Thursday, October 20, 2005

Mainline Protestant denominations, whose numbers have plummeted in recent decades, are resorting to catchy ad campaigns and creating a brand identity to establish themselves in the public consciousness.

So far, they have been successful. The 1.3-million-member United Church of Christ, America’s most liberal Protestant denomination, saw the amount of yearly hits on its Web site ( quintuple from 950,000 to 5 million after a 30-second TV ad last year that showed two muscular male bouncers blocking a church entrance.

“Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we,” flashed a text across the screen. Reaction to the $1.5 million campaign so pleased denominational officials that the UCC plans to premiere a second edgy ad on a similar theme: The UCC includes people who might be denied entrance to most other churches.

These include interracial couples, homosexuals, prisoners, and parents with autistic children, said Ron Buford, who oversees the “God is Still Speaking” campaign that produced both ads.

“What we didn’t expect were the people who said, ‘I didn’t believe God’s grace was available to me. Now it is,’” he said.

In 1972, the UCC was the first mainline denomination to ordain an openly homosexual pastor.

It had planned to start the second ad on Dec. 1. However, because of a $700,000 funding shortfall related to hurricane relief, the ad campaign has been deferred to February.

Ad branding is one of the newer wrinkles in the religion marketplace, especially for mainline Protestant groups looking for new adherents.

Although evangelical Christian groups have boomed since the 1960s, mainline Protestant denominations have hemorrhaged members because of differences over women’s ordination, issues surrounding homosexuality, biblical interpretations and the importance of evangelism.

After the UCC unearthed, through market research, an undercurrent of alienation among unchurched Americans toward church in general, it began playing up themes of inclusivity and acceptance.

“I consider ourselves evangelical, too,” Mr. Buford said, “but for a different market segment.”

But the TV ad with the bouncer, which had connotations of the church welcoming homosexuals and same-sex couples, was rejected last year by ABC, NBC and CBS networks.

The rejections, however, provided an avalanche of welcome publicity for the denomination, which expects a similar fallout this year, because ABC and CBS have rejected the second ad. “CBS told us it was too controversial,” Mr. Buford said. ABC said it runs no religious ads, he added.

But NBC and 14 cable networks ran spots from a $20 million campaign by the United Methodist Church from 2001 to 2004. In 160 test churches, first-time attendance rose 14 percent in the denomination and overall worship attendance rose by 6 percent.

On Aug. 29, the 8.2-million-member UMC began a monthlong $2 million ad campaign as the first installment of a $25 million plan for cable TV and newspaper ads, and Times Square billboard ads through 2008.

“The mainline denominations wanted to provide a unique identity and establish our public visibility across the nation,” said the Rev. Larry Hollon, general secretary of United Methodist Communications. “We looked at whether people join a denomination or whether they affiliate with people of similar values who are searching for a relationship with God.

“We found they join with people who express ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors,’ the UMC’s brand promise,” he said.

The Episcopal Diocese of Washington is spending $9,000 for the theater ads that appear several times before the start of a movie. Images direct viewers to, a diocesan Web site that includes information on various churches, links to their sites, articles about worshipping in an Episcopal church and a short on-line movie about the diocese.

One ad shows a man wearing a dunce cap in a curled-up position atop a question mark beneath a headline: “Because Having Questions is not a Sin.”

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