Taking to the airwaves
When the Rev. Rick Edens of United Church of Chapel Hill, N.C., first visited the home of one of his newest church members, he was a bit surprised to discover the depth of the newcomer's denominational affection. To his delight, she had created a make-shift "UCC shrine" on one of her apartment walls—a collage of UCC bumper stickers, posters and other identity items—to celebrate her newly-found church.
But what Edens remembers most was her on-target assessment of the denomination: "If more people knew about you," she said, referring to the UCC, "you would be a movement." Creating a movement is exactly what UCC leaders are hoping will happen when the UCC's first-ever, nationally- coordinated advertising campaign rolls out this month in six test markets across the country.
Beginning March 1 and continuing through Easter, April 11, the fi rst of two television spots will begin to reach viewers in Harrisburg/Lancaster/ Lebanon/York, Pa.; Raleigh/Durham/ Fayetteville, N.C.; Oklahoma City; Springfield/Holyoke, Mass.; Tampa/ St. Petersburg/Sarasota, Fla.; and Cleveland/Akron/Canton, Ohio. (A seventh previously-announced market—Palm Springs, Calif.—proved unsuccessful due to a tricky market configuration that would have required the involvement of cable television providers in the costly Los Angeles market.)
The campaign hopes to target young adults, especially women, ages 25 to 50 and those with young children.
The second UCC TV spot, to be released later this year, features a young girl reciting the familiar children's poem, "Here's the church, here's the steeple." The shot dissolves to a group of diverse people, echoing the poems' final, inclusive refrain, "all the people." Gotham Inc. photo.
The two professionally-produced commercials—created with feedback from almost 200 participants in nine focus groups held in January in Harrisburg, Pa., St. Petersburg, Fla., and Cleveland—emphasize themes of extravagant welcome and inclusion, topics raised consistently by research participants who said, above all, they wanted a church that welcomed everybody.
The debut 30-second commercial stars two muscle-bound "bouncers" who stand guard outside a fabled, picturesque church where they discriminately choose which persons will be permitted to attend Sunday services. Then a tag line touts the UCC's different approach: "No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life's journey, you are welcome at a United Church of Christ congregation."
A second, more heart-warming spot—which was filmed at the same time but will not be released until the campaign's national roll-out—features a young girl who is reciting the familiar children's poem, "Here's the church, here's the steeple," complete with hand motions. When the child reaches the poem's highpoint, "Éopen the door and see all the people," the camera then segues through a diverse group of people who echo, again and again, the inclusive refrain, "all the people."
Bob Adler, a managing partner with Gotham, Inc.—a prominent advertising firm that is providing its services to the denomination at cost—says that the first phase of the UCC's blitz will represent a "fairly high level of saturation."
"Over the course of the six-week campaign, approximately seven out of 10 people in each of the markets will see the UCC commercial one or more times," says Adler, the fi rm's media director. "We'll be airing during a wide variety of programming, and although you're not likely to see it during prime time because pricing is disproportionably high, we'll be running throughout the day, from early morning until past midnight."
The ads will appear on local stations affiliated with traditional networks, such as ABC, NBC and CBS, Adler says. To a lesser extent, they may also appear on stations affiliated with Fox, the WB and UPN. Print ads (like the one on page 6 of this section) also may be placed in select publications.
The six markets were chosen based on several factors, including geographic and population diversity, UCC presence and advertising costs. In all, the collective area encompasses about 400 UCC churches and more than 120,000 UCC members.
But regardless of where UCC members live, Adler says, they can be proud of this first bold step, because the campaign eventually will bear fruit for the entire church.
"Ninety percent of the UCC's membership is probably outside of the test market, but [this process] allows us to develop commercials and media buying techniques that will prove to be successful and cost efficient down the road," Adler says. "The non-test-market members should feel good that the UCC is making sure this is being done right. And they should feel excited that it will be coming soon to their town, wherever they live, because we'll be buying network [advertising], coast-to-coast. It sounds pretty exciting to me."
Adler says "rigorous post-testing" will provide important feedback about how best to tweak the campaign in order to appeal more effectively to potential fi rst-time visitors.
A big hill to climb
In order to shape the campaign's message, focus group participants provided some important information about the public's impression of the UCC, as well as attitudes about churches, religion and faith in general. Some of the comments were difficult to hear.
Sadly, the UCC's name-recognition is "negligible"—at best—among the general non-church-going population, according to Ted Pulton, another managing partner with Gotham.
Only a small handful of participants said they knew something about the denomination, he says, but as it turns out, they really were mistakenly referring to the Church of Christ, not the UCC. "Any perceived recognition was actually misattributed," he says.
The random testing also revealed strong negative feelings about churches in general, regardless of denomination. A large percentage of respondents said they considered churches to be responsible for past hurts in their lives, and many traced their feelings of inadequacy to negative church experiences.
Too many congregations, the respondents said, left them feeling unwelcomed, financially inadequate and inappropriately dressed.
Not only had the church injured them, they said, but the church had hurt those they loved. And too many congregations cared more about their own security than about those in need.
"There is strong alienation in terms of dogma and tenets," Pulton says, "and it's even greater among those who consider themselves to be outside the mainstream of society. They believe they are not welcome."
Pulton says that 40 percent of those who said they belonged to a religious group went on to say that, in reality, they did not practice their faith in any specific way.
Those born between 1965 and 1980, commonly referred to as "Generation X," were especially likely to discount religion as irrelevant. "We found that there is this need to connect the search for the spiritual with a more contemporary point of view," Pulton says.
The Rev. Robert Chase of the UCC's Proclamation, Identity and Communication Ministry, who viewed three of the focus groups from behind a oneway mirror, says it was startling to hear how alienated non-church-going people feel about the institutional church.
"Listening to story after story, people said they feel excluded by church structures, pastors, even fellow parishioners, who are perceived as saying, in both explicit and implicit ways, 'Stay away,'" Chase says. "What I understand Jesus' invitation to be is so absent from their experience of church."
Churches asked to 'opt in'
Congregations in the test markets have been asked to consider their level of commitment to the identity effort by specifically "opting in" to the campaign. Chase says that each of the 400 churches has been invited to decide whether or not they will participate.
"Some churches may not want to be a part of this campaign and our polity allows them to have that freedom," Chase says, "but for congregations that are eager to participate we want to equip them to respond to the airing of these commercials in their neighborhoods."
Willing churches are being provided with opportunities to train their members in how to make the most of the television commercials—and how to live-up to the noble claims that the advertisements make about us.
"Hospitality is a principle ethic in the Bible," Chase says. "We are taught that we are to treat the stranger the same way that we would welcome Christ. This is something that we have to take seriously in every aspect of our church's life—hospitality in our welcome, our liturgy and our appearance."
It's more than just saying hello.
"We have to create an atmosphere so that when people visit us, they will feel like they have found a home," Chase says, "without seeming like all we want is for them to help us pay off [the cost of] the new boiler. We have to demonstrate that we really want them to be a part of our family."
The Rev. Jim Antal, pastor of Plymouth UCC in Shaker Heights, Ohio, says he is looking forward to seeing the ads in his city and believes it's up to each congregation to make the most of the opportunity.
"Different congregations will use the [God is still speaking] theme differently," Andler says "but there are lots of creative ways that churches can piggy back on what the national church is doing."
Chase says the campaign's national roll-out, which hinges on the success of the test market phase, is scheduled for this fall.
"If the money is there, the plan is to go nationwide beginning after the 2004 presidential election and running through Advent," he says.
What to expect from advertising
Will the UCC's identity campaign send a flood of new first-time visitors rushing through our sanctuary doors?
Probably not, says the Rev. Robert Chase of the UCC's Proclamation, Identity and Communication Ministry, but it can raise the profile of our denomination by providing a more fertile field where UCC members can do the real evangelism work.
"The real test rests with us, the members of local UCC churches," he says. "Are we prepared to take advantage of this opportunity to help people make the mental connections between the ad they see on television and the UCC church that is in their neighborhood?"
"This project will go nowhere if we simply sit back and expect that the hoards will show up," Chase says. "Instead, we are the ones who need to be changed by this campaign. We have to take advantage of the higher public profile, to raise UCC visibility in our communities, to create a public presence, to be seen at the basketball game, founders' day, fair or wherever people gather.
"We must be prepared to say to people, 'That church you see on television is my church,'" Chase says.
Although potential visitors may have their curiosity piqued through advertising, Chase says, people will respond ultimately to the enthusiasm of UCC members and the vitality of UCC congregations.
Chase maintains that a successful church identity campaign is "cyclical" and is based, primarily, on creating a bolder witness of current members—something that the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have found to be true.
"We have to engage the world and be the church of Jesus Christ," Chase says. "We can't sit back and expect that people are going to come to us any other way."