Methodist Church extends a welcome Open Call

Three years ago, Kerry Graham, chief creative officer at The Buntin Group, began writing a novel about an ad agency that received a request for proposal from God. Last November, the Nashville, Tenn., shop turned art into life: It used part of the book in its pitch to win the $25 million United Methodist Church account.

This fall, under the tagline, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” the UMC will break its first national campaign on cable networks, including CNN, BET, VH1 and A&E.

The target was twofold—people searching for meaning in their lives, specifically lapsed boomers and Gen Xers—and, equally significant, the over 8 million members of the UMC.

How do you sell spirituality to people who rejected or felt rejected by organized religion? And how do you get members to make newcomers feel welcome? asks Graham. The agency’s solution? The write stuff.

“We learned from the psychologist we hired that if we used the words ‘lost’ or ‘saved’ or even ‘God,’ we’d run into land mines,” says Graham, who co-wrote the seven TV and a dozen print and radio spots. “The church’s language is nonjudgmental. We can’t say we have the answers, but in being open, we can help you find them.”

Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston, executive director of UMC’s marketing arm, agrees. He says the work provides the church with “an opportunity to fill the need people have for spiritual well-being. [The ads] speak to the demo very well, unlike other church advertising that calls into judgment those they want to attract.”

For example, in a 30-second spot called “Rain,” a warm male voice speaks over the sound of a downpour as the camera focuses on rain beating against a dark ground: “It rained today. And I thought about my life. … About how the choices we make in life add up. … And what our lives will ultimately mean to others. I’m 42 years old. And it rained today. And that’s why I came.”

A separate voiceover issues the invitation: “If you’re searching for a new direction in life, our hearts, our minds and our doors are always open.” Graham, who converted to Catholicism during the project, notes, “I knew I couldn’t be too denominational or doctrinal.”

He was careful to use words that are personal and inclusive. Graham says he “tried to show how a person in contemplation might think through his or her wish for something else.” But he says he drew a line between theology and personal beliefs. “Not everything in these spots is church doctrine,” he says.

This personal element also extended to casting. “We spent more time asking people about significant moments in their lives than we did listening to them read,” says producer Anne Burke.

Shot in Atlanta, several spots focus on single images—a bench by a waterfall, a sleeping child, a tree house—paired with voiceovers. One ad, a diverse montage of close-ups, delivers statements of belief.

While the TV work is meant to attract people to churches, print efforts call for community action. In one commercial, a man appears to ponder life’s moral choices: “A woman stands by a stalled car at rush hour. What do you do?”

The shop also created collateral media kits for sale to the UMC’s 36,000 churches. The kits detail how to be a welcoming church, as well as tips on media buying and how to track ad responses.

“This has been an extremely deep partnership,” says vp/account supervisor Jeffrey Buntin Jr. “We want this to work for the client and the target, but it’s up to each church to convert visitors into members.”