ONE HOUSE, MANY VOICES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There wasn't a rope line. They didn't need bouncers, either.

On the second Sunday of Advent, about 20 souls came for service at the First and St. Stephen's United Church of Christ in Towson. It was a diverse group of worshipers -- older people, younger people, white people, black people, gay people, straight people, Democrats, Republicans. There might even have been a Redskins fan in the congregation, and that would have been all right with the church, too.

This is a denomination, after all, that launched a national advertising campaign with a message apparently so controversial -- we accept all worshipers -- that CBS and NBC refused to broadcast it.

The 30-second ad shows two bouncers working a rope line in front of a nameless church. "No, step aside, please," the bouncer says to two men holding hands. A Hispanic man and a black girl are also turned away, while a white family is allowed to pass. "Jesus didn't turn away people. Neither do we," says the on-screen text.

The subtext: For those without a church, check out United Church of Christ because we welcome gays and minorities and everyone.

As a result of the ad, the United Church of Christ, a Protestant denomination with 1.3 million members, is probably getting more publicity this month than ever in its 47-year history. Church membership might be down, but the group's message is not camera shy.

Thirty seconds is more than enough time these days to spawn charges of censorship, discrimination or indecency. In no time, Nicollette Sheridan de-robed before the Philadelphia Eagles' Terrell Owens, who looked anything but desperate in the Monday Night Football skit. Last month, many ABC affiliates refused to broadcast Saving Private Ryan because apparently soldiers in life-and-death circumstances curse. And, gosh darn, Howard Stern can draw an FCC fine by simply breathing hard.

Now, the relatively little known United Church of Christ, with its proud history of inclusion and liberal identification, is cresting on yet another wave of public controversy. But don't expect the church to apologize like ABC did after the Sheridan-Owens locker room tango.

"We take pride in pushing the envelope on social justice issues," says Bruce Swanson, pastor at First and St. Stephen's. "It's an 'in your face' ad, and I think it's great."

A month ago, Swanson rolled out a TV before service to debut the ad for his small Baltimore County congregation. He and others hailed the TV spot as a creative and powerful way of advertising the church's "radical hospitality," as described by Swanson before last Sunday's service.

But the CBS and NBC networks called the ad too controversial and said its broadcast would violate network policies of accepting "advocacy advertising." UCC spokeswoman Barb Powell says the church did not approach ABC with the ad because that network bans all religious advertising. The spot, which was produced in March, is running on cable channels.

Given that same-sex marriage was a hot topic this election year, the timing of the church's Advent-based ad campaign couldn't be worse -- or better. Jesus sat with undesirables, as Swanson says, so why is welcoming gays and lesbians to church so threatening? All people are welcome at God's table, echoes another church member.

"This is a message that makes a lot of sense. It boggles my mind that the networks would find it too controversial," says Emily Perl, associate dean of students at Goucher College. Besides its message of inclusion, the church needs the national exposure for a more practical reason, says Perl, 39.

"I grew up in the UCC," she says, "and all my life I had to explain what the church is."

Diverse congregations beget diverse opinions. Others at St. Stephen's were not fans of the bouncer bit. Shocking. Jarring. Too much in your face. Why derail a sincere spiritual message with an uninviting 30-second ad?

"It's one thing to say we're open and inconclusive. But it's another thing to be combative," says Brian Barr, a 35-year-old chemistry professor at Loyola College. This is a man who likes his church, likes the community of St. Stephen's. He sings in the choir and his children attend Sunday school here. But the denomination doesn't need this type of publicity, he says.

"I think the church hierarchy means well, but they are letting their political views cloud things too much," he says.

The Cleveland-based United Church of Christ has 6,000 congregations, including 23 in the Baltimore area. It's a big tent of churches that act and think independently of one another. "From the beginning of our history, we were a church that affirmed the ideal that Christians did not always have to agree to live together in communion," says a brochure from St. Stephen's.

Those words seem particularly timely this election year. Some United Church of Christ congregations can even be described in now familiar political terms. If St. Stephen's is liberal blue, then St. John's United Church of Christ in Catonsville is conservative red.

"I am one of the conservative ones. We welcome gay people. We don't have to make a big deal about it," says St. John's pastor David Wild, who thinks other churches are, in fact, also welcoming. There's nothing wrong with church leaders trying to boost national membership, but publicity is not the church's strong suit, Wild says.

"It looks like we shot ourselves in the foot again," he says. This, naturally, is debatable within the church.

"Sometimes," Wild says, "the only thing we can agree on is that Jesus Christ is Lord and beyond that, we are lost."

Members of his congregation seemed to wince at the rope line and bouncer images. Conrad Sturch, a retired astronomer and St. John's member since 1986, respects and supports the ad's message: The church is open and affirming, he says. "But the ad is a little harsh on our other church neighbors. It could have been more gentle."

For others, it's not a matter of taste but of censorship. In his sermon last Sunday at Heritage United Church of Christ in Baltimore, pastor Julius Jefferson incorporated his objection to the networks' decision not to run the ad. Churches should be able to freely express their messages regardless of who is in the White House, Jefferson says. "I don't see where the political climate is relevant," he says. Heritage's congregation plans to write letters to newspaper editors and to petition NBC and CBS.

The United Church of Christ's $1.7 million advertising campaign, "God is Still Speaking," is explained on its Web site, www.stillspeaking.com -- where the ad can be viewed. (There's also a merchandising line of "God is Still Speaking" caps, coffee mugs and gold shirts.) The campaign sprang from focus group research that showed many people had never heard of the denomination, which was formed in 1957 when the Evangelical and Reformed Church united with the Congregational Christian Church. The research also found "over and over again that people felt angry, excluded and alienated by organized religion in general," says the UCC's Powell.

The ad, she says, was designed to attract the "unchurched" and, yes, people who have left the UCC, where membership has reportedly declined 23 percent in 15 years. The ad is not intended to suggest the denomination is better than any other church, Powell says. "We assume, as a given, that all Christian churches welcome all people," she says.

For several area congregations, the national campaign apparently has not translated into new members.

"I don't find any kind of national advertising helps local churches," says Jennifer Knighton, pastor of the 120-member Grace United Church of Christ in Baltimore. She praises the ad, which she saw on the ABC Family cable channel. "But with my Christmas ad in The Sun, I stand a much better chance of bringing someone new in," she says.

With more people shopping around for churches, she says, local congregations struggle not only to keep but also to build attendance. A church must be friendly, must be open, people must feel welcome -- and quickly, Knighton says. She figures it takes only two minutes from when people walk into Grace United for her to make them feel welcome. "Or they will turn away and go somewhere else," she says.

Two minutes. That's her window of opportunity -- and that doesn't include 30 seconds for a bouncer or rope line.

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