What would Jesus drive? It's a controversial question implied in a daring new Chevrolet marketing campaign in which the automaker is hitching cars to faith in Christ during 16 evangelical concerts that will end at the Palace in Detroit on Nov. 23.

These "Chevrolet Presents: Come Together and Worship" stage shows, debuting Nov. 1 in Atlanta, already are sparking outrage and praise. "This may be a sign of the times, but it's not a good sign," said Rabbi James Rudin, spokesman for the American Jewish Committee in New York. "America is increasingly multiethnic and multireligious. So, for an American icon like Chevrolet to link itself to one religion, Christianity, and then one specific group within Christianity is divisive. The majority of Americans are not evangelical Christians and it would be very, very bad business for Chevrolet to put the idea into people's minds that they're the evangelical brand."

Phyllis Tickle, an expert on religious marketing for Publishers Weekly magazine, said, "This is surprising--a real blurring of the lines between the commercial and the sacred. And it's unfortunate, because it compromises both sides. We know that church and state are never supposed to meet, and I think it's also a bad idea for church and Wall Street to be meeting like this."

That's not how Chevrolet's Steve Betz sees it. Chevrolet executives in Detroit referred all calls about the new campaign to Betz in Atlanta. He's the General Motors division's marketing manager for the Southeastern United States and now is Chevy's national point man for this campaign. Betz is confident the tour will send a positive message and give dealers a boost, he said. "It's important that we get the message out there with regards to Chevrolet and how we're so family oriented and have great values," Betz said.

Each night of the Chevrolet tour will be a multimedia worship service with an evangelical flair--complete with preaching by Texas pastor and author, the Rev. Max Lucado, and a distribution of free evangelical literature. The headline musicians, Michael W. Smith and the rock band Third Day, are among the hottest acts in the contemporary Christian music genre.

Anticipating huge crowds, the shows are booked into venues averaging 14,000 seats, like Dallas' American Airlines Center and Atlanta's Philips Arena.

In three Southern markets, Chevrolet is going even further and offering church-going customers a bonus. In Atlanta, Lexington, Ky., and Winston-Salem, N.C., customers who test drive a car will get a free worship-tour CD.

There's a lot at stake in this deal, say Betz and key figures in contemporary Christian music. "We consider this to be a breakthrough for our industry," said Frank Breeden, head of the Christian Music Trade Association in Nashville, Tenn. "A lot of corporations have had a longstanding hands-off policy on topics they consider controversial -- and for a long time they've thought about religion as one of those topics."

Smaller companies have promoted religious shows in regional venues, mainly in the South. But, until now, most nationwide corporate deals involving religion have been tightly controlled.

A decade ago, Target hired singer Amy Grant as a national spokeswoman, but only at the point in her career when she was crossing from Christian into pop music. And Coca-Cola recently hired several contemporary Christian artists to record radio spots, Breeden said, but they were limited to singing a brief Coke script.

Chevrolet's venture is daring, partly because the bands and Lucado have full freedom to express their faith onstage, say the bands' promoters and Chevrolet executives. "We've placed no restrictions on them at all," Betz said.

For their part, the musicians and Lucado plan to use that freedom to turn these concerts into full-scale worship experiences, said Jeff Gregg, a Nashville talent agent who helped coordinate the road show. "This is not necessarily an entertainment experience. It's really a vertical experience between believers and God," Gregg said. "When you add someone like Max Lucado, you've got both the praise experience and the teaching experience combined, much like a church service." If successful, Breeden said, this could become "a new wave in entertainment marketing."

What caught Chevrolet's attention in the midst of a tight economy was the possibility of reaching a demographic niche that was largely untapped by secular manufacturers. In June, Betz's team in Atlanta noted potential customers' strong response to Chevrolet promotions at an amusement park in Charlotte, N.C. About 8,000 people were drawn to the park's amphitheater for an evangelical music festival.

These were young families with disposable income, a fact that made them ideal Chevy customers. Clearly, the way to catch their eye was through their faith, Betz said. After research, he said, "We've found that in 26 of our 44 markets in the Southeast, Bible and devotional reading is the No. 1 leisure activity. So it's huge. This is the Bible Belt."

In addition, Chevrolet can expect to garner tremendous doses of goodwill from the performers and their fans during the monthlong tour, Breeden said. "It's important for us as an industry not to misstep here and to pay attention to the numbers and understand that this is a business," Breeden said.

Everyone connected with the tour declined to discuss financial details. But Betz said Chevrolet marketing experts are certain to study the campaign from all angles: the costs, new customers generated for dealers, vehicles sold and the overall public reaction -- good and bad.

"We'll do a post-analysis of this when it's all said and done," Betz said. "We think we've got a great venue here, but honestly, this is a business thing that we're trying to accomplish here. This is about selling cars."

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