Shrinking mainline Protestant denominations are turning to marketing to help stem decades of membership losses and stay afloat.
Shrinking mainline Protestant denominations are turning to marketing to help stem decades of membership losses and stay afloat.The United Methodist Church recently unveiled a $20 million rebranding effort aimed at attracting younger members to the large but diminishing Protestant group. The new ads will appear over the next four years as part of the denomination’s “Rethink Church” campaign.The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has invested nearly $1.2 million during the past two years launching a similar branding effort based on the theme, “God’s Work, Our Hands.”The denominations are trying to bounce back from losses that began in the mid-1960s.From 1990 to 2008 alone, mainline Protestants dropped from 18.7 percent to 12.9 percent of the population, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.The United Methodist Church now has just less than 8 million members in the United States, with about 3.5 million additional adherents overseas. The median age for a United Methodist is 57, according to the Rev. Larry Hollon, the denomination’s chief communications executive.The new ads highlight the opportunities for involvement within Methodist churches — from helping feed the poor to volunteering with youth basketball leagues in low-income neighborhoods, reflecting research that found young people are especially interested in service projects.“We need to refocus on young people and provide them an opportunity to be a part of the church,” Hollon said. “What we’re hearing is they say, ‘Belief connects to how I live my daily life.’ If I say I value people because I’m a religious person, then I have to demonstrate that in concrete ways. It’s walking the walk, not just talking the talk.”One of the 30-second ads, posted at www.10thousanddoors.org, asks, “What if church wasn’t just a building, but thousands of doors, each of them opening up to a journey that could actually change the world? Would you come?”Another ad shows children reading books and asks, “What if church was a literacy program for homeless children? Would you come?”Scott Hendrickson, a marketing director for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has about 4.7 million members, said his denomination’s marketing isn’t targeted to new members but current ones. The ads, at www.elca.org/tvads, have run on cable TV channels and in other media outlets that serve large populations of Lutherans.Like the Methodist ads, they feature church members helping others. One shows a Senegal Lutheran mission teaching women how to start their own businesses.“Through them (current members) they will encourage others to come join the church,” Hendrickson said. “We wanted to reach the current members to communicate ... what we do, what our mission is.”The denominations are suffering partly because Americans overall are less interested in belonging to a specific church. Nondenominational churches are gaining, and the ranks of the unaffiliated are growing.Other potential factors behind the losses are the intense public fights in several Protestant groups about whether to ordain gays who live openly with partners. Some theological conservatives also contend that traditional churches often fare better because they demand more of members and create a stronger sense of community. Liberal Protestants reject that argument, contending their congregations also have strong fellowship.Charles Mathewes, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and editor for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, said that instead of new marketing campaigns, mainline denominations could become more popular among young people by making worship more accessible and offering youth-centered programs.Mathewes said the ads “might draw in some people, but at the same time it’s unlikely to accomplish what they want.”“The problem with branding is it’s not exactly the kind of evangelism you want to do,” he said.Laura Olson, a Clemson University professor who specializes in religion, said the rebranding efforts likely have their best chance to succeed with young adults who grew up in mainline churches, but who now consider themselves more generally spiritual.But it’s not clear how long the denominations can hold onto the young people after they re-enter the church.“Mainline Protestantism can offer to people who are skeptical of tradition ... something more progressive,” Olson said. “By and large, mainline Protestantism is progressive politically and theologically. They have really strong powerful roots in social justice issues. That’s their strongest card they have to play.“It’s got that going for it, but its worship style has always been pretty conventional. People who grew up in mainline Protestantism, who maybe aren’t aware of the progressivism there, may be turned off by the worship style.”———On the Net:United Methodist Church, “Rethink Church” campaign: www.10thousanddoors.orgEvangelical Lutheran Church in America ad campaign: www.elca.org/tvads