Mainstream churches take a leap of faith into TV advertising

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

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.

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."

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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