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Mainstream churches take a leap of faith into TV advertising

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In a UCC spot that aired last week, two muscle-bound bouncers stand in front of a church where they decide who is "worthy" to enter. Then the tag line: "No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life's journey, you are welcome at a United Church of Christ congregation."

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This leap of faith into TV advertising reflects a notable attitude shift. Unlike their evangelical counterparts, these churches have taken a low-key approach to recruitment to show sensitivity toward others' religious beliefs.

"Unitarians have historically had the idea that, 'We're here, and if they want to find us, they'll find us,'" said the Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, director for congregational services and organizer of the ad campaign. "But now we're willing to make our presence known.... There's a feeling that this is our moment. We're not looking to draw people away from a religion that they find meaningful. But for those who are looking for something, we believe they will be more likely to find what they want and need if we are brave enough to tell them what we're about."

Still, to justify even the $212,600 spent on the Kansas City test project, Ms. Robinson-Harris has needed to show a bang for her buck. Her evidence: 100 people joined Unitarian churches in Kansas City last year as a result of the mass media campaign.

"If each [new member] contributes an average of $1,000 for FY04," Robinson-Harris writes in her cost-benefit analysis, "the total new income to the congregations is $100,000. In 16 to 18 months their contributions have more than 'paid back' the cost of the media buys."

Methodists report a 6 percent increase in worship attendance where ads have run during high seasons for newcomers: Lent, Advent, and back-to-school time. Some in the church harbor hopes for the "open hearts, open minds, open doors" message to steer viewers toward a better way of life.

"This gives the church a voice of public witness," said Larry Hollon, general secretary for United Methodist communications. "It provides an alternative on the screen to the culture of individual consumption that distorts human values and does not provide for those concerned with the spirit."

Not everyone, however, sees advertising as simply the newest form of the ancient practice of evangelism.

"This is not evangelism. This is marketing their brand" of Christianity, Mr. Whiteman said. "It's marketing a comfortable form of religion that won't cost you a lot but promises the church will be there for you in times of need."

In prior times, the notion of denominations as "brands" would have struck church officers as a pejorative swipe at their God-given mission, but no more. For a generation that responds better to brand identities than passé ideals of denominational loyalty, Buford says, branding is here to stay.

"Call it what you will, but churches have a brand," Buford said. "It may be that financial crisis has led us to look at this, but it's not unlike trouble that turns you to prayer. The urgency is not about church growth or raising money. It's about the individual who is committing suicide because they don't know there is a safe pasture someplace."

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