God used a burning bush. They'll try free gas cards

Published November 19, 2006

On Black Friday, Tracy Larson plans to arrive at area stores by 5 a.m. His end game is not the latest electronic gadget or toy. He wants souls.

Larson and a group of volunteers will try to reach early bird shoppers in southern Pasco County and New Tampa on Friday by proffering bottles of Sunny D and honey buns, gifts that come with a printed message: "You look too hungry to pass up. This is our way of showing God loves you. Victorious Life Church."

Gone are the days when a simple verbal invitation was enough to entice people to church. Now, highly calculated marketing campaigns using elements such as direct mail, television and Internet advertisements, free gifts and guerrilla marketing aim to lure a jaded, desensitized public to the pews.

"You will not reach a community from behind your pulpit," said Larson, the Wesley Chapel church's evangelism and outreach pastor. "The Bible says very specifically that we're to go into the highways and the hedges and compel them to come in. That's the whole concept."

In November alone, Larson expects to spend $10,000 on such outreach gifts, including 22,000 branded candy canes for Christmas. In all, Victorious Life dedicates 11 percent of its multimillion-dollar budget to marketing efforts, Larson said.

Attempting to market faith dates back to the early revivals of the mid 1800s and gained ground during the church growth movement of the 1970s, scholars say. But the proliferation of evangelical megachurches and church plants in recent years hastened the effort's size and scope. The techniques, which include everything from giving away new cars to paying for strangers' meals at restaurants, are slowly beginning to spread to mainline churches, scholars say.

Critics say that many church marketing efforts are too worldly, slightly manipulative and could produce shallow, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately believers.

"You're doing a kind of bait-and-switch, and the people that you're going to get converted for this are getting converted for the wrong reason, and that concerns me," said Duane Stephen Long, an associate professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. "When the church says, you actually have to die for the faith, they're going to say 'Wait a minute.' "

Church leaders who implement such campaigns disagree, saying it takes more to reach a public that increasingly finds church irrelevant. Leaders who implement marketing promotions often divide themselves into two camps:

- Those who practice servant evangelism or give low-cost gifts in the community that nudge people toward the pews.

- Ministries that promise rewards only if people come to worship services.

The efforts of mainline congregations are decidedly more traditional. Nationally, the United Methodist Church runs a multi-million dollar television and ad campaign touting the power of prayer, part of a four-year effort to target potential members. This month, the Assemblies of God plan to run spiritual ads on giant marketing screens in New York's Times Square.

Around the bay area, examples of church marketing abound and are largely the province of evangelicals. Newcomers to the River at Tampa Bay can enter their name in a raffle for a $1,000 shopping spree at the mall of their choice. In 2005, the church gave away a Hummer. Without Walls International Church sent out a video e-mail in October promising a free gift, valued at $25, to the first 3,000 families to attend Sunday service. The gift was a copy of Why We Want You To Be Rich, the new book by Donald Trump and Robert Kiyosaki.

For five weeks last fall, Cypress Point Community Church ran ads in area newspapers promising newcomers a free gas card. Church leaders say it was their way of saying the visit was on them.

"We found that a lot of people visited, but they didn't want the gas card," said Dean Reule, the church's lead pastor. "They were just curious about what kind of place would be so other-focused that they would give this away."

Leaders at Suncoast Church of Tampa hired a mailing company to help them reach 52,000 households in Lutz, Zephyrhills, Wesley Chapel, New Tampa and Land O'Lakes with a four page multicolor newsletter. The church also paid for 12-second video advertisements at Muvico theaters last spring and bought coffee for Starbucks customers on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. For about five weeks, baristas told customers their first cup of joe was on the church.

"You've got young families, soccer moms, baseball moms, they're getting their coffee when they're going to the ballpark and you know that's when we're going to hit our target," said Rusty Gerhart, the church's executive pastor, who estimates the effort cost about $800 per outing.

Relevant Church, a young adult-oriented ministry in Ybor City, is decidedly more provocative. Its latest advertising campaign features a billboard on State Road 60 in Tampa with a scantly clad man and woman and a Web address: MyRealSexLife.com. The Web site, which asks questions about sexual fulfillment, eventually redirects viewers to relevantchurch.com, the church's Web site. It's designed to promote a sermon series about God's take on sex.

Paul Wirth, the church's pastor, said they spent about $5,000 on a multilayered marketing effort for the five-week sermon series. The church also passed out 10,000 MyRealSexLife.com glow bracelets at Guavaween and 5,000 business cards and created a MySpace page devoted to the topic. Wirth credits the marketing efforts with increasing his congregation by about 50 people a week and producing 10,000 hits on the Web site.

"Obviously, people are intrigued," he said.

Compelling them with chocolate

Many churches are marketing themselves to attract and retain new members. Victorious Life Church in Pasco County is one of the area's most aggressive marketers. They offered Cindy Simon a free light bulb and told her they were showing God's love in a practical way. "It's like a light went off in my head," said Simon, a Wesley Chapel nurse. "I've been going there ever since."

Here are a few items in the church's goody bag:

For Valentine's Day: Chocolate candy bars with wrappers expressing God's love.

On hot summer days: Ice cold bottled water with branded wrappers.

For new homeowners: Magnetic grocery list pads or bags of microwave popcorn with cards that invite people to pop in on them.

Sherri Day can be reached at 813 226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.