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Mainstream churches take a leap of faith into TV advertising

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 16, 2004

There's a new kind of preaching on television. But this time the preachers are seeking their own salvation.

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Faced with little growth, or in some cases decades of declining membership, America's mainline denominations are set to pour hope and millions of dollars into TV advertising. A technique once regarded as distasteful self-promotion has become an accepted necessity to save aging buildings, costly pension plans, and the increasingly rare work of missionaries.

Two weeks ago, first-time commercials for the United Church of Christ (UCC) began airing in six areas from Sarasota, Fla., to Oklahoma City in a bid to boost name recognition and worship attendance before Easter. Monday, the Unitarian Universalist Association began a national campaign to buy airtime for their "Uncommon Denomination" ads, first tested in Kansas City last year. This summer, the United Methodist Church will hear proposals for expanding what has been a four-year, $18 million campaign to replenish dwindling congregations.

For church marketers, TV ads have been the missing link between congregations with much to offer and individuals in search of a place where they feel welcome.

"It may well be that the church we created in 1957 is just right for today's people, but they don't know we exist," said Ron Buford, coordinator of the UCC's campaign. "The medium for today is TV. You don't exist if you're not on TV."

Yet for scholars of church trends, the dawn of mass marketing suggests that quest for church unity has given way to an ethic of survival of the fittest.

"Ecumenism, which was the heartthrob of the mainlines, is just not where the action is anymore," said Darrell Whiteman, dean of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. "What you have here is catch up from the mainline [churches] saying, 'If we don't do something, we're not going to be here.'"

The numbers paint a picture of 40 years wandering in the wilderness of empty pews. Membership in the UCC, for instance, has dropped every year since 1965, from 2.1 million then to 1.3 million today. Methodists, known for heartfelt discipleship and care for the needy, can barely field a team of missionaries, whose ranks have thinned from 2,000 before 1950 to just 93 in 2004. Unitarians have seen what they term "modest" membership growth at 1 percent per year for the past decade.

Despite ever-slimming budgets, each of these three denominations hired professionals to market their denomination, through focus group research and targeted slogan-writing to strike a chord with the public. The religious body would be sold to the masses just like any other product except in one regard: This product would have to overcome a bigger than usual image problem.

"They [at the ad agency] told us they'd never had a product that conjured up so many negative feelings" as the idea of "church," Mr. Buford said. Many in focus groups said they'd felt hurt or rejected by the church, so "unconditional acceptance" became the target message.