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Advertising Agnosticism? Adventures in Church Marketing

The Houston Chronicle
reports that more and more churches and denominations are turning to
media advertising as the way to raise their public profiles, attract
new members, and stem membership losses. The article
by Richard Vara is truly interesting. Take Alan Fletcher and Stephanie
Hoverman, for example. Vara reports that they were attracted to a
billboard on Interstate 10 in Houston.

“We saw the sign that said it was a church that basically accepts
all religions, all faiths and all beliefs,” said Fletcher. The
billboard was for the Unitarian Universalist Association, advertising itself as “The Uncommon Denomination.” I guess you could classify that as truthful advertising.

Fletcher and Hoverman, a married couple identified as “former” Southern Baptists, evidently liked what they found at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston, for they are still visiting.

Vara’s article describes media efforts undertaken by the United
Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian
Church (USA). Unitarian Universalist leaders decided three years ago to
use advertising as a growth program. As Tracey Robinson-Harris,
national director for congregational services for the denomination
explained, “We simply needed to find new and different ways to get our
name and our values out into the community and to extend the invitation
for folks looking for a liberal religious home to come and pay us a
visit.” She added: “Unitarian Universalists are a religious community
held together not by a creed but by a common set of values that
includes respect for each person and acceptance of the truths found in
all world religions.”

That’s a truly awful theology, but it evidently makes a good
advertising pitch. Houston U.U. congregations have reported a
significant increase in visitors.

Linda Schaeffer, who responded to the Houston advertising campaign
and joined the Emerson congregation, said, “We were ready to pray.” She
then explained that Unitarian Universalism accepts all faiths,
including atheism and agnosticism. “It’s a good place for anybody of
any religion,” she said. Of course, calling atheism and agnosticism
“faiths” is a little ridiculous. Unbelief may be a religion, but it is
hardly a faith. If Linda Schaeffer was “ready to pray,” we can only
wonder to whom her prayers were addressed.

Barb Powell of the United Church of Christ
explained why her denomination is getting into advertising: “One
hundred years ago, newspapers and oratory were how churches spread the
Good News. . . . Everyone is saying these days that if you are not on
TV, not on cable, if you are not on the Web, you don’t exist.” Well, I
guess we had all better listen to what everyone is saying — but only
if we want to exist, of course.

LINKS TOWARD INTERNET EXISTENCE: Richard Vara, Increasingly, Denominations Using Media Campaigns to Attract Visitors, The Houston Chronicle, June 11, 2005. The article also mentioned Houston’s First Unitarian Universalist Church. Don’t miss this press release
indicating that U.U.A. President William G. Sinkford has joined a
“cyber-march” on global warming. That must be another way of existing
on the Web.