Sunday, July 13, 2003

Episcopalians turn to humor to fill the pews

Ad campaign: Call to worship

By Charley Gillespie
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Episcopalians are trying to get more people to go to church by offering an unusual enticement: "Summer sermons will be shorter. Priests play golf too."

The Episcopal Church's Diocese of Southern Ohio is using humorous ads on billboards, buses and movie screens in a campaign to increase membership and dispel any negative stereotypes about going to church.

The ads started at Christmas with billboards in Dayton, including one that read: "You can't fill that empty space with fruitcake."

"It's funny on one level, but it also reminds people that a lot of us have an empty space which they can either look to the world to fill or look to God to fill," said Richelle Thompson, a diocesan spokeswoman.

The ads at Easter in Dayton carried messages such as: "That bunny is a great guy, but where is he when you need help?"

With a modest operating budget of $15,000, the diocese hopes that by using humor more people will notice the ads. Thompson said new bus ads will begin appearing in Columbus in about a week.

"We would plaster the ads on every bus if we had the money - because we think our message is that important," Thompson said. "Our limited budget challenges us to be creative."

Sometimes the ads sell themselves.

In December, a Dayton billboard company donated one of its largest billboards after seeing its Christmas message: "Give them something they can't grow out of."

"They thought it was a good message for people to see," Thompson said.

The humorous ads also help dispel stereotypes of churches being stuffy, boring or elitist, Thompson said.

"When you get involved in the church, you will see it is actually the opposite," she said.

In 1998, Bishop Herbert Thompson Jr. began a push to increase diocesan membership from 26,000 to 100,000 by 2005. The diocese currently has about 30,000 members in 86 congregations in the southern half of Ohio.

This month, the diocese will try to sell its ideas for a national ad campaign to delegates at the denomination's General Convention in Minneapolis.

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