Church media campaign lays new plans for reaching seekers

The United Methodist Church's media campaign has changed the public's perception of the denomination from that of a "generic" church to one that non-churchgoers are interested in attending.

Key people in the campaign shared that message with participants at a Pre-General Conference News Briefing held by United Methodist Communications. The Jan. 29-31 briefing brought together about 280 church communicators, first-elected delegates and others in preparation for the denomination's top legislative assembly, which meets this spring.

"We believe this ministry is a 21st-century expression of our Wesleyan heritage, taking the gospel to wherever people congregate," said the Rev. Elijah Stansell, a director of the Foundation for United Methodist Communications. The foundation sponsored a dinner Jan. 30 for participants at the briefing.

United Methodist Communications, the agency that administers the Igniting Ministry campaign, is proposing that the church increase its advertising and develop specific messages for young people during 2005-08. The proposal will go to the General Conference, which meets April 27-May 7 in Pittsburgh.

The communications agency is asking for $33.5 million to continue and expand by 18 weeks annually the core advertising on cable television networks, and for $5.4 million to develop an integrated advertising strategy for local church youth ministries. The agency would continue to provide funds from its budget for administrative costs, regional training and creation of local church resources.

The youth expression, described as a "grass-roots" effort, "is an evangelistic peer-to-peer sharing of the gospel in a compelling multimedia approach, rather than a television advertising campaign," said Larry R. Hygh Jr., director of communications for the denomination's California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference.

"The goal is to get youth to enter into a United Methodist youth ministry program and then to give them a reason to stay," said Hygh, who has been involved in the Igniting Ministry effort since its inception in 2001.

The youth effort is particularly significant since "the percentage of people younger than 30 who are part of the church now is at the lowest level in history," he said. According to statistics found in the 2001 General Minutes of the United Methodist Church, the denomination can identify fewer than 500,000 youth members of United Methodist Youth Fellowship ministries among the more than 8.3 million U.S. church members.

The youth expression would include advertising materials, local church resources, training, grants, and major online opportunities to exchange ideas, creative materials and music and to enter conversations with seeker youth. Many elements would be developed in collaboration with the denomination's Board of Discipleship

Stansell outlined Igniting Ministry's accomplishments of the past four years, including findings of a recent Barna Research Group indicating:

  • Expressed willingness by almost half the 1,200 people surveyed to attend a United Methodist church, far exceeding the initial 10 percent goal set by Igniting Ministry.
  • An 18 percent awareness level of the church among those surveyed, up from 3 percent before Igniting Ministry was launched.
  • A 14 percent increase in first-time attendance in 150 test congregations.
  • A 6 percent total attendance increase in test congregations.

The campaign was launched after the 2000 General Conference approved nearly $20 million in funding for the 2001-04 period.

If the 2004 General Conference approves the latest proposal, the core advertising funding "will enable us to continue to reach people in an environment where they are comfortable, and to say to them, 'We care about you,'" said the Rev. Larry Hollon, United Methodist Communications' top executive.

Igniting Ministry's presence at Ground Zero shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and in Times Square last fall are prime examples of how "the United Methodist Church, through Igniting Ministry, is planting messages that impact lives in ways we may never know," Hollon said.

"Reaching the public using broadcast media … is an investment in our future as a relevant, vital and leading Protestant denomination," he said.

The Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston, a United Methodist Communications staff executive, leads the Igniting Ministry effort. Complete information on the expansion proposals is available at http://www.seespotrunagain.org online.

*Willis is editor for the Public Information Team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

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