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Marketing Religion In a Land of Plenty

Anyone who worries that religion and scientific thinking don’t mix should make a Sunday morning visit to the Rev. Phil Hester’s North Star Community Church in Scripps Ranch.

When Hester selected Scripps Ranch as home of the Protestant church he planned to found, he knew gratification would not be instant.

“Four denominations had failed here,” he said. “We came in with some fear, I must admit, but we did market research.” He utilized demographics, focus groups and the same technical methods used by Fortune 500 companies to make certain their new products succeed.

“We talked about everything,” Hester said. That included leadership style of the pastor, music, sermon topics and how the potential membership would prefer to be approached.

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He learned that predominantly Anglo-Saxon Scripps Ranch residents wanted a neighborhood church. They were disinterested, Hester said, in sharing a church with racially mixed Mira Mesa.

“This is not the New Testament concept of the brotherhood of all men and women, but you have to begin where you are. You can’t force people to have a different world view than they have,” Hester said.

“We planted our church way back up in this community,” he said. “You had to have a map to find it. That allowed people to understand this was truly their church. We’re 95% Scripps Ranch and specific in terms of this community. We don’t do outreach in other communities. If I don’t build a base here, I’m kidding myself that I have a true church.”

Hester apparently got the formula right. In fewer than three years, his congregation has grown to more than 200 active members and has an annual budget of $100,000. It continues to gather strength, and plans are under way for construction of a permanent church. They now meet in a school in Scripps Ranch.

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It isn’t possible to know how many new churches have been started in San Diego’s North County in the past decade. There are hundreds of both traditional and pioneering congregations.

Churches affiliated with major religious bodies--as well as tiny groups of like-minded worshipers--meet in schools, shopping centers, industrial parks and private homes.

No leader of a church in formation claims it is easy, but the struggle varies depending on a range of factors.

Father Jim Poulsen’s St. Gregory the Great is another Scripps Ranch success story, though he has been working on the project a little longer than Hester. Now 6 years old, St. Gregory has 1,000 members.

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There had been a movement in Scripps Ranch to launch a Catholic parish for several years before the diocese named Poulsen the founding priest.

Poulsen first found himself a house there, got a mailing list of all known Catholic families living in Scripps Ranch, then sent out his introductory letter. In the beginning, the church was in search of a hall, making some people reluctant to attend. Eventually, however, the congregation and its priest found their footing.

“There are now less than 100 registered Catholic families living in Scripps Ranch,” he said.

“It takes a lot of faith on the part of the people, a commitment of people to their beliefs, to do this. It’s not like establishing a social club,” he said.

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Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, founder of the Congregation Chabad in Poway, discovered the founding process was very much like establishing a life. He was dispatched to Poway fresh out of rabbinical school, arriving from Brooklyn with only a suitcase. Within three months, Goldstein met his California-born wife.

Six years later, Congregation Chabad has 150 family members, a senior center, 75 children in a preschool and land to build a permanent synagogue.

“People got attracted to me because of my tolerance and my ignorance, my willingness to learn,” he said.

Like Hester, Goldstein believes his church is growing because it fits the personality of the North County community.

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“In Brooklyn, everybody is orthodox, and it’s predominantly Jewish,” he said. “It’s easy to be observant because everybody else does it.”

Though the center of Judaism in San Diego is gradually shifting from the San Diego State University area to inland North County, Goldstein knows his people live in a diverse community and face the same pressures other Californians confront.

Chabad is an international social service outreach organization serving all Jewish sects, as well as Gentiles, with family and drug counseling and other services.

“We’re the Jewish Salvation Army,” Goldstein joked.

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He operates under the assumption that, if you start out to do a worthwhile project, help will come. He, like other religious leaders, has faced the double challenge of serving new communities and having to find or create a place to meet.

The high price of land and buildings is a problem throughout San Diego County. The Rev. Jim Butler of Life Christian Church of Vista said it takes 40 to 50 families to support the cost of a meeting space, and 90 to 100 families to support a full-time pastor. Butler, pastor of the church, works part time for a long-distance phone company. He devotes the rest of his hours to the church, which meets in a small office complex along California 78.

Life Christian Church moved from Encinitas to Vista in search of a suitable meeting place. Like many other pastors, Butler had to adapt to a non-traditional setting. Most congregations hope the situation will be temporary. For churches in Scripps Ranch, however, there is no hope at the moment for permanent homes.

The planners of the original Scripps Ranch 20 years ago set aside no land for churches. North Star, St. Gregory and other groups meet in business or industrial space. Some intend to build in subsequent phases of Scripps Ranch, where thought has been given to the need for spiritual centers. Until houses are built, however, there are no roads to the church property.

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The Rev. Bob Newby of Carmel Community Church captured some land for a while, but it got away. A parishioner had given the church a parcel along Carmel Valley Road, but it was lost to the path of the new Route 56 to Rancho de la Penasquitos. A local developer has now provided a graded lot for the church to operate in trailers until it can buy another plot on which to build.

In the meantime, Newby concentrates on inspirational music, a Sunday service that appeals to lively young families and small support groups to address other spiritual needs.

“We’ve got a great nursery program for the young ones,” Newby said. “Our time is Sunday morning, and we do the best we can do with the Sunday morning experience.”

Newby and Hester agree that understanding a neighborhood’s makeup is an essential first step toward putting down roots.

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A former marketing professor, Hester helps other congregations interpret demographics and form focus groups to come up with the best church formula.

“We’ve done nine church plants in the last 40 months in San Diego and brought together 1,300 unchurched people,” Hester said. “Where denominations have allowed us to use these strategies, we’ve never had a failure. When we’ve been asked to do without research, we’ve had mixed results.”

For example, there’s no point in planning an infant nursery in the University Towne Centre district, since most residents are adults without children.

Telephone campaigns are disappointing in urbanized North County, Hester pointed out, because 50% of the phones are answered by machines. Some religious groups have so overused house-to-house campaigns that such visitors are no longer welcome. That leaves mostly word-of-mouth, advertising or direct mail. Most North County faiths make enthusiastic use of letter-writing.

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There is precedent for this kind of evangelism in the Bible, Hester said.

“The apostle Paul used direct mail,” Hester said. “He called them epistles. They were profoundly powerful direct mail that has continued to work for 1,900 years.”


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