Originally created 08/29/98

Pastor promotes church with in-your-face ads



WALKERSVILLE, Md. -- To attract baby boomers and generation X-ers to his new congregation, the Rev. Gene Bolin is trying something unorthodox and sharp-edged -- something a few even regard as irreverent and sacrilegious.

The Episcopal priest has launched an advertising campaign targeting the hard-to-get -- people who have been turned off by religion or never embraced it to begin with -- and speaking to them in their language. And the Rev. Bolin is getting results.

The congregation has grown to 100 followers in less than a year and has received national media attention.

The Rev. Bolin's most controversial poster, which has the full support of the Episcopal diocese, features a Renaissance-style image of the crucifixion, superimposed with a graffiti-like message that says: "Of course people with pierced body parts are welcome in our church."

"We did not intend to be sacrilegious or irreverent or make good church folks angry," said the Rev. Bolin, 58, who has been in the ministry 34 years.

"We wanted to package the message in the way that was most compatible and would be understood by the target group. We knew there were risks, and we said we weren't going to turn back."

The poster didn't sit well with Paul Prentice of Adamstown, who couldn't believe what he was seeing when it appeared on the community bulletin board of his local grocery. He complained to the store, then talked to the Rev. Bolin on the telephone. He wrote to Bishop Robert W. Ihloff, who heads the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

In that letter, Mr. Prentice wrote: "For me the poster's message, superimposed on the pierced body of Christ, denigrates the most sacred moment in the life of Christ and the Church to the level of the flip and frivolous which pervades American culture today, in particular, the advertising media."

Bishop Ihloff said he does not consider the poster offensive or inappropriate.

"I do not personally find the poster sacrilegious in any way," he said. "It certainly is provocative and eye-catching. Its intent is to get people to think. It simply says: 'This is a church that is open to all kinds of people."

Overall, the Rev. Bolin says he has received about 70 calls or comments supporting the campaign and about eight complaints, in addition to Mr. Prentice's letter.

As nontraditional as the campaign may seem, the Walkersville church, which does not yet have an official name, is not alone in taking a radical approach.

The Rev. George H. Martin, who is vicar at an Episcopal church in Eagan, Minn., founded the Church Ad Project 20 years ago, a company that provides advertising to churches.

"I was in a church that was dying," said the Rev. Martin, then a priest at St. Luke's Episcopal in Minneapolis. "I did 187 funerals in 11 years. We needed new blood. We needed new people walking in the door."

The Church Ad Project is a company he runs with his wife that provides advertising to a wide variety of churches for a minimal fee.

In the years since he founded the company in 1978, the Rev. Martin says he's provided ads, created by advertising agencies, to thousands of churches across the country ranging from Roman Catholic to Southern Baptist to Lutheran.

For the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, the Walkersville church is the first new one in about 30 years, Bishop Ihloff said.

The Rev. Bolin, who reads the 139th Psalm first thing each morning, is convinced that God is involved in all that he does, including the advertising campaign: "I have to believe that the spirit of God was deeply involved in the creative process."

The focus of the Rev. Bolin's campaign is a group of about 10,000 people who live in and around Walkersville. In his mind, the pastor thinks of them as "happy little cynics," driving up and down the road in their BMWs and minivans -- not involved with any church.

The crucifixion poster is one of five that the Rev. Bolin has spent about $3,000 to run in three newspapers that serve the Walkersville area. Another expresses an opinion -- "To hell with church" -- and shows a man with thoughts coming out of his head, including: "If I want to feel guilty, I'll eat some cheese fries," and "If the meek shall inherit the earth, why do televangelists drive Bentleys?" At the bottom, it reads, "Got a problem with church? Let's fix it."

About 300 copies of each poster have been distributed to stores, kiosks and elsewhere in Walkersville. They were followed by a door-to-door campaign. The church also has a Web site.

Ron Henderson, a writer at the Richards Group in Dallas, who met the Rev. Bolin seven years ago in New York, said he didn't have to twist the Rev. Bolin's arm at all to get him to buy into the campaign.

The agency, which has $360 million in annual billings and whose clients include Motel 6 and Home Depot, did the work for free, being reimbursed only for supplies.

The Rev. Bolin did reject a few of the advertising company's ideas. He turned down a poster featuring three views of an old country church with a picture of an elderly woman that said: "Thou shalt not wear black orthopedic shoes to church," with the additional message: "Looking for a church you can be really comfortable in?"

The Rev. Bolin's approach is a far cry from the standard method of starting a church: Buy land, build a church, let people know it's there and expect them to come. The Walkersville group began organizing in September with a goal to start holding services one year to 18 months later, when there might be about 150 families involved.

But the enthusiasm at an informational meeting prompted Bolin to agree to hold a Sunday service. The congregation that developed has outgrown his house, where they had crowded into the living room and spilled over into the dining room and up the carpeted stairs. In the spring, it moved to a nearby elementary school that seats 300.

Margie Weaver, 34, has been part of the Rev. Bolin's congregation -- a group he likes to call St. You Decide -- since October. She was raised Catholic and became Episcopal in 1991.

She says she loves the TV commercial and wants framed copies of the posters for her home.

"We're not looking for the typical church-goer," she said. "We're looking for people who have traditionally been turned off by the whole image of what church is."