Pastor spots a market for spirituality Tailor-made services lure baby boomers to growing flock

January 26, 1992|By Jay Merwin

The Rev. Jeff Jones markets the gospel. He cites Arbitron ratings, reams of demographic data and a bigger congregation to support his approach.

His appeal is to "baby boomers," that demographic bulge of middle- and upper-middle-class people aged 28 to 46 who are the prime target of most corporate advertising.

For boomers too distracted from Sunday services by weekend trips or the need for a leisurely morning, he offers a Monday night service.

An electronic synthesizer takes over for the organ on Mondays, rendering contemporary music and traditional hymns in an upbeat rhythm.

The sermons are conversational. Standing in front of the pews, outside the pulpit, jingling change in his pockets, Mr. Jones begins with an everyday problem.

"Do you remember when you had a really rotten day?" he said one recent Monday before winding back to a Bible reading about Jesus' miracle at the wedding at Cana.

This is the vocabulary, the music, the scheduling pace of baby boom worship in the '90s, as Mr. Jones, pastor of the Epworth United Methodist Church in Cockeysville, discerns it from marketing studies.

"He relates what's in the Bible to real current things, like stress," said Mary Kuhn, 39. Until coming to Epworth, her Methodist upbringing had lain dormant. Three years ago, she decided to return to church. But she was divorced and single then and eager to reserve weekends for spending time with her new fiance. So she started coming to Monday night services, sometimes in the clothes she wears to work as a health services administrator, sometimes in jeans.

Carolyn Shupert, a 42-year-old physical therapist, didn't think much about being a boomer until she, her husband and their three children moved to Parkton about two years ago and joined Epworth.

Now she reads books with titles such as Forty Something and wonders whether health care and Social Security will be available to her generation when it reaches old age.

"I like to believe I'm a pioneer," Mr. Jones said. He sees his appeal to boomers as "niche marketing" within the broader Christian franchise.

Mr. Jones, 40, is a boomer. His church is situated in the thick of boomer settlement in new apartments and houses that have sprung up in the area during the building spree of the 1980s.

Mr. Jones, who majored in sociology at Western Maryland College before going to seminary school, sensed a need for improving the church's market position soon after arriving at Epworth in 1985. Membership had stagnated at about 260 people, he said, though the surrounding neighborhoods were filling with young families.

He started by gathering demographic data on the area and surveying young couples who hadn't been to church in years but were coming to Epworth to be married.

What had discouraged them about the churches they left in their youth? he would ask. The couples, who came from a variety of denominational backgrounds, told him that organ music was archaic. The sermons "weren't relevant to what they were going through," he said, and they objected to the church asking for money at each service.

And young married couples, who had left the church but were returning for the sake of their young children, wanted a service that was visually enticing enough to keep the attention of their children.

Mr. Jones made his move at the Christmas Eve service of 1988. He placed the collection plate at the back instead of circulating it among the pews. The crowd dropped $1,700 on the way out, he said, more than double what similar-sized crowds had contributed in previous years. Mr. Jones instituted the same practice at all the church services, with similar increases in income.

Boomers "are materialistic and they know the value of things," Mr. Jones said, but they want the freedom to give when they can, without having to toss in a dollar for appearance's sake at each service.

The Monday night service opened in February 1989, with a folk choir and guitars.

Mr. Jones left his traditional minister's alb in the closet and wore slacks and open-necked shirt. He still wears the alb on Sundays, except when he dresses in a burnoose and carries a staff to impersonate some biblical character.

When not playing one of the prophets, Mr. Jones is likely to address a biblical text to some contemporary problem, lacing his talk with references to popular culture. He avoids preaching about politics, abortion and other controversies.

He says his research supports such changes. American Demographics, a marketing magazine, informed him that only 6 percent of boomers ever purchased classical music, which includes organ music.

And a newspaper clipping told him how a local FM station had boosted its Arbitron ratings in 1990 by switching from Muzak to oldies music from the 1960s and '70s. He told the church leadership, "If a radio station could give up its entire style and was successful, we'll have the same success."

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