The picture is meant to give you a jolt: Against a black background sits a solitary church pew, and above the pew, attached to a set of incongruous headrests, are two bright yellow safety bars, the kind you'd need for a roller coaster at Lagoon. Underneath that is the punch line: "Take the ride of your life."
This is the cover of the slick brochure that landed on doorsteps in Salt Lake City two weekends ago. "Thrill ride theology," begins the text inside publicizing a church known as K2, described as "a modern Christian church of ordinary people seeking an extraordinary adventure with God."
K2, as even the name itself suggests, is hardly the kind of mainstream Christian church that sits stolidly on a street corner waiting for the descendants of former members to grow up and join. But then "stolid" hardly describes most mainstream churches anymore either, in an age of market shares and "branding," the Internet and Christian heavy metal, alternative worship services and ZIP code blitzes.
A generation ago, most churches tended to advertise discreetly on the religion pages of the newspaper, if they advertised at all, and it was easy to argue that these low-key displays, with their listing of that week's sermon topic, were more like notices to the faithful. These days, though, even mainline Protestant denominations hire advertising agencies. Often they have their own tag lines and logos and TV ad campaigns.
There are advertising companies that specialize in religious marketing and demographics. The Church Ad Project, headquartered in Winsted, Minn., has been around for 25 years and has helped 20,000 churches conduct marketing campaigns, according to a Church Ad spokeswoman. The Breakthrough Media Group in Providence Forge, Va., describes itself as "20-year leader in church marketing" with a "direct mail strategy using jumbo full-color postcards."
Don't forget the "all important four-second rule," advises the Church Ad Project on its Web site. "The average direct mail piece has an initial four seconds in which to begin the communication process. There must be something humorous or intriguing that captures the eye."
Church Ad's postcards are both. "You don't need a modem to 'get connected' with God," reads a generic postcard for sale to any number of churches. "Comes with an after-lifetime guarantee," says another. Breaththrough Media Group's postcards, too, are designed to turn a familiar phrase on its ear, as in: "We don't want you to fill a pew, we want you to fulfill your purpose."
The idea of most church marketing, says Christ United Methodist Church pastor the Rev. Steve Goodier, is not to steal members away from another church, the way Pepsi might try to lure Coke drinkers. Instead, most religious ad campaigns are designed to appeal to that growing demographic known as The Unchurched or the None-of-the-Aboves. This latter designation refers to polls showing that, all over the country, more and more Americans don't align with any particular religion or any religion at all.
That's largely who K2 is targeting, lead pastor Dave Nelson says. "This is for people who might think God is irrelevant" he says about the church's brochure. The message he wants to get across, he says, is that "God is an exciting God who wants to work in people's lives."
While the methods and terminology might be new to religion demographics, saturation, outreach strategies "any religion that believes in evangelism at its core believes in marketing," notes the Rev. Dan Webster, spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Utah. "If you read the works of Paul, he believed in marketing," the Rev. Webster says about the first-century apostle.
Religious marketing should not be surprising or considered crass, he says. "I don't believe it in any way sullies our message. My gosh, Jesus got down in the dirt, literally. He drew in the dirt to get his message across. We need to be in the marketplace, not absent from it."
The idea is not so much to bring in new members, although that never hurts, but "for people to get to know the love of God," says Christ United Methodist Church pastor Goodier. "Everything else is secondary."
The history of American religions, Wake Forest University religion professor Bill Leonard says, has been full of attempts to "connect with the culture in order to attract members." In a country that believes in religious freedom, "you don't automatically get put in a religious group," Leonard notes. "Even with the Mormons, early on they had to make a case for why their religion is more true than others."
These days The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints uses radio and TV spots that gently, sometimes humorously, stress the importance of family, with just a subtle mention at the end that the LDS Church brought you this message. And, of course, the church relies on thousands of missionaries to spread the word.
In other evangelical religions, Leonard notes, "revivals" have been one way to reach the unaffiliated. Back in the early 20th century, he says, these were often held in burlesque houses and movie theaters, as well as traveling tents. The famous Chicago evangelist D.L. Moody would take a pony cart through the tenements to attract children and their parents.
These days, nondenominational and multi-denominational churches often pop up in strip malls, which provide not only low overhead but also a chance to grab the attention of people out looking for a laundromat or some motor oil. Bible Baptist Church in West Valley City uses a larger-than-life poster of Jesus to announce its presence. Members from Calvary Chapel and the Church of Scientology had booths at the Utah State Fair this fall.
As a more subtle way of drawing attention to themselves, many churches host conferences and workshops on topics ranging from marriage to finances; some churches, like Southeast Baptist Church, host concerts and Halloween parties for the neighborhood. Holladay United Church of Christ has drawn new members as a by-product of activities in the community, like participating in the annual gay pride parade, interim Pastor Jill Warner says.
Most churches also now offer "contemporary services" to draw a younger, less traditional audience. These services sometimes feature, as Southeast Baptist pastor John Primm says, "trumpets and saxophones and congas and grand pianos."
And then there's the one-on-one approach. "About 75 to 80 percent of people who attend mainline Protestant and Catholic churches," says Christ United Methodist's the Rev. Goodier, "come at the invitation of family and friends. It's by far the best way to market your church."
There's a danger to marketing yourself in "worldly" ways, says Wake Forest's Leonard. In the Christian church, he notes, "there's that old tension of being in the world but not of the world." Sometimes popular culture "comes in the back door," he says. "I can illustrate that with one phrase: Christian heavy metal."
And some advertising, he adds, "perpetuates a kind of Christian consumerism. People looking for the glitziest brochure, the newest program, the next attention-getter." There's also the danger, he says, "that some of these churches will open the doors larger than the doctrine will allow."
Openness and inclusivity is the message of more liberal Protestant churches. The Episcopal Church's tag line in a series of TV commercials is "The Episcopal Church welcomes you." One TV spot asked, "Where do women stand in the church?" and then answered "Right at the altar," a reference to the denomination's ordination of female clergy. The ad campaign resulted in triple the number of hits on the church's national Web site, says Utah diocese spokesman Webster.
The Methodist Church has a similar campaign. "Open minds, open hearts, open doors," is their tag line. "It says a lot about who we are theologically," Goodier explained. "That we're not so dogmatic that we'll tell you what to believe."
The United Church of Christ also has a TV spot. This one shows a gay couple and ethnic minorities being barred from a handsome old church building. "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we," the ad says. The campaign, which has been shown initially in test markets, has increased visitors by a third in some cities, Pastor Warner says.
But the ads are only the beginning, she adds. The United Church of Christ has also conducted trainings to make sure members are indeed welcoming. "Because there's nothing worse than false advertising."
Some congregations don't feel the need to market themselves. "We are nice people, so people are attracted to us," says Drora Oren, administrator of Temple Har Shalom in Park City. "So we don't have to make too much of an effort." It helps also that the synagogue is the only Reform Jewish congregation in the Salt Lake City-Park City area.
Some congregations are too small to be able afford to market themselves.Comment on this story
And some are still trying to make sense of it all. The Rev. Tom Goldsmith, minister of First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, noticed the "take the ride of your life" brochure dropped on area doorsteps by K2, and devoted his pastor's letter in the church's weekly newsletter to some soul searching about it.
" . . . how well do we execute marketing?" he asked his congregation. "Have we even tried, and should we? Whom do we target? How jazzy and snazzy do we want our church to be?""Although we may abhor the idea of competing in the marketplace," the Rev. Goldsmith concluded, "do we have a choice?"