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Some Columbia churches are rethinking how to fish for souls

Saturday, June 6, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Shrinking mainline Protestant denominations are turning to marketing to help stem decades of membership losses, and some local churches are joining their efforts.

However, local churches aren't just relying on the ads. Instead, they are encouraging members to take a more active role in spreading the word about their denominations.

The United Methodist Church last month unveiled a $20 million rebranding effort aimed at attracting younger members to the large but diminishing Protestant group. The new ads will appear over the next four years as part of the denomination's "Rethink Church" campaign and, with the support of the Nashville-based Igniting Ministries, have appeared locally on television and KBIA-FM 91.3.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has invested nearly $1.2 million over 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 now 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.

Promoting community

Some Columbia churches have escaped the national decline. According to the Rev. Nick Campbell, pastor at Fairview United Methodist Church, membership and attendance has remained steady. Campbell said the community between families in the congregation has kept the church going strong.

“Relationships between people help them connect to God,” Campbell said. In turn, he said, members are more likely to be connected to and involved in the church.

Like Fairview, the congregation at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church has remained steady and even saw an increase of 15 members two years ago without participating in the national campaign. The Rev. Micah Ernst attributes the stability to promoting a friendly and caring church.

“That’s our greatest avenue,” Ernst said.

The Methodist's national ads highlight the opportunities for involvement within churches — from helping to feed the poor to volunteering with youth basketball leagues in low-income neighborhoods, all projects reflect research that indicates young people are especially interested in service projects.

While Fairview has not used the campaign as a means of advertisement for the church, Campbell has used these basic ideas from the campaign as a training ground for the congregation, encouraging more involvement within the community.

“We don’t want the campaign to just be something that looks good on paper or looks good on television,” Campbell said. “It needs to be a community who is sent out to the world to make a difference.”

Pastors at the Missouri United Methodist Church also plan to implement the campaign to mobilize the congregation.  The church will feature a 10-week sermon series devoted to rethinking church, giving members tools to rethink who they are and what they do, as well as the role of the church in the community.

“It’s going to be a big challenge to think about theology differently and what it means to be a Christian,” said the Rev. Keith Vessell, associate pastor at Missouri United Methodist Church.

In addition to the sermon series, Missouri United Methodist has been including the national campaign logo in local advertising. Internet banner ads, some print advertising and direct mail has connected Missouri United Methodist with the national campaign.

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?"

In Columbia, churches aligning themselves with the campaign are focusing on how to encourage members to play an active role in the community.

“In the campaign, there are a lot of ways to open the door, ways to make a difference,” Campbell said. “We’re saying, we’ll help you make that difference.”

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.

 However, according to Ernst, these outlets seem largely unproductive locally.

“Church hasn’t been growing by using television and radio to put together opportunities to come to church and learn more about God or some issue,” Ernst said. “If we really understand God’s word, it’s about caring about each other.”

 The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 


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