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Crossover Style Shows in Christian Ads

Times Staff Writer

With a nod to David Letterman, here are some of the top 10 reasons to visit an Episcopal parish, according to St. George’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Hills:

10. No snake handlings!

9. You can believe in dinosaurs.

4. Free wine on Sunday.

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2. You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.

1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.

The tongue-in-cheek list was featured in a small ad that recently ran in the OC Weekly, an alternative publication better known for its cosmetic surgery, rock concert and escort ads.

“The idea is to reach an audience that normally isn’t reached out to by a mainline church like ours,” said Mark Wills, an administrator associate for St. George’s.

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Two thousand years ago, Jesus’ final command to his disciples was to promote the gospel to “all creation” -- in other words, to begin a grass-roots advertising campaign that would win millions of converts to Christianity.

“Since the beginning, followers of Christ have used various communications to get some type of message out to others -- the fisher-of-men symbol, for example,” said Charles M. Futrell, a Texas A&M; University scholar who studies faith-based marketing.

“Today we see anything and everything being used to communicate Christ’s message out to his children,” Futrell said. “And this is what Christians are commanded to do.”

Modern church advertising has its roots in the early 20th century when pastors started to place small ads in local papers to promote an upcoming sermon and list service times.

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But after 100 years of mostly staid marketing, churches -- and even entire denominations -- have developed an edginess to their advertising that rivals campaigns for Target and Mountain Dew.

Christian copy has turned sophisticated and often witty. The graphics and photos are arresting. And the typography, colors and layout seem more in line with Rolling Stone magazine than a church bulletin.

The shift to hipness and quality is designed to attract two audiences: those disillusioned by organized religion (St. Lawrence Martyr Catholic Church in Redondo Beach used to run ads in an alternative weekly paper that asked, “Did the Catholic Church screw up your life? Sorry. Give us another chance.”) and those who have never set foot in a house of worship.

On a national scale, many denominations with declining membership have launched major advertising efforts.

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One of the most ambitious was begun this year by the United Church of Christ. The $30-million campaign includes a television ad that features a pair of muscle-bound bouncers, dressed in black, standing behind a red velvet rope at the entrance of a church. The ad’s tagline: “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.”

For churches not backed by national advertising campaigns, the Minnesota-based Church Ad Project offers preproduced ads in various forms: newspaper ads, radio spots, postcards and doorknob hangers. The company has 15,000 church clients, owner Kimberly Bachman said.

In one ad, there’s a photo of a baby with the copy reading: “Sometimes it takes a miracle to get a couple into church.” Other ads have more sting to them, including one that shows a close-up of the nail wounds of the crucified Christ with copy reading: “Body piercing is nothing new to us.”

Still, most of the cutting-edge marketing is being produced guerrilla style by individual churches whose pastors want to attract younger members. To be successful, they must wrap ancient biblical concepts within the trendiest of secular packages.

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At NewSong Church, with campuses in Los Angeles and Irvine, advertising shows a group of people huddled together. The copy reads: “Misfits: Messed Up People Making a Difference!” It could be an album cover or a movie poster, but instead the ad promotes a series of sermons -- called “messages.”

You have to look closely to see that the faintly visible names in the background are characters from the Hebrew Scriptures: Abraham, Moses, David, Bathsheba, Tamar, Ruth, Rahab, and Mephibosheth.

At The Crossing in Costa Mesa, a banner promoting the latest message series hangs from a parking garage that overlooks the Costa Mesa Freeway. In fiery red type, the headline screams “LUST,” and the image of a seductive woman lurks in the background.

“We have always desired to be clear and relevant,” said Tim Celek, senior pastor. “We try to do things that ring true for our people and that indicate we live in the same world that their friends live in.”

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Celek and other pastors say their ads typically don’t appear in publications, but are handed out by church members to family and friends as invitations to a weekend service.

“Eighty-five percent of the people who come to The Crossing come because of a personal invite,” Celek said. “The print piece is a nonthreatening and contemporary way to invite someone to church.”

Not everyone appreciates the new approaches. A few older congregants at NewSong, for instance, wonder whether the church should spend so much money on slick advertising pieces.

The First Christian Church of Fullerton, whose building in downtown Fullerton is often mistaken for a bank, hung a banner that read: “Sure, we look like a bank. But we’re open on Sundays.”

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Church officials took it down after one congregant took offense at the tone.

Little data exist on how effective such marketing efforts are. However, a study conducted by the United Methodist Church shows promising results for its recently completed four-year, $20-million campaign whose slogan was “Open Hearts. Minds. Doors.”

First-time attendance jumped 19% and total attendance in United Methodist churches rose 9% from 2000-2004, the term of the campaign. The denomination decided last year to spend $25 million more on advertising for four more years.

Some critics of this kind of advertising say they believe that churches can’t be marketed like a bar of soap, and that solid biblical teaching and a healthy community of believers are what make churches successful.

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There’s a danger of “trivializing the spiritual/religious experience in favor of glitzy superficial stuff,” said Shel Horowitz, author of “Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First.”

Horowitz said church marketing works when advertising messages and sermons match. “The user experience must match the marketing message, or both are discredited,” she said. “So if a church’s message is congruent to the user experience, it should work well.”


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