BUFFALO, NY - What do you do when you are a downtown church in a changing neighborhood? What options do you have when you live in a city that is gradually losing population? What can be done when your church is dying a slow death, and there doesn't seem to be any fix for the problem?
Blizzard City Church, located in downtown Buffalo, seems to have found the answer. After years of gradually declining attendance, Blizzard City has been growing rapidly over the last 18 months. How is this happening? Pastor Wilson Hays told TBNN, "It must be a work of God. We can't understand it. We did start something new about a year and a half ago, but I don't think that is the primary reason for our unprecedented growth." Others, however, aren't so sure.
TBNN wanted to get to the bottom of this. We asked Pastor Hays, "What is this new strategy your church implemented?"
Hays responded, "Well, I wouldn't call it a strategy, but we did have a plan. We decided to make coming to church a better investment. Before we did this, we only had about 60 people in morning worship. That would yield a weekly offering of $1000-$1500. Now we have close to 600 in attendance, and our offering usually exceeds $22,000. Even if we give a little of that back to the folks, we still come out ahead, and so does God's kingdom."
We wondered what "give a little back to the folks" means. However, we could see that we weren't going to get a straight answer out of Pastor Hays, so we went elsewhere.
Nick Lewiston, a former member of Blizzard City, told us, "I left the church when I found out what was really going on. About 18 months ago, the church began to treat the offering as a raffle. The more money you put in the offering plate, the more chances you have to win."
"Win what?" we asked.
"Win the weekly drawing, or the 'Jackpot' as some call it. You see, for every $50 you put in the offering plate, the church puts a ticket with your name on it into a big hat that sits at the front of the church on the stage. At the end of the service the pastor pulls three tickets out of the hat. The three winners then split 10% of the offering. As far as I am concerned, it's scandalous!"
We needed confirmation to believe this. Annie Coleman, who is a recent addition to Blizzard City, shed some light on the situation for us. Coleman said, "The services are so exciting, and people give so liberally. We really are joyful givers. Everyone is so happy and excited to be there on Sundays. As the service moves along, the enthusiasm almost reaches a fever pitch. After the sermon, people are very anxious during the invitation. Honestly, it's hard to wait until the very end. And then they announce who wins. It's great!"
We asked, "Don't you see anything wrong with this?"
"Why?" responded Coleman. "At my former church, there was no excitement. Here, people love Jesus and are thrilled to meet together to worship Him. We also give a ton of money, much of which goes toward international missions. If the church gives a little bit back to the people, then that is just a bonus."
Blizzard City is reportedly in the process of buying a 60 acre plot of land in suburban Buffalo. Their $11 million building project is scheduled to begin in the spring.
According to Pastor Hays, "God is really blessing us. We have at least three new couples join each week. We are bursting at the seams. Last month we had to go to two services and two Sunday Schools. We desperately need that new building. What I am excited about is that we are going to be able to pay it off in cash. No debt at all - what an example to our people!"
It all sounds good at first. Still, some, including TBNN, find it all a bit murky.