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Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Please come to our church!

bouncer.jpgThe Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that three denominations have launched major TV ad campaigns. The United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the United Methodists are taking to the airwaves in the hope that they can build some brand recognition and reverse declining memberships and the economic pressures that come with it.

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.

("Mainstream churches take a leap of faith into TV advertising," G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Christian Science Monitor 3.16.04)

I have to point out, however, that contrary to the claims in the article, the Unitarian Universalist Association did not launch a national ad campaign this week, although it has prepared ad materials for regional and local use. I can't find a link to its TV ads. And although I don't personally fancy the Unitarian Universalist "Uncommon Denomination" ads (scroll to the bottom; the Uncommon Denomination site has lots of material), I hope all three campaigns do very well.

Be sure to check out the UCC's church-bouncer ad and its cool accompanying Web site, "God is Still Speaking," (flash req'd). The comma is part of the name; click here for the lo-tech version.

I haven't spent any time examining the Methodist campaign, but I have been following the UCC's efforts.

The United Church of Christ is gambling big. Last November, the editor of the UCC's United Church News wrote a remarkable article about the church's financial crisis and the risk it was willing to take to reverse course:

"What we are facing now is about the very life and mission of our church," says Edith Guffey, the UCC's associate general minister and administrator of the UCC's Office of General Ministries. "I think we have to do something, and I think we have to do something big and radical. We can't simply continue to do the same thing and expect better results."

The UCC's national offices are projecting a $3.5 million shortfall in 2004, unless drastic cuts are made. In the past year, 25 staff positions have been eliminated through layoffs and attrition. Some program budgets have been reduced by as much as 40 percent, or eliminated entirely. Without sizeable cuts or new resources, cumulative deficits would mount to an estimated $33 million by 2007, but Collegium and board members say they will not allow that to happen. . . .

At the Cleveland meeting, many expressed support for a proposal first advanced by Thomas in July at General Synod 24 calling for UCC members to increase overall giving to local churches to $1 billion annually by 2007, the UCC's 50th anniversary—a jump of $140 million annually within four years.

"A Vision Plan for Increasing Stewardship"—a proposal outlining specifics for how to reach the $1 billion goal—served as the summit's conversation-framing document. In short, the plan calls for an aggressive new approach to evangelism and stewardship that builds on the initial success of the UCC's "God is still speaking," identity campaign. It calls for a greatly expanded advertising/ marketing effort to increase UCC name recognition among the general population, while instilling pride and ownership among its members.

("Church leaders agree: Financial struggles demand a united effort," J. Bennett Guess, United Church News 11.03)

UCC ad: God is still speaking,Putting this plan in motion has required an initial $2.5 million, and making "United Church of Christ" into something that people associate with cool, inclusive, and welcoming won't be easy. "[O]ur name is confusing, our congregations lack a cohesive identity and the average person on the street wouldn't have a clue about the UCC's often-courageous commitments," Guess wrote in December. Being a typography junkie, I really like the "follow the comma" idea the Gotham Inc. folks came up with!

For a lot more on the roll-out of the UCC's ad campaign, read the March cover story of United Church News, "Welcome to the show."

Update 12.1.04: CBS and NBC have refused to run the UCC ads, citing discomfort with the message of implicit welcome to gay men and lesbians. More here.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 16 March 2004 at 7:34 PM

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March 16, 2004 07:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

I sure hope this works for the UCC. If they don't turn it around soon, they won't exist in 20 years.

Scott Wells:

March 16, 2004 09:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

I've been attending UCC churches lately, as I gear up my new church start, and I keep thinking, "This is the competition?" I predict the ads will stip up a few people (they're OK; better than the UU radio ad) but when they hit the reality of many UCC congregations . . . . Oof!


March 17, 2004 04:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

Oy, I finally had time to look at both the UCC and UUA efforts, and the UUA doesn't come out well in comparison. That is a lame website.


March 18, 2004 09:25 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm not sure the Methodist thing is that new. When I was living in Dallas in 2001, a friend in the area called me up and told me that she had just seen a commercial for the United Methodists. Her impression: "It could have just as easily been an advertisement for UUism."

Joe Perez:

March 19, 2004 09:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

I just had to write a bit about this story on my blog. But I suspect my real motivation for doing so was to to put the pic on my blog. Aren't those bouncers hot?


November 22, 2004 09:48 AM | Permalink for this comment

An update from Chuck Currie: One-third of the UCC's congregations have participated in training sessions to prepare for visitors inspired by the denomination's December 1 national TV ad campaign.


December 1, 2004 11:28 AM | Permalink for this comment

Breaking news: CBS and NBC have refused to air the ads. There's more at the UCC Web site.


December 1, 2004 09:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

I can't believe the UCC has come to this (sigh) but I hope it works. In a way, it seems like the church is selling out, but this may be the only way to reach young people these days. I'm 27, was raised UCC and have been trying to explain to my non-religious friends for years why I love church. Fun family activities, inclusiveness, social justice, learning about global issues. No one in the younger generations gets it... now maybe they will!


December 2, 2004 12:41 AM | Permalink for this comment

I attend a dynamic UCC church which exists in the midst of one of the most fundamentally conservative communities in the country. I consider it a beacon of hope, vision and true Christianity in a sea of pop-culture-oriented but rigidly literal-thinking congregations. The world needs our inclusivity and passion for social justice tempered with spiritual depth, and I hope to God we are here for a long time to come!


December 2, 2004 09:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

Beliefnet picks up UCC blogger-seminarian Chuck Currie's sermon, "No Bouncers Here." Go Chuck!


March 5, 2005 05:39 AM | Permalink for this comment

Yes, the United Church of Christ does have image problems related to its name, and one of these is that there are other churches with very similar names. One of these, the Church of Christ, is very conservative, so please don't confuse it with the United Church of Christ! When I logged onto your website, the section sponsored by Google was displaying a couple of ads from the Church of Christ.

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