Churches Strike Back

by Jennifer Hahn

The decline of America's mainline churches is an old story. But here's a new angle that few journalists have covered: “The Churches Strike Back.”

Americans are leaving religious institutions in droves. In fact, the fastest growing religious group in the U.S. is the unaffiliated, according to the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life. The American religious landscape has always operated as a competitive marketplace, where religious groups compete, sometimes fiercely, for adherents. But as a steady stream of Americans opt out of religious institutions, the struggle to get them back to church has grown even more spirited.

In recent years, Roman Catholics as well as several Protestant denominations have launched multi-media campaigns to entice people back into their pews. The most recent, and high profile, is the United Methodist Church's $20 million “Rethink Church” campaign, launched in May. With slick ads on national television, radio, and in popular magazines, the campaign sports the tagline “What if church was a verb?” The focus is primarily on works (as in “faith without works is dead”) and showcases the church as actively involved in making a better world. One of the print ads running in the left-wing magazine Good pictures two hands cupping dirt and asks, “What if church considered ecology part of theology?” A television spot focused on global health 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?” accompanied by shots of the church's missionary work fighting HIV, AIDS, and malaria in distant parts of the world. This week, the campaign even made its way onto the most prominent advertising spot in the country – on a mega-screen in New York's Times Square.

The Methodists' “Rethink Church”  campaign is heir to a similar effort the United Church of Christ started a few years ago called “God is Still Speaking” and an ongoing effort by the group Catholics Come Home to “help fill empty churches across the globe.” Jewish groups are also making an attempt to attract young Jews, who still strongly identify as Jewish but do their own thing religiously, back to their institutions. The Progressive Jewish Alliance, for instance, seeks to bring Jews back to communal life through social justice campaigns.

So even though recent statistics make it hard not to write that decline-of-religious-institutions story once again, there's another, far more interesting, story waiting to be told. Religious groups seem to be realizing that in this media-saturated culture, everything – even the way we choose to worship God – needs a brand identity. It's not over until the fat institutions sing. And singing they are.

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