United Methodists Target Seekers Online

More than 21 million people are expected to drop in on a new wave of online interactive ads being launched by one of the nation's largest Protestant denominations.

As part of a multi-million dollar "Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors." advertising campaign, The United Methodist Church will target the younger generation (22- to 44-year-olds) over the next two months with ad messages on the Internet.

"We're seeking to reach people who feel like something is missing from their life and are looking for meaning or purpose," said the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of the United Methodist Communications, in a released statement. "Many of those people are searching online. We've chosen sites where they may be looking for something to fill a void in their lives - whether it's travel, relationships, or something more spiritual."

A Pew Internet & American Life Project report revealed that 64 percent of Internet users in 2003 use the Web for spiritual and religious activities – a jump from 25 percent in 2001. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they used the Internet to seek or exchange information about their own religious faith or tradition and 17 percent used the Internet to find information about where to attend religious services.

The Methodist ads will appear on such popular websites as Beliefnet, eHarmony, CitySearch, and About.com from Aug. 20 to mid-October, asking questions about desires and beliefs and offering poll results from users' responses. Television spots from the campaign will also be streamed and links will lead users to information about The United Methodist Church.

The outreach campaign comes as membership in The United Methodist Church is at its lowest level since 1930 with just over 8 million.

In 2005, The United Methodist Church announced a $25 million advertising effort over the next four years to reach out to their communities and raise their identity. The boosted ad effort came on the heels of airing United Methodist television commercials between 2001 and 2004. Research indicated that first-time attendance increased by 9 percent among congregations residing where the ad was broadcasted during that campaign period.

Testing out other outreach strategies to complement the TV ad campaign, United Methodists launched a large-scale outdoor advertising last year, placing 450 billboards in 15 media markets to reach commuters and travelers.

This year, the new medium is the Internet. With the growth of Internet advertising, United Methodists have picked up on the fast-growing medium to reach wider audiences, particularly seekers.

In January, The United Methodist Church launched a revolutionary new website, UMC.org, to also make an online community available 24-hours-a-day. And the site's biggest feature is what UMC leaders say is the first major faith-based social networking system developed by a mainline denomination.

Some predict dissonance between the old traditional denomination and a 21st century approach. Hollon, however, says the churches are already moving into the digital age.

"The challenge we have is keeping up with the church," commented Hollon.