Church uses gas buy-down to minister
ST. LOUIS—Motorists in northwest St. Louis County were pleasantly surprised last spring when they pulled into a Shell station and learned that their fuel cost would be 25 cents less per gallon than the advertised price.
Not only that, but attendants were on hand to pump their gas, wash their windshields, tell them about Jesus, and invite them to a new church that would hold its first worship service Easter Sunday.
The gas buy-down was the brainstorm of two church planters who were looking for a way to let area residents know about Real Life Church.
The Real Life crew served 350 cars and subsidized $1,100 worth of gas. Channel 11 covered the event and broadcast it on its evening news program.
Patrick Clough (pronounced Cluff) and Joel Burke came up with the idea, but they needed help in carrying it out. That came from Bayless Baptist Church, a nearby congregation with a mission of helping to birth new churches. Bayless’ help was in the form of financial assistance and hands to do the work.
Clough said the intention was to market the new church and have one big service on Easter. They had hoped to attract a large crowd and see who from that group was interested in being a part of the new church start.
The effort attracted 80 people to the Easter Sunday service, which was held in the ballroom of a motel-restaurant complex; but few were willing to take responsibility for helping to get the fledgling ministry on its feet.
It caused Clough and Burke to rethink their plan. “We have strategically moved from trying to build a crowd to trying to find believers in Christ with a pioneering spirit,” said Clough.
It also caused them to place a greater dependency on prayer. “We realized that we had to be flexible and that God’s timing is different from our timing,” he said.
Neither Clough nor Burke had intended to become church planters. As roommates at Greenville College in Illinois, they were majoring in mass communications and contemporary Christian music, respectively. During college, both felt led to change to ministry.
After graduation, Clough became a pastor in Illinois and Burke became a youth pastor in Aztec, N.M. Two years later, Clough was called to Aztec as music pastor. They served the church in New Mexico for four years, during which time they sensed God calling them to start a church in the St. Louis area.
Clough found the prospect of church planting frightening. He said he was looking for security, but God wouldn’t let him alone. Through much prayer, he came to the conclusion that church planting was where God was calling him. Burke felt the same calling.
The two moved their families to St. Louis with the blessing of the church. In fact, the Aztec church committed to sponsor the work in St. Louis for one year.
Clough became Real Life Church’s pastor, and Burke became its youth leader. Now they had to grow a church.
Although willing Christian workers were few, the monthly services were attracting lost people and those lost people were connecting with Christ. However, they needed Christians to teach and coach them.
In September, the church began Sunday night gatherings designed to build teams and share the vision. These gatherings were held at the St. Louis Metro Baptist Association building and have focused on worship, prayer, scripture, and fellowship.
In October, Real Life worked out an agreement with Westport Community Church to use its facilities for the monthly services and weekly gatherings, beginning the first week in November.
Darren Casper, associate executive director of church planting for the St. Louis Metro Baptist Association, has been watching and encouraging the life and growth of Real Life Church.
He said the agreement with Westport is one of the most exciting developments in the new church start. He is pleased that Westport members are willing to make the sacrifices to assist the new church in getting on its feet.
Casper is also impressed with Clough and Burke’s creativity. He said it has been helpful to other churches in the area. Following Real Life’s lead, several associations in the St. Louis area have mounted cooperative efforts to carry out a series of successful gas buy-downs.
That creativity spills over into illustrative methods in Real Life’s worship services. “People’s attention spans are short these days,” said Clough. “We have to package it in such a way that it will hold people’s attention. Joel and I work hard to present a sound message in creative ways.”
Those who are not comfortable with this type of worship are usually referred to Bayless Baptist Church, a more traditional church. In return, Bayless refers those who prefer a more contemporary approach.
Although Clough sees the two churches as being at opposite ends of the spectrum in style, he affirms that they are both biblically sound and doctrinally conservative.
The going is slower than Clough would have liked, but he’s not discouraged. “If you’re a results-driven person, it’s hard work because you don’t see it. You see little changes happening. You have to have passion in church planting. It’s the only thing that keeps you going.”
Much of Clough and Burke’s ministry time is spent in getting to know the people of the area. “We have no room to sit and get comfortable in an office,” said Clough. “Like missionaries, we have to be out in the context of the culture.”
While many church cultures might require their pastors to do business in suits and ties, the two find that jeans and tee shirts are more in line with the culture they are trying to reach.
“We have to meet people where they are and tell them how much Jesus loves them,” said Clough.