Is television advertising mainline Protestantism’s best hope? Set to mood music that would have made Barry White grin, a new United Methodist Church spot features a woman discovering a red ribbon, a black man in a wheelchair, an Asian woman fighting with her husband, a businessman picking up arrows, and other people of every age, sex, and color finding their way to a field. The voiceover intones, “Find your path and share the journey. The people of the United Methodist Church.” This is what’s supposed to haul folks back to Methodism — or at least stem its precipitous decline.
“The Journey” TV ad will be launched next week by United Methodist Communications in a $2 million cable rollout. UMC has sent out press releases and retained a Washington, D.C. public relations firm to announce its latest push in the “Open hearts, Open minds, Open doors” advertising campaign. The Methodists’ sustained PR push began in 2001 with aggressive advertising and is slated to continue through 2008, with concentrated efforts during back-to-school and holiday periods.
While United Methodist Communications’ PR representative contacted TAS to set up interviews with church officials about the ad campaign, they failed to call for two days. So we were left with a few questions: What is the ad saying? Where is the ad’s religious message? What about the ad distinguishes the United Methodist Church? Why is a church spending so much on television advertising?
At first glance, the ad says very little. The church welcomes people from all walks of life and makes few demands. Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications, seems to confirm this in the press release, “We are on a journey that leads us toward God. This spot shows that persons seeking a path for their faith can find a home in the United Methodist Church.” And he told the Denver Post, “What we’re trying to say is, if you’re searching for wholeness, a desire for spiritual growth and commitment to a larger purpose, try us.” From this information, the uninitiated would learn that the UMC is monotheistic and welcoming. To learn that the church is Christian would require independent investigation.
Maybe the message behind the ad campaign — or lack thereof — is part of the problem rather than a solution. Mark Tooley, TAS contributor and United Methodist director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, said, “The ads aren’t offensive, they’re just kind of languid. I’d question their effectiveness.”
Apparently even the motto “Open hearts, Open minds, Open doors” is causing problems in the United Methodist Church, according to Tooley. A conference by pro-gay Methodists will be hosted over Labor Day weekend by a church facility at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. Conservatives in the church are objecting to “Hearts on Fire,” which will featured the openly lesbian defrocked minister Beth Stroud, since UMC has rejected the ordination of practicing homosexuals as well as gay marriage. Those defending the use of church property for “Hearts on Fire” have justified it by citing the absolute inclusiveness implied in “Open hearts, Open minds, Open doors.” “People on the conservative side of the church are concerned about the slogan because people on the left push their agenda using that,” Tooley said.
So what Methodist convictions will attract the masses into its pews? A denomination’s moral teachings usually indicate its theological strength. The church lists topics on its website. Where one might expect subjects like original sin, salvation, and the like, the curious find nods to modern liberalism: corporate responsibility, restorative justice, and women clergy. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that UMC opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, but is equivocal when it comes to abortion.
FIVE YEARS AND $20 MILLION of slick packaging haven’t stemmed UMC’s membership nosedive. In fact, the situation has only grown worse. According to UMC, the church only lost 34,000 members in 1999 and 36,500 in 2000, but saw 69,000 leave in 2003 and 71,000 depart in 2004. Such attrition is nothing to sneeze at when total membership is less than 8.2 million.
The slide isn’t new for UMC. As a percentage of the American population, its membership has dropped from 5.3% in 1970 to 3% in 2000. And while U.S. population has increased by over 110% since 1940, Methodists only increased membership by less than 1% over the same period.
As is fairly well known, only mainline Protestant denominations suffer this fate while Catholic and fundamentalist denominations have experienced healthy membership growth. The National Council of Churches 2005 Yearbook reports that the Southern Baptist Convention increased its rolls by 7 percent since 1994, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God by 20 percent, and the Roman Catholic Church by 13 percent. Last year alone, the Catholic Church grew by 1.28 percent, the Southern Baptists by 1.18 percent, and the Assemblies of God by 1.57 percent, while the Methodists turned in 0.002 percent growth (this NCC figure contradicts the UMC’s reported loss, but helps contrast UMC with other churches).
It’s no coincidence that mainline Protestantism and its milquetoast morality is failing while churches with strong convictions are booming. People are drawn to strong convictions and churches that demand something of their lives. Americans don’t need to be told in an ad campaign that the United Methodist Church — the country’s third largest denomination — is there. The problem is that there’s no there there.