Thirty-second spots can only do so much; the rest is up to us

Thirty-second spots can only do so much; the rest is up to us

J. Bennett Guess
When the Rev. Cliff Aerie, the UCC's special events producer, was a child, he and a friend cleverly decided that, instead of setting up an old-fashioned lemonade stand, they'd sell chocolate instead. After all, they thought, who can resist candy bars?

So, equipped with a good idea, the two young entrepreneurs loaded up on inventory, hauled out the card table and folding chairs, and set up shop in one of their favorite spots—in the woods behind their parents' Wayne, N.J., homes. Well, they almost got it right.

Starting this month, the UCC is rolling out one of its biggest ideas yet. We're about to proclaim our own unique identity within the body of Christ, instead of sitting back and allowing others do it for us.

Tired of languishing in denominational ambiguity, we are stepping out of the Church of Christ's shadow and letting people know we're here. It seems that, finally, we're no longer content being one of the largest, unknown churches around.

So, with help from one of the country's best advertising firms, we are taking to the airwaves. And by so doing, we are hoping to raise our profile, boost our morale, deepen our commitment and, hopefully, welcome some new people and some new vitality. Imagine saying "UCC" and, in return, receiving a glimmer of recognition.

Just like Cliff and his friend, we're on to something good. Now, if only we can keep ourselves from screwing it up.

Thirty-second spots can only do so much; the rest is up to us. As the saying goes, we only have one opportunity to make a good first impression. Or, as marketing experts claim, "Nothing ruins a good advertising campaign like a bad product."

Sure, the test-market phase is geographically limited, but by November, the campaign's scope will be national. That's just about enough time for every UCC church and every UCC member to come out of the woods of obscurity, to get our hospitality house in order and to start preparing for the party that our guests just might be expecting.

"No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life's journey, you are welcome at a United Church of Christ congregation. God is still speaking," the television commercials will announce to millions who have never heard of us before. But the question for us is: Will every first-time visitor discover this to be true?

Hopefully, if all goes according to plan, we'll be in the front yard looking for them, not the back yard. And we'll have something nourishing, as well as sweet, to offer.

While in seminary, as a student pastor, one of the four parishes I served billed itself as "the friendliest church in the world." More than a slight exaggeration, in actuality, the slogan proved to be a hefty indictment on the world's remaining congregations.

Friendly?—perhaps. But genuinely hospitable and institutionally welcoming?—it was not. More than anything else, it was one of those "family churches," as the popular preacher the Rev. Fred Craddock would call it, where it didn't take long for visitors to realize that they weren't part of the family.

If we expect our visitors to give us more than one opportunity to welcome them, then we are mistaken. For those who have been injured by churches in the past—and for those who think they have better things to do on Sunday mornings, including sleeping in—we've only got one shot.

Jesus' invitation to "come and see" has gone out. The stranger has been invited in. So set an extra place at the table and make sure that it is God's amazing grace that greets them at the door.

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