Churches Fight Back Against Shrinking Membership

Stung by a 25 percent drop in membership churches are launching recruiting campaigns.

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"What if church wasn't just a building, but thousands of doors?" asks a new website launched by the United Methodist Church. "Each of them opening up to a different concept or experience of church. . . . Would you come?" After watching its membership drop nearly 25 percent in recent decades, the United Methodist Church, which is still the nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination, thinks it knows the answer. So it's pouring $20 million into a new marketing campaign, including the website, television advertisements, even street teams in some cities, to rebrand the church from stale destination to "24-7 experience."

"The under-35 generation thinks church is a judgmental, hypocritical, insular place," says Jamie Dunham, chief planning officer for Bohan Advertising & Marketing, the firm that designed the United Methodist campaign. "So our question is: What if church can change the world with a journey?"

With their pews having thinned dramatically, other mainline Protestant denominations are posing similar questions in like-minded campaigns. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a major mainline denomination, has TV ads spotlighting the church's charitable work and encouraging Lutherans to take pride in and to share their faith with friends. And the Episcopal Church recently launched a website called "I am Episcopalian," where half a million church members have uploaded videos explaining their faith.

These are the kinds of entrepreneurial church-building strategies that are more typical of evangelical megachurches, which have focused on member experiences by offering contemporary music and weeknight small-group meetings. Mainline denominations, meanwhile, have clung to hymns and centuries-old worship styles. "In the competitive spiritual marketplace, mainline churches are trying to reinvent themselves," says Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University.

Some mainline church officials admit to taking a page from the evangelical playbook. And no wonder. Since 1990, the number of Americans identifying themselves as members of mainline denominations, including Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ, has slid from nearly 19 percent of the population to under 13 percent, a loss of 3.5 million people. Over the same period, the number identifying themselves as nondenominational Christians, the evangelical-style tradition of the megachurches, has exploded, from fewer than 200,000 to more than 8 million. "The megachurch folks learned that they have to address people where they are in their daily lives, and that's not in the sanctuary," says the Rev. Larry Hollon, who heads communications for the United Methodists. "The Methodist Church is beginning to recall that that is who we are as well."

With their new branding campaigns, mainline churches are betting that many young Americans are looking for worship alternatives to politically conservative evangelical congregations. A recent study conducted for the United Methodist Church by the Barna Group, a consulting firm specializing in faith-based polling, found that a third of Americans under 35 consider themselves spiritual but are not deeply connected to a church. "These young people have rejected too close a tie between religion and politics," says David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group. "So the mainline sensibility provides a unique opportunity to speak to them."

Barna's polling also found that young Americans share an increasingly global outlook and a concern for social justice issues like poverty. Ninety-six percent say they want to make a difference in the world. So the United Methodist Church's new ads and website feature Methodist-led service projects around the globe. The Lutheran Church's new branding campaign, called "God's Work, Our Hands," spotlights a church soup kitchen in North Dakota and a mission in Senegal that teaches women business skills.

For all their marketing research and high production value, though, mainliners' branding campaigns face big challenges. Many young people are more likely to volunteer through college organizations or groups like Habitat for Humanity than by joining a new church. Indeed, some religion scholars say the campaigns' social justice messages aren't distinct enough to break through. "Study after study has shown that religions that grow are the ones that are hard-core in some way. They have something that differs sharply from the culture in which they operate," says Boston University's Prothero. "That's the problem with mainline Protestantism: It's not different enough from mainstream America."