This year marks United Methodist Communications’ 80th birthday. For 20 of those 80 years, advertising has been a staple of modern-day evangelism.
The United Methodist Church began its “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” welcoming and advertising campaign in 2001. The purpose of the campaign was to increase awareness and recognition of The United Methodist Church’s basic beliefs and to promote willingness to visit a local church.
Advertising centered each year around Lent, Advent, and the back-to-school season—times of the year when people were thought to be most receptive to messages of Christian faith. As part of the campaign, matching grants were provided to local churches for placing television, radio, cinema, and outdoor advertisements in their communities.
Advertising caused a steady climb in awareness, as independent tracking research consistently showed gains. Within five years, 30 percent of those surveyed were aware of the campaign, up from 14 percent in 2001 when the campaign first began.
United Methodist advertising over the years has explored many different spiritual themes. “The Journey” invited people, seeking a path for their faith to find a home in the United Methodist Church. “Prayer” encouraged people to believe in the power of prayer. "The Gift" underscored the importance of sharing our gifts with others, while “I Believe” underscored the acceptance and inclusiveness of The United Methodist Church, encouraging viewers to bring their spiritual search to The United Methodist Church. “Childlike Faith” took a look at faith through the eyes and words of children.
But United Methodist Communications (UMCom) also sought to be responsive to what was happening in the world, from a billboard two blocks from Ground Zero in 2001 to the most recent campaign launched this summer encouraging hope amid the coronavirus pandemic. In between, ads were used to respond to people’s grief and bewilderment over a host of events including hurricanes, floods, wildfires, a bridge collapse, a bombing, mass shootings and other acts of violence to offer messages of compassion and healing.
The 2013 campaign, “That’s Church,” focused on social issues such as education, labor rights and food insecurity. In 2015, “Church can happen anywhere” reflected the changing face of religion, reminding people that church not only happens inside a building but every day, in many places.
New forms of advertising media
In 2003, United Methodist Communications took their message to Times Square, advertising on the 7,000 sq. ft. electronic billboard on the Reuters and Instinet building. The ad was initially rejected because of a policy against faith-based advertising. Three years later, they undertook the first large-scale outdoor advertising campaign with 450 billboards in 15 cities.
The following year brought online advertising with interactive ads on eHarmony, BeliefNet and other sites that incorporated poll questions and video.
In 2008, the church went mobile with a test campaign in Pittsburgh that incorporated text messaging with outdoor ads.
When the target audience was shifted to a younger demographic with the launch of the Rethink Church campaign in 2009, more contemporary, less traditional advertising channels such as iTunes, YouTube, and other digital media were added to the mix. During these years, UMCom also supported local churches doing outreach in their communities with a wide range of advertising media as a way to raise awareness. “Our Wesleyan tradition is one of faith in action, so lifting up churches who were embodying this seemed like a perfect way to share our message of God’s love at work in the world,” said Jennifer Rodia, Chief Communications Officer.
In 2016, in addition to the digital and TV advertising the church was engaged in, UMCom added the component of hospitality, as street teams, often from the local churches, handed out cups of hot cocoa to Christmas shoppers and eventgoers and invited them to church as mobile billboards cruised the area.
The “Great Caravan of Peace” is traveling across 25 districts of Côte d'Ivoire this September, handing out T-shirts and flyers from an ad-wrapped bus to carry a message of peace amid a time of unrest in the country. Billboards, banners and radio and newspaper ads proclaim “Côte d'Ivoire, recois ma paix” (receive my peace). The effort, a partnership between The United Methodist Church of Côte d'Ivoire and United Methodist Communications, is the denomination’s latest venture into growing its global advertising footprint.
“Advertising has helped awareness of The United Methodist Church remain high in the U.S; our research indicates about 95% of adult survey respondents seeking more spirituality in their lives have heard of the UMC,” said Poonam Patodia, chief marketing officer. “In order to raise global awareness of the church, United Methodist Communications is partnering with Central Conferences to have a broader reach in our advertising. We’re looking at expanding into some additional areas of Africa in the coming year.”
In 2019, United Methodist Communications placed evangelistic messages outside the U.S. on a broad scale for the first time, with a billboard campaign in three cities in Nigeria. The billboards helped to raise awareness of The United Methodist Church in Nigeria and helped people to locate a local church through the web address on the billboard.
"The billboard campaign in Gombe has made it easy for members of The United Methodist Church in Gombe to locate the address of churches within the Northern Nigeria Annual Conference …” said Rev. Nibron Haruna, a district superintendent of Gombe district.
“I was very excited when I first saw the UMC Nigeria Billboard campaign in Abuja,” said Elizabeth Yohanna, president of United Methodist Women of the Southern Nigeria Conference. “It was crystal clear and pointing to the strong presence of the United Methodist Church in our national capital.”
For 80 years, United Methodist Communications has been leading the church in telling inspirational stories of God’s work in the world through The United Methodist Church, reaching new people, supporting local churches in vibrant communications ministry, equipping leaders and delivering messages of hope and healing. This essential work requires financial support. If you believe in our mission, consider a tax-deductible donation of $8-$80-$800 to the work of United Methodist Communications through its Foundation at ResourceUMC.org/GiveUMCom.
Diane Degnan is the director of Public Relations at United Methodist Communications.