Too hip by half?

Every_voice_adWilliam Lobdell of the Los Angeles Times touches all the right bases in his report about churches that think of more than their address and service times when they design advertising.

Lobdell begins his story with a Top Ten list that’s popular in Episcopal congregations (the list includes "You can believe in dinosaurs," "Free wine on Sundays" and the ever-hilarious "No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you").

To his credit, Lobdell does not attribute the list to "a Robin Williams HBO special," which is the most common apocryphal mistake among Episcopal churches that traffic in this sort of thing. (In his Live on Broadway in 2002, Williams identified himself as "an Episcopal[ian]" and used one joke about the Church of England offering the "same religion, half the guilt" as Roman Catholicism. He mentioned no snakes or dinosaurs.)

Lobdell mentions a $30 million campaign by the United Church of Christ and a $20 million campaign by the United Methodist Church that increased first-time attendance by 19 percent and total attendance by 9 percent.

He also mentions the Church Ad Project, which began developing slick ads in the early 1980s. One of its better-known posters announced, in classic "We’re not those Christians" language, "Our church welcomes you. Regardless of race, creed, color or the number of times you’ve been born."

As Lobdell notes, "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."

Every Voice Network, which offers resources to progressive Episcopal congregations, has developed an ad series that depicts Jesus — Sacred Heart and all — in the style of South Park (a sample is at the top of this post).

Lobdell gathers great context-setting remarks from a sympathetic critic:

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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  • Chris Walton (Philocrites)

    Once again, why no mention of the Vineyard and other evangelical churches with superslick ad campaigns? Surely Boston isn’t the only city where the big-budget direct-mail, subway-ad, newspaper-ad campaigns for churches are dominated by Evangelical seeker churches. Clearly there’s a news story in the mainline churches’ attempts to use advertising — but am I crazy to think that these attempts are responses to similar efforts from evangelical and megachurch groups?

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Very good point, Chris. William Lobdell’s story does mention advertising by evangelical congregations, and it’s an angle I neglected in my summary.

  • Jill

    However, the slick ads used by evangelical churches are _usually_ in better taste, IMHO. (At least the ones I’ve seen here in the “Bible Belt.”) The Episcopal Church one shown above is irreverant and off-putting.

  • Jack Lumanog

    As off putting as the Episcopal ad might be… those who don’t find it offensive but appealing are the ones being targeted by this kind of advertising. I actually think it’s a great ad… even though it uses the “South Park” Jesus.

  • Dan

    James Twitchell comments on and has samples of the Church Ad Project ads from the 80s in his book Branded Nation.

    He links to the rise of church marketing to the explosion of highly similar “products” all competing within a limited space. Competition now centers around brands and the experience each promises.

    The book is a decent read so far (I’m 100 pages in), but I’d recommend skimming the first 50-60 pages and then start reading.