Proud of their liberal views, spiritual skepticism and religious diversity -- counting atheists, neo-pagans and Buddhists in their ranks -- Unitarian Universalists are not known as heavy-duty evangelizers.
But with just 250,000 members nationwide and growth relatively stagnant at 1 percent a year, the Unitarian Universalist Association
(UUA) is trying to raise its national profile with an unorthodox ad campaign -- the first in its 46-year history.
"We've kept our light under a bushel," said the Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, the UUA's director of congregational services. "I think this current national campaign really does reflect a shift for us in our passion and willingness to be more present."
The campaign, in conjunction with Time magazine, hopes to amplify the church's voice on national issues, increase name recognition and inspire pride in the UUA identity. It's not a reaction to the religious right, necessarily, but an effort to provide "messages that the world desperately needs right now," Robinson-Harris said.
"I would say that we are speaking up on behalf of a more tolerant, more affirming approach to the diversity of religious perspective in the world," she said.
Although rooted in Christianity, the only creed within Unitarian Universalism is that there is no creed. Instead, congregations adhere to seven principles, including "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning," and draw on texts from various religions, science and literature.
In recent years, several mainline denominations have introduced ad campaigns.
In 2004, the United Church of Christ's "God is still speaking" television ads were booted from major networks as "too controversial."
In 2001, the United Methodist Church launched their "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" campaign; an independent study indicated people who saw the ads were 47 percent more likely to have a positive impression of Methodists than those who had not seen it.
Recent regional advertising by the UUA has proven successful. In Kansas City, Mo., the number of church visitors rose by up to 25 percent, while a campaign in Houston helped turn a 7 percent membership decline into an 8 percent increase over the course of a year.
The UUA's $425,000 ad campaign will run through the end of the year, but Robinson-Harris wasn't sure if it will continue into 2008. She said the UUA chose Time because of the demographics of its 21.4 million readers.
The UUA ad campaign has two parts -- traditional print ads in Time, and "advertorials." The print ads carry the message: "Is God keeping you from going to church?"
The more unusual advertorials debuted on Friday (Oct. 26) in Time.com/ReligionPages, an online archive of Time religion stories. Its tagline is "Find us and ye shall seek."
The online archive will only feature stories that focus on three areas chosen by the UUA: religion and science; religion in American democracy; and religion, sexuality and morality. Readers will be able to click on links to a UUA Web page with essays written by UUA ministers about these topics.
"The advertorial concept is certainly new for us," Robinson-Harris said. "It is a new opportunity to be able to draw on the wealth of stories that Time has accumulated and to offer up to Time's readers the opportunity, in a focused kind of way, to explore more about those various issues."
That's not to say the idea hasn't been without controversy. The Rev. Scott Wells, a Unitarian Universalist minister who's starting a church in Washington D.C., said the advertorials blur the line between editorial content and advertising.
"If I was an outside reader ... I'd wonder why wasn't a story written about Unitarian Universalists if they're so important or relevant? And I don't think I've ever seen another religious body stoop to an advertorial," he said.
Wells associates advertorials with commercial companies and lobbyists -- "not the company I think we should be keeping," he said.
Robinson-Harris said the advertorials would not affect the magazine's religion coverage, since the stories were already written, and isn't worried about a backlash about whether such advertising is inappropriate.
A Time spokesperson said it's the first time a religious organization has advertised in an online archive of Time stories, and said the magazine has designed online sections that have been purchased by other advertisers.
She said Time would consider working with other religious groups if approached.
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