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MEA CULPA, MEA CULPA!

My fellow bloggers: My intention with this blog is not only to show a wide variety of religious advertising from all religious faiths, organizations, and denominations over the last 100 years but to find out from the blog’s visitors and commenters what you like about some of it, and what you don’t like about some of it…your opinions about which messages “work” and which don’t, which messages offend you and which don’t. My comments along each example are intended to provoke discussion, not to reflect my own personal religious or political beliefs or to indicate whether or not I feel the example is a good method of spreading anyone’s personally held religious truths, or representing a particular religion. Nor is my intent to demean anyone’s religion. Religion and faith are inherently difficult and sensitive subjects.

But the Church must advertise, because it is slowly but surely losing ground in our great centres of population, which are inevitably to dominate the nation. Indeed, from all parts of the world, there come stories of losses in membership, either comparative or actual. In the face of this, dare the Church sit back and leave untried a single method which may win men to Christ, provided that this method be legitimate?

The Church should advertise because men must be reached where they are. It is the man who is outside of the Church who most of all needs the message which the Church has to give…Obviously, the Church must employ the media which will give it a point of contact with those outside and away from it.

We shall treat of the Church as the agency, and of advertising as the method through which it will operate, both in bringing the Gospel to men, and bringing men to hear the Gospel.

No, the above quote was not taken from a source out of the last 20 years…or even the last 40 years. It was written by New York Methodist minister, Rev. Charles Stelzle, in his book, Principles of Successful Church Marketing, from 1908—100 years ago! Another noted advocate of church advertising at the time was Rev. Christian F. Reisner, pastor of Grace Methodist Episcopal Church of New York. Originally mocked as the “billboard preacher,” he was ultimately greatly respected for his ability to draw hundreds—at one time, over 1,500 people—to his services—long before the term “megachurch” was ever coined. In 1915, one of his many articles was published to explain “How I Fill My Church on Sunday Evening.” His progressive ideas included a $5,000,000 skyscraper cathedral, Broadway Temple. Plans for his church “specified a 2,000-seat nave, a five-story basement complete with swimming pool and bowling alley, and a 75-foot-high rotating cross on its summit” (New York Times, 2004), not unlike some modern-day religious establishments. In a popular magazine of the time, Reisner was quoted thusly: “I get in the papers all I can, but it is not personal publicity I seek—I want my Christ played up…”

Was Reisner’s plan all that different from Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral or some of the newly designed churches we see today that include businesses, gymnasiums, residential apartments, and cafes? The idea was to make the church one’s second home. Reisner even had a term for it: a “homelike” church. But he did understand that he couldn’t simply open the doors and expect it to fill to capacity. Today, “if you build it, they will come” will take you just so far.

Many ministers and rabbis have commented that the prophets used any way possible to bring God’s word to the masses. If they had had iPods back then, they would have used those as well. Today, you can get a prayer downloaded to your iPod at will.

I think what some people are opposed to is the secular messages used to attract people to church, in particular, the ones here that have been used by the Damascus Road Church. By putting them here on this blog, a friend of mine tells me, I am demeaning Christians, Christianity, and God. I am a God-believing, Reform Jew, who happens to respect all peaceful religious groups that, in turn, respect my right to believe the way I do. I have not designed the advertising that appears on my blog. I began with what I have here as a means of provoking a dialogue. To be honest, I must show it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly. If I were to show only the “respectable” advertising, the only comment would be: “That’s nice.” If the sign, ad, or billboard is “nice,” does it bring the unchurched into the church, where they can hear what the preacher wants them to hear? It will bring some. But how about the others? Perhaps the “coarser” advertising by the Damascus Road Church is bringing in another type of unchurched. If it does, then perhaps this congregation’s members feel they are fulfilling the Great Commission. I am not promoting any religion, no religion, or any specific place of worship. However, since the ads from the Damascus Road Church have caused a bit of a stir, I think it is instructional and edifying to show you what is on their home page:

We are sent like Jesus, by Jesus, to go into the world and proclaim the gospel–the good news of what God has done in history through Jesus Christ to save His people.

Many people are “scared” to live in the world because, they confuse it with WORLDLY LIVING which is disobedience to God. This fear leads to the development of a “church culture” outside of the culture we already live in. In this culture then, they feel safe to develop their own language, entertainment, clothes, mannerisms, etc., often confusing or offending anyone they might want to reach by everything but truth. As they slowly forget their “sentness”, these Christians spend most of their time with other Christians, separated from the big bad world forgetting that Jesus sent them on mission to seek and save the lost.

We are called to life holy lives separated from sin, not from culture. As we seek to live in culture like Jesus did, we find walking that line difficult. There will always be critics to go along with the applause. We are not motivated by either, rather, we seek to communicate truth so that the world around us might understand what we’re saying and actually hear truth that leads to faith.

Since the time that Rev. Stelzle spoke about the dwindling numbers of church-going Christians a century ago, the percentage has not risen in America. As a communication expert, and speaking for the client side, my conclusion would be: Something is not working. In a hundred years, the self-reported percentage of regular church-going has been around 40. People commonly overestimate their church attendance because it is a socially acceptable type of behavior, but let’s go with the 40% rate just for discussion. We see a lot more competition today for the church-goer. In addition to many more forms of Christianity and many more non-denominational groups, there are other proselytizing religions. Islam, for example, has its own great commission in its Qur’an (Koran). Islam is an evangelizing faith, too. I predict we will see much greater tension between the two groups, and that it will be demonstrated in its advertising. Mormonism is one of the fastest growing religions, not just in America, but in the world. Their advertising is some of the most effective around. Most of the religious advertising we see is connected to Christianity in general, and Protestantism in particular. Judaism has traditionally shied away from any form of proselytizing, but we are now seeing a small number of traditional Orthodox and Kabbalah marketing attempts.

As a researcher, I am trying to present this information to you as objectively as possible. I am curious about the messages that resonate with people, and those that don’t, and for what reasons. As a mere human, I will make mistakes and I will unintentionally insult someone. I will apologize right now for that. I personally think that the billboard with the praying hands is beautiful. I really don’t know from personal experience what the text of that billboard means to a Christian, and so I asked the question provokingly. I am sorry if I insulted anyone. As we can see from the comments, it means different things to different people. Your comments are crucial to our understanding of the effectiveness of messages. Something may offend your sensibilities, but appeal to someone else. My role is not to make any judgments whatsoever. I want to hear from YOU. As I write this, the blog is only about 10 days old. Give me some time to display a wider variety of visual rhetoric. Let’s explore this together. And please keep in mind, we are discussing advertising efforts to bring people to RELIGION or to religious practice. We are not addressing God, Jesus, Mohammed, Allah or any other divine or divinely inspired being—unless you want to comment that you think God would be displeased with these efforts, and then explain yourself. I welcome your comments to this post. Look to the other pages (listed above right) for more godvertising examples.

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