The numbers paint a picture of 40 years wandering in the wilderness of empty pews. Membership in the UCC, for instance, has dropped every year since 1965, from 2.1 million then to 1.3 million today. Methodists, known for heartfelt discipleship and care for the needy, can barely field a team of missionaries, whose ranks have thinned from 2,000 before 1950 to just 93 in 2004. Unitarians have seen what they term "modest" membership growth at 1 percent per year for the past decade.
Despite ever-slimming budgets, each of these three denominations hired professionals to market their denomination, through focus group research and targeted slogan-writing to strike a chord with the public. The religious body would be sold to the masses just like any other product except in one regard: This product would have to overcome a bigger than usual image problem.
"They [at the ad agency] told us they'd never had a product that conjured up so many negative feelings" as the idea of "church," Mr. Buford said. Many in focus groups said they'd felt hurt or rejected by the church, so "unconditional acceptance" became the target message.
In a UCC spot that aired last week, two muscle-bound bouncers stand in front of a church where they decide who is "worthy" to enter. Then the tag line: "No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life's journey, you are welcome at a United Church of Christ congregation."
This leap of faith into TV advertising reflects a notable attitude shift. Unlike their evangelical counterparts, these churches have taken a low-key approach to recruitment to show sensitivity toward others' religious beliefs.
"Unitarians have historically had the idea that, 'We're here, and if they want to find us, they'll find us,'" said the Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, director for congregational services and organizer of the ad campaign. "But now we're willing to make our presence known.... There's a feeling that this is our moment. We're not looking to draw people away from a religion that they find meaningful. But for those who are looking for something, we believe they will be more likely to find what they want and need if we are brave enough to tell them what we're about."