Beliefnet
Nashville, Tenn., Sept 26--(AP) As the camera focuses on a misty waterfall, a woman offscreen reads a letter of longing. "I miss you," she says. "I miss the sound of your voice, our late-night conversations. No one knows you like I know you."

It seems like a commercial for a greeting card until she signs off, "Love, God."

The TV commercial, named "Love Letters," is part of a $20-million national marketing effort by the United Methodist Church to attract new members and renew interest among existing ones. The ads began airing on Sept. 4 on CBS and 15 cable networks in a campaign the 8.5-million member denomination has dubbed, "Igniting Ministry."

Steven Horswill-Johnston, executive director of the church effort, said the ads will avoid church jargon to try to appeal to people searching for meaning in their lives. "We know that television is primarily the language of the people," Horswill-Johnston said. "We are trying to speak in this language, and we have not done it to date and it's time in this new millennium to do it."

The ads were pulled for four days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, replaced with a single ad encouraging prayer. But the commercials are back, and will be reinforced by the denomination's 36,000 churches through local radio and newspaper ads, billboards, door-to-door leaflets and other means. A total of 14 commercials and 36 radio ads will be used.

The commercials target women and single men between the ages of 25 and 54 who do not attend church or claim any religious affiliation. Some spots feature a man's voice. Some are also recorded in Spanish and Korean. "People come with a variety of different belief systems, and they want to be accepted. They need to know that we are going to accept them at the door as they are," said Horswill-Johnston, who leads the campaign headquarters in Nashville.

Once the potential members walk into church, congregations will be ready to greet them. The Methodists are hosting regional training sessions to show members how to welcome newcomers and make them feel a part of the congregation. For example, congregants will be encouraged to greet visitors within the first three minutes of their arrival rather than wait until the end of the service when people may slip out unnoticed.

Robert Rizzo, vice president of churchmarketing.com, an online firm specializing in marketing for churches and nonprofits, said the Methodists are the first to realize "there is greater strength in promoting the Methodist organization than in just trying to promote each individual local church."

Local congregations of all denominations have advertised for years, and some denominations have embarked on low-budget regional campaigns. However, churches have shied away from national campaigns for fear of appearing manipulative and inappropriate, Rizzo said. Bureaucracy has been another obstacle, since most churches have an organizational structure that requires several levels of approval before a final decision is made.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has distributed public service announcements for some 25 years to TV and radio stations for national use. The ads are meant to reinforce family and personal values rather than convert people to the Mormon faith, but they have prompted people to attend churches of various denominations, Rizzo said.

The United Methodist commercials will air for at least four years during the fall, when the networks debut their new TV shows, and the holiday seasons of Christmas and Easter, when more people attend church.

The Rev. Jaime Potter-Miller of Johnstown, Pa., is traveling the country encouraging United Methodist churches to participate in the campaign because she believes it will reach people who otherwise would never attend church. "We tend to be traditional in the way we do things, and that language isn't heard as clearly as is the language of the media," she said. "We want to serve God in the present age. We must do no less."

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