Identity & Communication Event held on 3-20-2004
"Tell 'em Who You Are!"
UCC Begins National Advertising Campaign
United Church of Christ
Robert Chase, press contact
E-mail From Worldwide Faith News
Web www.ucc.org (www.wfn.org)
For immediate release
Four-year effort to promote denomination's 'distinctive voice'CLEVELAND, Feb. 24, 2004—Hoping to improve its name-recognition among potential U.S. churchgoers, the 1.3-million-member United Church of Christ islaunching its first-ever, nationally-coordinated advertising campaign. In so doing, it becomes the latest in a string of Christian denominations that have taken to the airwaves to define their uniqueness in an ever-crowded religious marketplace. Beginning March 1 and continuing through Easter Sunday, April 11, the UCC's "Still Speaking Initiative" will be unveiled in six U.S. initial markets, where the church has purchased a high saturation level of television advertising: Harrisburg-Lancaster-Lebanon-York, Pa.; Raleigh-Durham-Fayetteville, N.C.; Oklahoma City; Springfield-Holyoke, Mass.; Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota, Fla.; and Cleveland-Akron-Canton, Ohio. The campaign's roll-out on national television is scheduled for later this year. The identity initiative builds on the denomination's "God is still speaking," slogan, one that has been used and tested widely by its congregations since 2001. Both television and print advertisements will be used to emphasize the denomination's historical commitment to inclusivity and hospitality, says the Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president. Besides reaching out to potential members, Thomas says the church is hoping to generate increased enthusiasm and commitment among existing members as the UCC looks toward its 50th anniversary in 2007. "This is an opportunity for the United Church of Christ to renew its distinctive voice as a people of welcome, justice and passion for the Gospel," says Thomas. "The Still Speaking Initiative will help us fall in love again with the United Church of Christ, be generous in financial support, and turn our attention toward a world that needs to experience the presence, embrace and encouragement of Jesus." The Cleveland-based UCC, which includes nearly 6,000 congregations in the United States and Puerto Rico, was formed in 1957 with the union of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. But, despite its founding as a "united and uniting church," denominational identity has long been a problem, says the Rev. Robert Chase, director of communication in the UCC's Proclamation, Identity and Communication Ministry. The United Church of Christ, Chase says, is often mistaken for the similar-sounding Church of Christ, even though the two church bodies have little in common with regard to theological outlook, worship practices or social policy statements. Even more problematic, he says, is the fact that many UCC congregations still cling to their former denominational identities at the expense of forging any collective denominational exposure. In New England, for example, many UCC churches are better known as "Congregational" churches, rather than "UCC." The UCC's name-recognition is "negligible at best," says Ted Pulton, a managing partner with Gotham, Inc., a major New York advertising firm that has offered its services to the UCC at cost. Focus group testing revealed that only a small handful of participants said they knew something about the denomination and as its turns out, he says, respondents really were mistakenly referring to the Church of Christ, not the UCC. "Any perceived recognition was actually misattributed," he says. The random testing also uncovered strong negative feelings about churches in general, regardless of denomination. A large percentage of respondents said they considered churches to be responsible for past hurts in their lives, and many traced their feelings of inadequacy to negative church experiences. Too many congregations, they said, left them feeling unwelcomed, financially inadequate and inappropriately dressed. Therefore, the UCC's ads will address issues of alienation directly. The debut 30-second commercial features two muscle-bound "bouncers" who stand guard outside a fabled, picturesque church where they discriminately choose which persons will be permitted to attend Sunday services. Written text interrupts the scene, announcing: "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we." A narrator then touts the UCC's commitment to Jesus' radical embrace: "No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life's journey, you are welcome at a United Church of Christ congregation." A second, more heart-warming spot -- to be released during Advent -- features a young girl who is reciting the familiar children's poem, "Here's the church, here's the steeple," complete with hand motions. When the child reaches the poem's highpoint, ". . . open the door and see all the people," the camera segues through a diverse group of people who echo, again and again, the inclusive refrain, "all the people." The UCC plans to invest an increasing amount of resources into advertising during the next four years. In so doing, it is following in the footsteps of other denominations that have increasingly relied on the airwaves to increase exposure, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints, the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As a blend of four distinct Christian traditions -- Congregational, Christian, Evangelical and Reformed -- the UCC includes some of the country's oldest congregations and structures. However, increasingly, the UCC is becoming home to churches outside the original mix. Since 2001, more than 80 existing churches have joined the UCC, including many once-Southern Baptist congregations that have been "disfellowshiped" by state or national conventions for ordaining women or welcoming gay and lesbian members. Known widely for its leadership on social, racial and economic justice issues, the UCC's history includes an impressive list of firsts. It launched the first attempt at congregational democracy (1630), led the movement to abolish slavery (1700), was a leading force in the spiritual revival known as the Great Awakening (1730), staged the nation's first act of civil disobedience that inspired the "Boston Tea Party" (1773), hid the Liberty Bell when the British occupied Philadelphia (1777), was the first mainline denomination to ordain an African-American pastor (1785) and formed the nation's first foreign missionary society (1810). The UCC came to the aid of the illegally-enslaved Amistad captives in 1839, an event that led to the U.S. Supreme Court's first civil rights ruling. It was the first church to ordain a woman in 1853 and the first to ordain an openly gay man in 1972.