Photos by Scott Barbour (left) and Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

If it's true that the Utah economy trails national trends by a few months or even a year, churchgoers in the Beehive State may yet see an innovation that's gained popularity back East: free gas if you show up in the pews on Sunday.

While several church officials here say they haven't seen any direct impact of gas prices in terms of shrinking attendance or fewer dollars in the collection plate, clergy in some other states are using fuel as an incentive for potential worshippers.

Maranatha Church in Mont Belvieu, Texas, and St. Ann's Church in West Bridgewater, Mass., are two of the most recent congregations to adopt new ways to provide fuel for the soul (and the tank).

A story published earlier this month in The Baytown Sun described how Maranatha Church leaders made the offer to everyone in the community, including non-church participants: show up before any of the church's 10:45 a.m. Sunday services through July and August for a free raffle ticket. Entrants must be at least 16 years old, and the tickets will be submitted in a drawing to win free gas.

"The July drawing will be for two $500 gas cards, while the four August dates will give one $250 gas card per drawing. Entrants must be present to win," the story said, though the pastor said his goal was helping the community at large, rather than boosting attendance.

Church leaders in Massachusetts adopted a similar program, offering a drawing twice a month at the end of each weekend Mass for a $50 gas card. The pastor of St. Ann's, the Rev. Edward McDonagh, told GateHouse News Service his idea was based "on a Providence bishop providing public transportation coupons to assist parishioners in attending Mass.

"For most of us, church is a short drive, and that's where most of our gas goes, on short drives," the Rev. McDonagh said. "This is a way of showing our concern for one another in this economy, because we're all in the same boat."

In Chesapeake, Va., Bishop E.W. Jackson Sr. of Exodus Faith Ministries said he saw a drop-off in attendance earlier this year, so he started giving out gas cards to attendees who had trouble making their way to church because of high gas prices. The bishop told "Good Morning America" he decided to do it because "people are hurting."

The moves come after similar offers by churches months ago in South Carolina, Iowa, Tennessee and Arizona, before gas topped $4 per gallon.

While a report out earlier this week showed Utah gas prices are among the highest in the country, several area church leaders told the Deseret News they haven't seen any direct impact on their congregations — at least not yet.

Eric Winter, director of outreach and operations at K2 The Church, said attendance is a bit down in recent weeks, "but it's summer, and I feel like it's not down more than what we would expect for the summer. Certainly you hear people talk about it in general conversation, but I haven't heard anything I could directly relate to gas prices."

The church, located just off 2100 South near 200 West, often attracts two or three people each week who walk in off the street in need of financial help just by virtue of its location, Winter said. The fact that the church is located near a TRAX station may help those who attend make it without undue expense, and Winter said he has seen more motorcycles and scooters parked outside the building during services in recent weeks.

One vendor involved with a church remodeling project told him they may have to charge more because of fuel costs, but that's the only indication he's had, Winter said.

The Rev. Mike Imperiale of First Presbyterian Church said he doesn't think attendance there has been severely affected. "It may have been some, but I haven't heard of it directly. Obviously the whole economy will affect all of us as it changes. As with many churches, we have a small endowment that is invested, and it's been taking hits all summer. On paper it just goes down, but we know we're in it for the long haul."

He said the church hasn't canceled or consolidated any programs and is "pretty much where we usually are this time of year with collections. There's really nothing out of the ordinary."

Colleen Gudreau, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said she hasn't heard any discussion of the issue at all within her offices, "not even any scuttlebutt in the hallways. If it was a major problem, we would have been talking about it."

First Unitarian Church discussed higher fuel prices, and some alternatives, during its most recent summer forum series event last Sunday. Titled, "The Maize Maze: Complexities of Corn and Alternative Fuel Vehicles," it featured discussion of whether "rising gas prices and deteriorating air quality in the valley are making you rethink the currently available alternatives in auto transportation?

"This presentation will attempt to help you make an informed decision before you invest in hybrid, ethanol, natural gas or bio-diesel vehicles," the church's Web site announcement said. "Learn about vehicle costs, alternative fuel costs, miles per gallon and emissions quality."

Greg Johnson, leader of a group of local evangelical churches called Standing Together, said he's been meeting with local church leaders throughout the summer and the topic hasn't even come up, though they've seen a "definite dip in giving through the summer."

His ministry is feeling the pinch "pretty significantly" he said, as most people give first to their own church before they donate to larger, parachurch organizations like his. "We're hoping the economy will turn upward."

The financial squeeze has put at least one local church building project on hold, when two of the heavy contributors behind the endeavor found themselves squeezed in their real estate businesses.

As for Johnson's thoughts on churches offering free gas for attendance?

"What we'll do to get them to Jesus."


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