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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 September 2005, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
By your adverts ye shall be known...
Stills from Alpha Course cinema advertisement

By Stephen Tomkins

Clever posters, glossy cinema adverts - the church is increasingly adopting the ways of the world in attempting to attract attention to itself. Some say it's the only way to get a message across in modern times. Others say it's sacrilege.

Q. What do scoring the winning goal in a cup final, walking down the catwalk amid flashing bulbs, and climbing to the top of a mountain have in common?

A. They have nothing to do with church.

And if that seems like a bit of a cheat, they also all feature in the first cinema ad for the Alpha Course, the church programme where unbelievers explore Christianity. The punch line is each of these winning role models turning to the camera and asking, "Is there more to life than this?" Alpha Course logo, and then we're on to the main feature.

It perhaps says something about the church's image, or self-image, that it advertises the faith without any mention of God, religion or church.

Church. It isn't as churchy as you think.
The Fallon advert
A similar message comes from a poster ad created recently for (but not by) British churches, the slogan being "Church. Not as churchy as you think." This advertisement is part of a campaign dreamt up by the Fallon agency, as part of the forthcoming Channel 5 programme, Don't Get Me Started.

The idea of the campaign is to persuade non-churchgoers that church is part of modern life. Other captions include: "More dances are held in church halls than in dance halls" and "You have to be a pretty good bloke to let 40 screaming kids and a bouncy castle in your house".

Fallon is the agency that successfully remarketed Skoda in 2000 - "A car that good can't be a Skoda" - and its similarly self-deprecating church ads have been welcomed by church leaders.

Then on Tuesday, the Churches Advertising Network (CAN) launched its Christmas campaign. CAN has created Christmas and Easter advertising for churches since 1991, most famously with the controversial image of Jesus in the style of Che Guevara in 1999, with the caption, "Meek. Mild. As if."

CAN advertisement
Jesus as Che: "Grossly sacrilegious"
Here again the church was consciously attempting an image makeover, for Christ himself this time. Not everyone liked the new look. The former Conservative MP Harry Greenway called it "grossly sacrilegious", and the Catholic Church in England and Wales pulled out of CAN, questioning the whole idea of putting God in the marketplace: "We haven't got a product to market."

It clearly had enough impact, however, for the 2005 campaign to resurrect the Che Guevara image, though this time, for Christmas, with the face of a small child. "Dec 25. The revolution begins."

Attendance figures

Stephen Parkinson of the Anglican organisation Forward in Faith is not impressed. "I won't say it won't work - but I'm not holding my breath."

He does not agree that billboard marketing necessarily debases the message of the church. "But the naffness of some of these adverts in the past has debased the church - and advertising. Because they've been crap. And attendance figures show they haven't worked."

CAN themselves naturally see things differently. "It's hard to measure the success of such advertising," says John Carter, a trustee, "except by the fact that the number of churches using them has grown steadily.

"We provide radio ads too, which churches pay to put on local or national stations. Last year over 50 stations in Britain carried them. The last thing you expect to hear when you're listening to Kiss FM is someone talking about Jesus, so it has shock value"

CAN advertisement
Revolutionary image
CAN hears from churches that the posters have brought people to their Christmas services, but Carter says that bums on pews is not what they are about. "We want to make people question what's behind Christmas, to think about who Jesus was."

He thinks that Christians who find advertising God distasteful misunderstand what advertising is about. "Christian Aid advertises on TV, the government produces ads about smoking and road safety. Ads are not just for people who have a product to sell."

Other organisations that provide ads for churches too, while some churches create their own. The Christian website Ship of Fools has been documenting them since 1998, "because they're so awful", according to the editor Simon Jenkins.

The website's current crop include "Who sits on the throne in your house?" An old favourite from Denver is a billboard ad of Jesus with his arms outstretched saying, "Denver, I love you this much".

"We collect them partly out of mischief," says Jenkins, "but also to encourage churches to stop making an ass of themselves."

He acknowledges some church ads have been good, like the Che Guevara one. "Of course the best advertisement for Christianity is Christians who are thoughtful, sensitive, self-critical. But why not let people know what we're about - as long as it's done with some thought, and not a dreadful pun."

It only remains to add that Christianity is available from all good churches. Terms and conditions apply.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

This is quite comic - another one of those gimmicks that church-goers might think is 'cool' but to outsiders has the same air of desperation that characterises much of the church's public-facing work. Also, I can't help but think that if a left-wing revolutionary group were using Christian imagery to promote their messages, the church would be in uproar. Lenin on a cross, anyone?
Keith, London, UK

Brilliant, if anything this will spark off a lot of conversations, debates, get people thinking and talking. Jesus offended the religious people of the times with his radical approach to putting people first rather than rules and regulations. That's what this is about, there is a spiritual relationship to engage in, rather than a religion.
Chix, Southampton

On holiday in California in the Summer we saw this sign outside a church: "Getting close to the Son may prevent burning"
John Royle, Beverley, UK

I think there has been a HUGE misunderstanding about the recent Alpha Course cinema ad. Some of the comment I have heard about it only goes to show that most people haven't seen the ad yet! It is not supposed to be 'advertising Christianity' or 'advertising the Church' - it is simply an 'Open Invite' to explore, with other like-minded, open-minded people the important questions we face about the meaning of life.
Michael Tufnell, London, UK

The only thing that bothers me is that the money might have been put to better use. I recall a Christian event called Soul in the City which stunned London residents with the hard work of Christians who were simply willing to give some time and effort to cleaning up neglected areas in the community. Are adverts like these going to have the same effect? I worry that the church nowadays isn't willing to dedicate the same kind of effort that Jesus and the early church dedicated to their cause.
Helen, Rochester, UK

Unfortunately, the narrow minded, stultifying reality of most English churches hardly matches the dynamic, revolutionary image they're trying to push. If they spent more time helping the poor, campaigning for social justice, doing the things they're meant to be doing and less time self-consciously trying to get bums on seats or serving stale biscuits and weak tea to defenceless pensioners, they might find things work out for them a whole lot better.
Toby, Canterbury

Its good to see someone trying to pull the church into the 21st century. Churches have to 'compete' in a marketplace environment where other things take peoples time on a sunday and the view is that church is outdated. By pulling itself up to present day using media as a tool instead of condemning its use the church can put forward a relevent image to the visual generation. After all if Jesus was walking around today I am pretty sure he would be using relevents methods of presentation to get his message across.
shawn, W-s-M

I saw one in our town on a Burger King look alike poster with the words 'Church, The home of the BIGGER King'
Louise Roche, Surrey

I think this corporitsation of religion is disgusting. Church is a symbol of peoples faith. It has nothing to do with modernity, and certainly not this kind of marketing. I am one of the younger generation of Church goers that this is being aimed at. All these campaigns would cause me to do is question the need to attend a church if it is not 'churchy'. It's the people that make the church not the building or the history/achitecture. If young people have faith then the church will automatically modernise to suit the people of today.
Sam, Norfolk

This is all so crass. A Church should really be a core part of a local community immune to passing fads and fashions. Bricks, mortar and fancy ornaments do not make a Church. Its the congregation.
Ian, Devon, UK

These Adverts are a great idea. Churches are doing things for the community, if people with their own opinions actually bothered to get involved they would be shocked to realise the impact church is having. Adverts or not God will build his church and there is knowbody who can stop it.
Hamish Jordan, London

In medieval times friars began preaching on street corners in the manner of the town criers. In Georgian times people produced religious pamphlets as well as political pamphlets, or pamphlets advertizing a new life in America, or quack medicines. Religion has always been in the market-place of ideas.
Tim Jones, Corinth USA (I'm a Brit)

As a vicar's son, an atheist and a former ad agency guy, I can't help feeling the church are wasting money putting up big posters or running cinema campaigns. Jesus lead by example - whether you believe in his divinity or not, in fact whether you believe he was real or not - the character was a man of action and strong words. His parables are not just cute stories; he uses them to illustrate powerful messages. People listened to him because he was a compelling speaker with a message that seemed relevant. What the church needs is better speakers - more committed activists - (or simply more obviously 'holy' people like Brother Roger from Taiz) then people will come to listen to them and to learn from them. They also need to get away from this medieval concept of the church building as the only place where religion is relevant. Look at most evangelical branches of religion and they have their meetings in public or in people's homes not state institutions. Stop copying Kellogg and Coca-Cola - you have work to do!
Huw Sayer, London UK

I like the ad campaign but am concerned at the representation of the Alpha Course(s). Speaking from my own experiences, and those of friends who have attended these courses, I would express my concern at the decidedly 'un-open mindedness' of these courses. While I accept they are built upon Christian viewpoints, I had expected something rather less rigid and more open to questioning, philosophising even.
Guy, Horsham

Church advertising is a pet hate of mine. The smug cleverness with which it is presented usually comes across as desperate. "The Church isn't the same without 'U'." Who exactly are these adverts targeted at? What next? Jesus in black silhouette on a lime green background, his crown of thorns in white relief with the slogan "Think Different"? The problem is that religion isnt a brand, it can't be cool and hip, because its a personal philosophy.
Rory, Edinburgh, UK

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