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United Methodists test modern media campaign to draw believers

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Saturday, Dec. 6, 2008
 

In the beginning was the Word.

Then came texting.

The United Methodist Church is hoping to reach a younger audience by adding modern media tools to a campaign it credits with increasing first-time and long-term church attendance between 2001 and 2004.

The updated version of the "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" campaign is being tested in the Pittsburgh area and runs through Christmas Eve. The campaign uses text messaging and outdoor advertising to attract churchgoers in the 18-34 age group.

Call it God 121. (That's one-to-one for non-texters.)

"We especially hope to bring more young people into our churches, and that means reaching out in new and innovative ways that are relevant to our target audience," said Pittsburgh Bishop Thomas Bickerton.

More than 40 billboards and ads on transit shelters urge people to text the word Believe to adesignated number. In response, they'll receive a longer message inviting them to attend a United Methodist Church at Christmas. They can reply with their ZIP code to find a church in their area or get additional information from UnitedMethodist.org .

The campaign is aimed at reaching thousands of commuters and pedestrians. Other ads will be delivered to content subscribers of 4INFO, an ad-supported text message information service.

Bickerton said the church has been receiving about 100 text messages a day, which is better than what officials had anticipated.

The United Methodist Church has 191,000 members in the Western Pennsylvania Regional Conference, covering 23 counties.

Attracting younger people to church pews has been difficult across denominational lines. Surveys show that nearly 25 percent of the 18-34 age group has no religious affiliation and 41 percent attend church only once a year.

"I think it's a great idea. It's a challenge to reach that generation," said the Rev. David Streets, pastor at Ingomar United Methodist Church in Franklin Park.

The success of the campaign initially might be hard to judge, Streets said. Attendance normally increases this time of year, when college students are home for the holidays.

The campaign won't appeal to Amanda Dille, 26, of Dormont, although she thinks "it's a good idea for people looking for spiritual direction."

Using modern media "gets the word out."

"It's a very good tool," said Dille, who often sends text messages friends and family.

The church said it might add iTunes, YouTube and other digital media to the mix next year.

But it likely will remain a tough sell.

"My religion is based on personal beliefs, not advertising," said Lisa Erb, 27, of the South Side.

 

 
 


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