UCC launches nationwide campaign expected to reach 60 percent of U.S. population

In stark contrast to prevailing rhetoric about moral values, the United Church of Christ’s message offers an edgy allegory in a campaign targeted to Americans who feel alienated from church.
The debut 30-second commercial features two muscle-bound “bouncers” standing guard outside a fabled, picturesque church and selecting which persons are permitted to attend Sunday services. Written text interrupts the scene, announcing, “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” A narrator then proclaims the United Church of Christ’s commitment to Jesus’ extravagant welcome: “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
“The symbolism in this commercial reflects the very real rejection people feel toward church,” says Ron Buford, the campaign’s director. Though it has more than 1.3 million members in about 6,000 congregations across the country, the United Church of Christ (UCC) is widely unknown and the UCC hopes to improve its name-recognition among potential U.S. churchgoers — especially young persons. “The comment I hear most often when people visit a UCC church for the first time is, ‘I never knew that a church like this existed,'” says Buford.
Declaring that the UCC must “not succumb to relentless erosion,” the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC General Minister and President, states, “In an age of media saturation, if you are not visible on television, the popular assumption is that you do not exist. This effort shows the world that we have a bold and dynamic message to proclaim.”
The advertising campaign is tied to an ambitious program of equipping local church leaders to welcome newcomers into the worship, fellowship and mission life of their congregations. Thousands of clergy and lay leaders have been trained, using materials that build on the slogan, “God is Still Speaking,” a modern rendition of the farewell by Pilgrim pastor, John Robinson, to his congregation of dissidents who set sail on the Mayflower for the New World. “Do not cling to where Calvin and Luther left us,” Robinson said. “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s Holy Word.”
The Pilgrims are one of the forebear streams of the United Church of Christ. As a blend of four distinct Christian traditions — Congregational, Christian, Evangelical and Reformed — the UCC includes some of the country’s oldest congregations and structures.

The ad was test marketed in six U.S. markets last spring. During this time period, the UCC’s national offices in Cleveland, Ohio, were flooded by unsolicited letters and e-mail messages of support. There were many first-time visits to United Church of Christ congregations from viewers. Given the overwhelming response from the public and members alike, a national rollout of the ad was a clear mandate.

“This is an opportunity for the United Church of Christ to renew its distinctive voice as a people of welcome, justice and passion for the Gospel,” says Thomas. “This initiative will help us fall in love again with the United Church of Christ, be generous in financial support, and turn our hearts toward a world that needs to experience the presence, embrace, and encouragement of Jesus.”
The UCC’s current name recognition is “negligible at best,” says Ted Pulton, a managing partner with Gotham, Inc., a major New York advertising firm that has offered its services to the UCC at cost. Focus group testing revealed that only a small handful of participants said they knew something about the denomination. Random testing also uncovered strong negative feelings about churches in general, regardless of denomination. A large percentage of respondents said they held churches to be responsible for past hurts in their lives, and many traced their feelings of inadequacy to negative church experiences. Too many congregations, they said, left them feeling unwelcome, financially inadequate, and inappropriately dressed.
Following this initial $1.7 million ad buy, the UCC plans to invest an increasing amount of resources into advertising during the next four years. In so doing, it is following in the footsteps of other denominations that have crossed over into secular media — increasingly relying on the airwaves to increase exposure — including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints, the United Methodist Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The commercial may be viewed by visiting www.stillspeaking.com. Media persons needing VHS or DVD copies of the commercial should contact Barb Powell at (216) 736-2175 or via e-mail at powellb@ucc.org.
The UCC’s rich historical tradition includes launching the first attempt at congregational democracy (1630); leading the movement to abolish slavery (1700) and the spiritual revival known as the Great Awakening (1730); staging the nation’s first act of civil disobedience that inspired the “Boston Tea Party” (1773) and hiding the Liberty Bell when the British occupied Philadelphia (1777); being the first mainline denomination to ordain an African-American pastor (1785); forming the United States’ first foreign missionary society (1810); coming to the aid of the illegally-enslaved Amistad captives (1839), an event that led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s first civil rights ruling; being first to ordain a woman (1853); being first to ordain an openly gay man (1972); and coining the term environmental justice (1987).

The United Church of Christ’s national offices speak to, but not for, its nearly 6,000 congregations and 1.3 million members. In the spirit of its rich tradition, UCC congregations remain autonomous, but also strongly in covenant with each other and with the denomination’s regional and national bodies.

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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