cares about each individual's life, that all it takes to receive forgiveness for your sins is to ask Jesus for it.
"Here's my prayer for you: that you would understand that it's not too good to be true. That God does see you. That God does know you."