Jokes on radio used to boost Frederick congregation

May 26, 1991

FREDERICK -- The Rev. Walter P. Fogarty believes God has a sense of humor and won't mind if his Evangelical Lutheran Church uses comedic advertisements to spread the gospel.

Mr. Fogarty, senior pastor of the twin-spire historic church in downtown Frederick, says he often tells God jokes -- original material only -- during private prayer sessions.

Now, his 252-year-old church plans to use the radio airwaves tjoke with potential parishioners.

The radio messages, written to lure new faces to weekend worship services and provided by an Atlanta-based company, end with the words: "This message is brought to you by God."

They poke fun at materialism, at addictions to TV evangelism and at the excuses people have for not going to church.

Some parishioners say that the humorous radio and television advertisements break with the tradition of the church, which was used as a hospital for soldiers in the Civil War.

But the pastors believe the messages are in line with the church's mission to tell people about God's love.

"A church as old as this can fall into the trap of always wanting to appear formal and traditional," Mr. Fogarty said. "We probably are a pretty formal and traditional church, but we must appeal to all people."

In one radio spot, a man talks about his addiction to television sermons and how a church is trying to lure him to Sunday morning worship services by providing TV monitors in the pews.

The church weans them away from the monitors over a period of four Sundays, in the radio spot. The TV evangelism fans then have to go "cold turkey" and mingle with the live, warm bodies of church members.

The ads are distributed by Protestant Radio and Television Center, a company that markets, produces and distributes ecumenical materials.

W. W. Wilson, a consultant for the center, said the ads had been aired on more than 625 radio stations across the United States since October.

"They have been produced to hone in on the yuppie market -- to focus on bringing that age group back into the church," Mr. Wilson said. "I think they speak to where we are today."

He admitted that not all churches felt comfortable using them.

"There was a church outside Chicago that felt humor was not a direction they thought they should take," Mr. Wilson said.

"I think humor is a part of life, and I think it can be part of the church."

Mr. Fogarty said the church had a history of using humor to reach members and non-members. Sometimes the church will put a sign on the sidewalk outside the church suggesting that men tee off after church on Sundays, instead of Sunday mornings.

And recently, one of the pastors instructed one of the ushers to interrupt his sermon and hand him a cordless phone with an alleged call from God. Some church members raised their eyebrows, but others thought it was funny.

"If we have one mission, it is to spread the good news of God's love to people," Mr. Fogarty said. "And these ads are obviously an attempt to reach out with a little bit of humor and challenge people in the community.

"I think we would consider it a success if anybody heard the ads and went to any church."

Mr. Fogarty said, however, that some members of the church had complained about the ads, which have run in a local newspaper and are expected to air on the radio in upcoming weeks.

"I've heard a couple complaints. They didn't raise their voices. They just said, 'I didn't appreciate that,' " he said. "I think it was probably a matter of taste. They would more appreciate a straightforward invitation to church."

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