Methodists reach out with TV

Church buys airtime for commercials that stress diversity

September 01, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The United Methodist Church is mounting a major advertising campaign to spread the word that it is a warm and welcoming place.

And chances are you'll get the message.

Locally, the Baltimore-Washington Methodist Conference has bought time for more than 500 TV commercials that will begin airing Tuesday in the Baltimore, Washington and Hagerstown markets during local newscasts. Conference officials estimate that 75 percent of their target audience - adults between the ages of 24 and 54 - will see the spots at least eight times.

The national Methodist body has purchased time over the next month on cable outlets and on CBS, the only national network that accepts religious advertising.

But this is just the start of a four-year, $20 million campaign, "Igniting Ministry," to increase awareness of the 8.4 million-member denomination and its ministries. The ads will run three times a year: in September, when church attendance rises after the summer lull; in December, during Advent and Christmas; and in the spring, during Lent and Easter.

The spark for the spots was an identity crisis for the nation's third-largest Christian denomination, which has lost about 2.5 million members since it was created in 1968 by a merger of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches.

"We did some research in the past couple of years, and we found out that the church was viewed as a generic church," said the Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston, executive director of the media campaign. The public "really had no impression of our church."

That research also indicated that more than half of all adults don't go to church, but more than half of that number indicated they are religious or are seeking a deeper spirituality in their lives.

In the ads, which all end with the slogan, "open hearts, open minds, open doors," the Methodists are stressing their cultural, racial and theological diversity.

"What we're trying to say is we believe in things that allow us to talk about God in special ways," Horswill-Johnston said. "We have a special emphasis on outreach. ... We believe in grace rather than judgment."

The Methodist media blitz is one of a number of religious ad campaigns over the past few years. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod ran campaigns in 1997 and 1999 that told viewers, "We're your neighbors, the people of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod." The Catholic Church has run public service announcements on family values since 1998 as part of its national Communications Campaign. And the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been airing television spots for nearly a quarter-century

The Methodists have produced 14 television ads, 34 radio ads and more than 200 print advertisements.

In Baltimore, the ad to be aired by the local Methodist conference is called "Keys to the Kingdom." It tells the story of two boys who break into a church to play pool in the basement and are confronted by the pastor, who menacingly steps out of the shadows.

"Of all the people in this neighborhood," he says sternly, "you guys are trying the hardest to get into this church."

The pastor reaches into his pocket and pulls out a key.

"Here," he says, suddenly smiling, extending the key to the boys. "Come any time you want."

The last shot shows the face of one of the intruders, with the tagline, "Now a pastor."

The story is true, recounting an incident in the life of the Rev. Richard K. Swanson, a Methodist minister in Florida.

"If I point to where it all began, it was that Saturday afternoon, by that welcome into that church," Swanson said in an interview. "They didn't care we were poor, that Dad drank. It changed our life. ... We found a spiritual home and I found a life purpose, because I felt called into ministry. I've been a pastor and evangelist ever since."

Methodist officials are warning their congregations to be prepared to welcome anyone who might walk through their doors.

That's why Methodist churches are holding an Open House Month this month, going door to door, holding outdoor services and throwing tailgate parties to welcome potential new members.

"The biggest thing we're telling folks is that the commercials alone will not bring folks into our churches," said Larry Hygh Jr., a spokesman for the Baltimore-Washington Conference. "Folks may come into church as a result of a spot, but what are we going to do once they get there? We need to extend a personal invitation."

St. John's United Methodist Church in Lutherville is one of 13 northern Baltimore County churches that banded together to buy more television time on their local cable system.

St. John's will also hold a street festival Sept. 15, with free food and four Christian rock bands, to welcome newcomers.

The Rev. Earl Mason, St. John's pastor, said the ad campaign will help the Methodist church get back to its roots.

"The United Methodist church started in Baltimore in 1784," he said. "In the early days they used to say about us, when it was stormy, that the weather wasn't fit for anything but crows and Methodist preachers, because our circuit riders went everywhere.

"Somewhere along the line we kind of lost some of that," he said. "Now we're starting to get back in, to remind people we're here in the name of Christ and here to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

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