Archive for Saturday, May 30, 2009

Struggling churches turn to ad campaigns

May 30, 2009


— Shrinking mainline Protestant denominations are turning to marketing to help stem decades of membership losses and stay afloat.

The United Methodist Church recently unveiled a $20 million rebranding effort aimed at attracting younger members to the large but diminishing Protestant group. The new ads will appear over the next four years as part of the denomination’s “Rethink Church” campaign.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has invested nearly $1.2 million over the past two years launching a similar branding effort based on the theme, “God’s Work, Our Hands.”

The denominations are trying to bounce back from losses that began in the mid-1960s.

From 1990 to 2008 alone, mainline Protestants dropped from 18.7 percent to 12.9 percent of the population, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.

The United Methodist Church now has just under 8 million members in the U.S., with about 3.5 million additional adherents overseas. The median age for a United Methodist is 57, according to the Rev. Larry Hollon, the denomination’s chief communications executive.

The new ads highlight the opportunities for involvement within Methodist churches — from helping feed the poor to volunteering with youth basketball leagues in low-income neighborhoods, reflecting research that found young people are especially interested in service projects.

“We need to refocus on young people and provide them an opportunity to be a part of the church,” Hollon said. “What we’re hearing is they say, ’Belief connects to how I live my daily life.’ If I say I value people because I’m a religious person, then I have to demonstrate that in concrete ways. It’s walking the walk, not just talking the talk.”

One of the 30-second ads, posted at, asks, “What if church wasn’t just a building, but thousands of doors, each of them opening up to a journey that could actually change the world? Would you come?”

Another ad shows children reading books and asks, “What if church was a literacy program for homeless children? Would you come?”

Scott Hendrickson, a marketing director for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has about 4.7 million members, said his denomination’s marketing isn’t targeted to new members but current ones. The ads, at, have run on cable TV channels and in other media outlets that serve large populations of Lutherans.

Like the Methodist ads, they feature church members helping others. One shows a Senegal Lutheran mission teaching women how to start their own businesses.

“Through them (current members) they will encourage others to come join the church,” Hendrickson said. “We wanted to reach the current members to communicate ... what we do, what our mission is.”

The denominations are suffering partly because Americans overall are less interested in belonging to a specific church. Nondenominational churches are gaining, and the ranks of the unaffiliated are growing.

Other potential factors behind the losses are the intense public fights in several Protestant groups about whether to ordain gays who live openly with partners. Some theological conservatives also contend that traditional churches often fare better because they demand more of members and create a stronger sense of community. Liberal Protestants reject that argument, contending their congregations also have strong fellowship.

Charles Mathewes, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and editor for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, said that instead of new marketing campaigns, mainline denominations could become more popular among young people by making worship more accessible and offering youth-centered programs.

Mathewes said the ads “might draw in some people, but at the same time it’s unlikely to accomplish what they want.”


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 10 months ago

The problem for the mainstream churches is that those who are attracted to rational thought give up on religion altogether, and those who need or want superstitious claptrap are going to gravitate to evangelical/fundamentalist churches who know that the wackier their message, the better.

Fred Whitehead Jr. 8 years, 10 months ago

And herein lie the dirty little secret that the Republican Party has not yet come to grips with. People are disgusted with religious extremeism, be it Christian or Muslim. Those that continue to try to verify their prejudices and bigotry with the manipulation of religious doctrine are destroying the ground they stand on. I have belonged to a major denomination church for most of my 65 years and the stunning changes in their approach to the nature of the Divine Power of the Universe (call it wnat you may) has been a major concern of mine. Churches that have turned to commercialism have lost the way. Churches that seek to address social problems by altering tradition are in serious trouble. But the most distressing problem I see is the exculsion of those persons who do not believe as you do. And those churches that keep saying they have open doors, and open minds, still practice a great deal of this exclusion, regardless of what they print in their documentation. This has created the most dis-association with religion. "If you do not believe as I do, you are going to Hell". I am sure that stupid statement has turned off most of the disaffected people in regard to their perception of religion. Negativity never accomplished anything. Jesus said to love one another, not hurl insults and threats.

Confrontation 8 years, 10 months ago

Shouldn't "God" be guiding people to these churches? Yeah, that's what I thought.

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