Jim Overbaugh is well accustomed to the so-called “Christian Open House” phenomenon of Easter Sunday. Nationwide, church attendance typically swells by an average of 25 percent for the Christian celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.

Even by those standards, the Easter turnout at the Missoula Bible Church, where Overbaugh serves as pastor, tends to be eye-popping.

“We usually see a bump of somewhere between 400 and 800 (additional) people in attendance on Easter,” said Overbaugh, noting that typical Sunday morning attendance at the church on West Broadway is in the neighborhood of 200 parishioners.

Overbaugh welcomes the boom, but he also knows better than to take all the credit for the church’s special draw.

Many of those once-a-year visitors come instead for the drawing.

This Sunday, for the 15th time in as many years, the Missoula Bible Church will open its doors early for a special service, dubbed “RISEN.” Formerly known as Missoula’s Finest Hour, the event features all of the typical church trappings of an Easter Sunday service: There will be Sunday school lessons for the kids, a celebratory service with music and a sermon, and a social hour with light refreshments.

But then comes the main attraction: A lottery-style drawing in which kids in attendance can win everything from stuffed animals to paintball guns to one of three dozen brand-new bicycles.

Overbaugh said that he OK with the fact that some people come to the event with no intention of returning every week.

“Our goal is to be able to impact people with the love of God,” he said. “So I’m not concerned if they come in hopes of winning a bike and that’s their motive. That’s OK, because I’ll get the opportunity to share Christ with them at least for a few moments. It’s a fair exchange in my mind.”

***

The Missoula Bible Church isn’t the first church, locally or nationwide, to offer material goods in exchange for the opportunity to impact people spiritually.

Last year, the Calvary Church of Irving, Texas, held a drawing for 10 cars (including the pastor’s own Mercedes-Benz) as well as 1,000 bags of groceries at its Easter service. Two years ago, California’s Saddleback Church held a free Easter service at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, where the Jonas Brothers served as musical entertainment.

The book, “Make the Most Out of Your Easter Surge,” offers eight tips for churches to help fill pews on Easter Sunday. No. 6 on the book’s list of suggestions: “Give a Gift.”

Overbaugh said that the Missoula Bible Church’s approach to the giveaways is decidedly grassroots, with almost all of the items donated by church members. The church itself pitches in to fund other activities of the day, which include bounce houses, a candy grab and a visit by UM mascot Monte.

“We want the community to know that the people in this church love them,” said Overbaugh. “Our members are very active – thank God for volunteers, because that is ultimately what makes this whole event come together.”

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358, jnickell@missoulian.com or on NickellBag.com.

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