Gathering 'critical mass'

Gathering 'critical mass'

October 31, 2006
Written by Daniel Hazard

Vail, Colorado, to be test site for church-start advertising blitz

For at least five years now, the Stillspeaking Initiative has been the catalyst for helping existing UCC churches to grow, both spiritually and numerically. But now the identity campaign is being tapped to try something altogether different: starting a new congregation from the ground up.

Or, at least exploring whether there's sufficient interest in forming one in a place where none currently exists.

In October and November, the UCC's Cleveland-based national setting, in partnership with the Rocky Mountain Conference, will sink about $10,000 into a coordinated advertising campaign in the Vail, Colo., area. Using existing TV, radio and print ads, the national Stillspeaking materials will be tweaked to introduce townsfolk to the UCC through a coordinated local campaign.

The purpose will be two-fold: to sow some seeds about the UCC's identity and then to invite would-be newcomers to a few specific events. Those who show up will take it from there, with help from the staff of the Rocky Mountain Conference.

What began as a "what if" by the Rev. Bob Kinsey, a retired UCC pastor in Colorado, is emerging into a new, experimental approach to evangelism. Kinsey's "dream" is to take advantage of the UCC's well-tested, ever-familiar marketing materials to invite potential newcomers in a specific area - such as Vail - to church-organizing meetings.

"Since people have responded to the [Stillspeaking] campaign in the past, I thought the use of media would be a good first approach, instead of knocking door to door to see what interest might be out there," Kinsey said. "It seems like an intelligent approach, since we already had materials. It's a better way to go about it."

Kinsey has agreed to coordinate the initial gathering, but he's clear that he's not going to the organizing pastor, just a facilitating presence.

The Rev. Tom Rehling, Rocky Mountain Conference Minister, has vetted the plan with members of his Conference's Growth Ministry Team.

"The Growth Ministry Team is supportive and willing to seek funding for a gathering minister when a critical mass - about 50 or more - are gathered in the area," Rehling said.

Generally speaking, new churches are started by earmarking funds for a specific start-up pastor who then heads out to round up an initial circle of worshippers. The UCC's experimental media approach is not intended to supplant that time-tested method, but it could be a vehicle for church leaders to determine what communities are worth investing ever-shrinking start-up dollars.

In the 1970s, the UCC experimented with the notion of sinking money into new facilities where new churches could form; an idea that didn't bear much fruit.

"In our Stillspeaking meeting [in late September], we acknowledged that, as a church, we need to find ways to move forward in nimble ways, seizing opportunities that present themselves," said the Rev. Robert Chase, the UCC's communications director.

"We will, no doubt, make mistakes," Chase said, "but if we keep our eyes, ears, minds and hearts open to the experience, we will learn a lot about how to respond to the Gospel's call in our day. Let's not be foolish, but let's expect the unexpected."

Considered one of the nation's premiere resort towns, Vail is home to only about 5,000 year-round residents, but that's a misleading population count given the number of seasonable residents who populate the area, both in winter and summer. 

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