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Churches spar with media over advertising

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 24, 2005

It doesn't mention God, or Jesus. But it does speak of finding "real truth" in a world of media noise and political spin. That was enough to keep the advertisement for a Bible out of Rolling Stone magazine.

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As religion moves more overtly into public life, its reception in the major media has not always been warm.

Churches and religious publishers reaching out to the "unchurched" - those who may be spiritually inclined but institutionally alienated - are finding that some media are rejecting their advertising dollars. The United Church of Christ (UCC) and the United Methodist Church (UMC) have been told "no," as has Zondervan, the leading Bible publisher.

Media outlets have the right to decide what they publish or broadcast, but religious groups say the media are practicing a form of censorship that is keeping them out of the marketplace of ideas. This is not fair, they say, nor does it fulfill the media's responsibility to the public.

"Persons are battered with thousands of images a day. It's important for the church to be able to provide images of hope, comfort, and a positive sense of meaning," says Steven Drachler, UMC communications director.

Zondervan saw Rolling Stone as "the perfect vehicle" to reach its target audience of young adults, aged 18 to 34, for the largest Bible launch in its history. In February, the firm introduces a new Bible translation, Today's New International Version (TNIV), in contemporary language.

"We learned in research that it was that age group that most resonated with the TNIV," says Doug Lockhart, Zondervan's vice president for marketing. "We are confused about the rejection, because we placed the ad with Rolling Stone last June, and it was clear it was a Bible ad."

The magazine refused a request for comment. Mr. Lockhart says Rolling Stone told Zondervan this month that the ad wasn't appropriate and that it didn't take ads for religious materials.

A recent Harris poll showed "that 59 percent of that age group believe the Bible is relevant to their lives," Lockhart adds. "That demonstrates that there's a misperception about how important a role the Bible plays." Zondervan ads will run in the satirical magazine The Onion; in Modern Bride; and on websites of MTV, VH1, and AOL.

Why churches want to advertise

In recent years, some mainline Protestant churches, which have seen declining attendance compared with their Evangelical cousins, have launched advertising campaigns to try to raise their visibility and identity.

The United Church of Christ last month rolled out a $28 million campaign to run through 2007, its 50th anniversary year. The first commercial was "geared to folks with no church home," says Barb Powell, UCC spokeswoman. "Focus groups told us ... that people felt alienated and rejected from organized religion." The 30-second ad emphasizes UCC inclusiveness: "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we."

But its depiction of a bouncer turning several people away from a church, including ethnically diverse individuals and two men holding hands, rubbed some the wrong way. NBC rejected it as "too controversial," and CBS said it "touches on one side of a current controversial issue ... the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman." The ad also was not acceptable "because it proselytizes."

ABC did not consider the ad because it has a longstanding policy not to accept any religious advertising.

The ad ran on several cable