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One House, Many Voices

The networks thought the United Church of Christ's message about diversity was controversial

for congregants, it's just an article of faith

December 11, 2004|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

"I am one of the conservative ones. We welcome gay people. We don't have to make a big deal about it," says St. John's pastor David Wild, who thinks other churches are, in fact, also welcoming. There's nothing wrong with church leaders trying to boost national membership, but publicity is not the church's strong suit, Wild says.

"It looks like we shot ourselves in the foot again," he says. This, naturally, is debatable within the church.

"Sometimes," Wild says, "the only thing we can agree on is that Jesus Christ is Lord and beyond that, we are lost."

Members of his congregation seemed to wince at the rope line and bouncer images. Conrad Sturch, a retired astronomer and St. John's member since 1986, respects and supports the ad's message: The church is open and affirming, he says. "But the ad is a little harsh on our other church neighbors. It could have been more gentle."

For others, it's not a matter of taste but of censorship. In his sermon last Sunday at Heritage United Church of Christ in Baltimore, pastor Julius Jefferson incorporated his objection to the networks' decision not to run the ad. Churches should be able to freely express their messages regardless of who is in the White House, Jefferson says. "I don't see where the political climate is relevant," he says. Heritage's congregation plans to write letters to newspaper editors and to petition NBC and CBS.

The United Church of Christ's $1.7 million advertising campaign, "God is Still Speaking," is explained on its Web site, www.stillspeaking.com -- where the ad can be viewed. (There's also a merchandising line of "God is Still Speaking" caps, coffee mugs and gold shirts.) The campaign sprang from focus group research that showed many people had never heard of the denomination, which was formed in 1957 when the Evangelical and Reformed Church united with the Congregational Christian Church. The research also found "over and over again that people felt angry, excluded and alienated by organized religion in general," says the UCC's Powell.

The ad, she says, was designed to attract the "unchurched" and, yes, people who have left the UCC, where membership has reportedly declined 23 percent in 15 years. The ad is not intended to suggest the denomination is better than any other church, Powell says. "We assume, as a given, that all Christian churches welcome all people," she says.

For several area congregations, the national campaign apparently has not translated into new members.

"I don't find any kind of national advertising helps local churches," says Jennifer Knighton, pastor of the 120-member Grace United Church of Christ in Baltimore. She praises the ad, which she saw on the ABC Family cable channel. "But with my Christmas ad in The Sun, I stand a much better chance of bringing someone new in," she says.

With more people shopping around for churches, she says, local congregations struggle not only to keep but also to build attendance. A church must be friendly, must be open, people must feel welcome -- and quickly, Knighton says. She figures it takes only two minutes from when people walk into Grace United for her to make them feel welcome. "Or they will turn away and go somewhere else," she says.

Two minutes. That's her window of opportunity -- and that doesn't include 30 seconds for a bouncer or rope line.

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