Liberal mainline Protestants are shrinking in number, even though one would think that their moral permissiveness and leftwing political activism would make them fashionable again. So these denominations are turning to advertising:
Shrinking mainline Protestant denominations are turning to marketing to help stem decades of membership losses and stay afloat.
The United Methodist Church recently released a $20 million rebranding effort aimed at attracting younger members to the large but diminishing Protestant sect. 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 in 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 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 that 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,” Mr. 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 www.10thousanddoors.org, 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 www.elca.org/tvads, have run on cable-TV channels and in other media outlets that serve large populations of Lutherans.
Like the Methodists’ ads, they feature church members helping others. One shows a Senegal Lutheran mission teaching women how to start their own businesses.
“Through [current members] they will encourage others to come join the church,” Mr. Hendrickson said. “We wanted to reach the current members to communicate … what we do, what our mission is.”
What their mission is! Notice that these churches are marketing nothing more than feel-good self-righteousness, especially social righteousness, rather than the more painful personal kind of righteousness. But when it comes right down to it, they are just as fixated on works righteousness as the most legalistic fundamentalist. While decrying the political activism of the Christian right, the Christian left is even more fixated on political activism. (I grew up in this kind of church. I remember attending conventions in which the delegates voted on foreign and domestic policy issues and pretended to be Congress.) I am all for works of mercy, including Sengalese literacy projects and the like. But how sad that the “mission” of these churches has nothing to do with grace, salvation, or Christ, who apparently is not even mentioned in these ads.