Magazine article The Christian Century

Marketing Plan: A Mainline Church in the Bible Belt

Magazine article The Christian Century

Marketing Plan: A Mainline Church in the Bible Belt

Article excerpt

FOR TEN YEARS, I was the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lebanon, Tennessee, a Bible Belt corner of the world that's chock-full of religious right, fundamentalist congregations. Every year on the anniversary date of Roe v. Wade, a church in that community places thousands of white crosses on its front yard. Every July 4, that same church puts out thousands of American flags. In a recent sermon, its pastor announced that "homosexuals will not be allowed into heaven. "The vast majority of churches in my town are kindred spirits with that congregation.

I regularly received postcards from these conservative churches advertising their upcoming sermon series. About eight years ago I did some informal research and confirmed that the postcards are successful in attracting first-time visitors. Why, I asked myself, don't mainline churches advertise as successfully as these churches? That question led to an experiment. Our staff decided to create a compelling, mainline-appropriate worship series and market it to our community.

The title for the series came from a conversation I once had with Danny. When I first met Danny, he said, "Preacher, you need to know that I'm an atheist. I don't believe the Bible. I don't like organized religion. And I can't stand self-righteous, judgmental Christians."

In spite of Danny's avowed atheism and my devout Christian beliefs, we became close friends and shared many conversations about faith. One day Danny announced with a laugh, "I've decided to upgrade from being an atheist to being an agnostic." Several months later he said, "I've had an epiphany. I realize that I don't reject Christianity. Instead, I reject the way that intolerant Christians package Christianity." A few weeks after that conversation, Danny said, "Martin, you've just about convinced me on this religion stuff. So I want to know--what's the least I can believe and still be a Christian?"

That question became the title of the sermon series (and eventually of a book). Over a seven-week period, I preached about several things that Christians don't need to believe. In short, Christians don't need to believe in closed-minded faith. They don't need to believe that it's heresy to believe in evolution, that Jews are going to hell or that women can't be preachers. I then turned to what Christians do need to believe. They need to believe in Jesus--his life, teachings, example, death and resurrection. A great benefit of these beliefs is that they provide promising answers to life's most profound questions: What matters most? Where is God? What brings fulfillment? What about suffering? And is there hope?

The series electrified our congregation, brought in a large number of guests and netted new members. We began to understand that we had a great opportunity to brand ourselves as a mainline church in a sea of fundamentalist churches. While we were not better than our sister churches, we were different, especially in our worship, our theology and our emphasis on grace. Most members were overwhelming enthusiastic about marketing this difference. Over the next few years we became bold in our identification with--and marketing of--our mainline connection.

The first thing we learned is that marketing ourselves as a mainline church came with a cost. The cost was not large but included both internal conflict and external criticism.

Internally, our initiative led one of our staff members to "come out of the closet" as a fundamentalist. Along with a few of his close friends in the congregation, he created a grand plan to change our congregation into a fundamentalist church. That plan included getting rid of me as pastor. He began to tell people that I was a "false prophet" and that I" did not believe the Bible."

Thankfully, his crusade failed. He resigned (instead of being terminated) and only a few people left the congregation. The experience took a toll on me and on other staff, but I had decided that maintaining our mainline identity was a "ditch I was willing to die in. …

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