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Funny? Ticket to hell?

Whatever you think of the Emerging Spirit campaign, it's generating some badly needed buzz

By David Wilson

I was mired in gridlocked traffic recently with a friend who doesn't go to church and perhaps never will. But he knows a lot about the media and the art of the pitch. "What's behind those United Church ads?" he asked. I told him about the United Church's effort to connect with young adults who don't currently sit in the pews but are drawn toward the values the church is known for. I asked him if he liked the ads. "They're bloody brilliant," he said.

I agree. Its wonky name notwithstanding, I've been a fan of the United Church's Emerging Spirit campaign since it was a gleam in the eye of forward-thinking church officials who concluded the United Church needed to join the 21st century, not fight it. I'm not sure why it's aimed just at 30- to 45-year-olds -- what about 45- to 60-year-olds? -- but the overall thrust and execution of the campaign to date has shown the United Church at the top of its game, or very near it.

The $10.5-million campaign that was unveiled amid much fanfare in November is about using the tools of the day and speaking the language of here and now to engage the world outside the church doors. It respects the intelligence of the people it's aimed at, and it dispels any notions that church has to be high-toned, stodgy or scary. The images it employs -- a bobble-head Jesus, a Bible full of post-it notes, a same-sex wedding cake, whipped cream -- are playful yet poignant. Nothing wrong with that.

And it's getting noticed. Virtually every major-market newspaper in the country, and a fair number from abroad, covered the launch. On television, it was prime-time news for days -- not bad for a campaign that made a conscious decision to direct its advertising dollars away from TV and focus on magazines and the Internet. In the first week, 32,000 people logged on to the Emerging Spirit website, wondercafe.ca, starting more than 300 different discussions. More than 5,300 people took the time to post a comment.

Not everyone has climbed aboard the Emerging Spirit bandwagon: witness the weight of negative letters to the editor we received this month (page 6). Having achieved their goal of getting the United Church noticed, the Emerging Spirit team clearly needs to turn more pastoral attention to longtime members who feel the campaign somehow diminishes their denomination and their faith. (My wife wonders if some parts of the United Church might be suffering from an "irony deficiency.") And they really need to find a way to set the record straight on some lingering misconceptions -- for example, that Mission and Service givings are funding the campaign (they're not), or that bobble-head Jesus is the campaign's mascot (it isn't).

I suspect that the silent majority of United Church members are proud of the way the campaign has put their church squarely in the public eye, and of the way it is introducing things they value to people who might find some value in them too. The long and short of Emerging Spirit is that it is evangelism, United Church-style. It doesn't seek to win converts or fill sanctuaries to overflowing. But it does seek to engage people and show them there is a place to go for conversations that might otherwise be left unsaid. It's a noble goal, and the buzz it has created is bringing new energy to a church that can really use it.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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