The last half century has not been kind to the mainline denominations. Membership in their respective churches has declined significantly in terms of percentage of population. There are many reasons for why this has happened and though many programs have been tried, none have reversed the situation. Now the mainline churches are looking to their evangelical and free-church cousins and thinking about finding new ways to communicating their message to the community.
Dan Gilgoff reports on the situation in U.S. News and World report:
The key seems to be in finding ways to connect effectively with people under the age of 35 who describe themselves as “spiritual” but who have not, as of yet, connected with organized faith. Denominations are looking at the ways that the mega-churches have managed to connect to see if there’s some lessons to be learned there.
One of the first steps seems to be a wholesale reworking of denominational communications strategy. The Methodist Church has committed more than 20 million dollars to a new advertising campaign in an attempt to communicate the denominations message to people who might not be willing to enter a congregation’s doors. The Episcopal Church has followed suit, but not really committed any money to the effort, hoping instead to connect using “free” online tools and social networking strategies (as in the IamEpiscopalian micro-site).
Gilgoff writes of these branding and communications campaigns:
With their new branding campaigns, mainline churches are betting that many young Americans are looking for worship alternatives to politically conservative evangelical congregations. A recent study conducted for the United Methodist Church by the Barna Group, a consulting firm specializing in faith-based polling, found that a third of Americans under 35 consider themselves spiritual but are not deeply connected to a church. “These young people have rejected too close a tie between religion and politics,” says David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group. “So the mainline sensibility provides a unique opportunity to speak to them.”
Barna’s polling also found that young Americans share an increasingly global outlook and a concern for social justice issues like poverty. Ninety-six percent say they want to make a difference in the world. So the United Methodist Church’s new ads and website feature Methodist-led service projects around the globe. The Lutheran Church’s new branding campaign, called “God’s Work, Our Hands,” spotlights a church soup kitchen in North Dakota and a mission in Senegal that teaches women business skills.
For all their marketing research and high production value, though, mainliners’ branding campaigns face big challenges. Many young people are more likely to volunteer through college organizations or groups like Habitat for Humanity than by joining a new church. Indeed, some religion scholars say the campaigns’ social justice messages aren’t distinct enough to break through. “Study after study has shown that religions that grow are the ones that are hard-core in some way. They have something that differs sharply from the culture in which they operate,” says Boston University’s Prothero. “That’s the problem with mainline Protestantism: It’s not different enough from mainstream America.”
Interesting point there in that final paragraph. Is there some way that the Episcopal Church can differentiate itself sufficiently from the mainstream of America as to be seen as “hard-core”? Is that something we as Anglican Christians really can do?