A Girard church wants to offer hope.
By D.A. WILKINSON
VINDICATOR RELIGION EDITOR
GIRARD -- Instead of ringing the steeple bell, the United Methodist Church will be running television commercials.
The national church will begin running the commercials Tuesday on "The Early Show" on CBS and many cable networks.
The $20 million "Igniting Ministry" is the denomination's first major advertising campaign. It's designed to reach what the Barna Research Group of Ventura, Calif., has estimated as about 100 million people who have no church.
Mainline denominations have seen their membership drop in recent years as people fled to nondenominational churches or left altogether.
Here in the Valley: First United Methodist Church, 22 N. Market St., will be among the first churches taking part in the campaign.
First United will mail a flier to every home in Girard and follow that up with an open house, starting with the 10:45 a.m. service Sept. 9 and continuing Sundays through the month.
The Rev. Doug Meek, the new pastor of First United, said "To reach out, churches opened the door and rang the church bell. Our society has changed."
And in the past, said Rev. Mr. Meek, it's taken the church a while to realize that.
He took over July 1 after serving at Chapel of the Cross in Massillon. He had previously been an assistant at Canfield United Methodist Church.
During interviews for his hiring, the church leaders were interested in outreach and Mr. Meek knew about the upcoming campaign.
"It kind of all fell together," the pastor said.
Campaign, commercials: Each church, said Meek, decides what it wants to do within the national campaign, which has the theme, "Our hearts, our minds and our are doors are always open."
One of the commercials stresses diversity, which Mr. Meek sees as being very important.
Another television spot cleverly sends a message from God to the disenfranchised: "I'm ready to try again."
Mr. Meek said First United is not trying to raid other churches but reach those who are searching for a church home. The television spots will mostly air on cable. Seventy percent of homes have cable service, which has lower advertising rates. ABC and NBC refused religious advertising, according to the national church. The cable networks include A & amp;E, BET, Discovery and TNT.
The ad campaign is designed to run for four years on the premise that there is no quick fix for the denomination's woes. Its membership has dropped from about 10 million members to about 8.3 million.
"Us four and no more," is an old saying about the clubby feeling of some churches. Part of the campaign is designed to get churches to prepare to welcome visitors.
Mr. Meek said, "Our goal is to make people feel welcome and feel a part of the church."
Working toward goal: Toward that end, First United and has created ministry teams that will greet people, hold a fellowship hour after church and operate a welcome center with information about church activities and history.
First United is already in a good position to welcome newcomers since its congregation is of all ages and the church has a host of ministries to serve them. The church has also redesigned its Sunday bulletin to make it more user-friendly by including sung responses.
From the spiritual standpoint, Mr. Meek said he will do whatever it takes to help people feel they are a part of First United.
"Fellowship is part of worship," Mr. Meek added. "We want to make that a priority."
Ultimately, the pastor said, he wants the campaign to offer hope to people.
First United is also doing well. Membership has increased from 1990 to 1999, going from 586 to 645. Church school membership for adults rose 37 percent for those years. And giving to benevolences is up 21 percent.
While the church keeps those figures, the information is also available through the national campaign along with population, household and income data. The national campaign also gives lifestyle descriptions of the population. For example, the largest percentage of families in Girard are parents and highly skilled and sought-after workers who stayed after their children moved away.
Getting a clear picture: The information can give churches a clearer picture of their community. For example, Girard lost 15 percent of its population from 1980 to 2000. While population drops in Mahoning Valley communities are nothing new, Girard lost only 21 households in 20 years. The median income in those households rose and is expected to continue to rise.
It's not known how many other local United Methodist Churches are going to take part in the national campaign. The Youngstown District office represents 58 churches with 17,700 members in Mahoning and Trumbull counties and part of Columbiana and Portage counties.
The denomination's East Ohio Conference based in North Canton oversees eastern Ohio. It represents 824 churches with 190,784 members.
A session to train ministers in the campaign will be later this year. It was delayed since training materials weren't available.
However, the television campaign will also target Advent this year and Lent next spring, the seasons just before Christmas and Easter, the two times infrequent churchgoers go make it to the pews.