OMG! Us­ing tex­ting to draw in be­liev­ers

The Covington News - - Religion - By Craig Smith

PITTSBURGH — In the beginning was the Word. Then came tex­ting. The United Methodist Church is hop­ing to reach a younger au­di­ence by adding mod­ern me­dia tools to a cam­paign it cred­its with in­creas­ing first-time and long-term church at­ten­dance be­tween 2001 and 2004.

The up­dated ver­sion of the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” cam­paign is be­ing tested in the Pittsburgh area and runs through Christ­mas Eve. The cam­paign uses text mes­sag­ing and out­door ad­ver­tis­ing to at­tract church­go­ers in the 18-34 age group.

Call it God 121. (That’s one-to-one for non-tex­ters.)

“We es­pe­cially hope to bring more young peo­ple into our churches, and that means reach­ing out in new and in­no­va­tive ways that are rel­e­vant to our tar­get au­di­ence,” said Pittsburgh Bishop Thomas Bick­er­ton.

More than 40 bill­boards and ads on tran­sit shelters urge peo­ple to text the word Be­lieve to a des­ig­nated num­ber. In re­sponse, they’ll re­ceive a longer mes­sage invit­ing them to at­tend a United Methodist Church at Christ­mas. They can re­ply with their ZIP code to find a church in their area or get ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion from Unit­edMethodist.org.

The cam­paign is aimed at reach­ing thou­sands of com­muters and pedes­tri­ans. Other ads will be de­liv­ered to con­tent sub­scribers of 4INFO, an ad-sup­ported text mes­sage in­for­ma­tion ser­vice. Bick­er­ton said the church has been re­ceiv­ing about 100 text mes­sages a day, which is bet­ter than what of­fi­cials had an­tic­i­pated.

The United Methodist Church has 191,000 mem­bers in the West­ern Penn­syl­va­nia Re­gional Con­fer­ence, cov­er­ing 23 coun­ties.

At­tract­ing younger peo­ple to church pews has been dif­fi­cult across de­nom­i­na­tional lines. Sur­veys show that nearly 25 per­cent of the 18-34 age group has no re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion and 41 per­cent at­tend church only once a year.

“I think it’s a great idea. It’s a chal­lenge to reach that gen­er­a­tion,” said the Rev. David Streets, pas­tor at In­go­mar United Methodist Church in Franklin Park.

The suc­cess of the cam­paign ini­tially might be hard to judge, Streets said. At­ten­dance nor­mally in­creases this time of year, when col­lege stu­dents are home for the hol­i­days.

The cam­paign won’t ap­peal to Amanda Dille, 26, of Dor­mont, al­though she thinks “it’s a good idea for peo­ple looking for spir­i­tual di­rec­tion.”

The church said it might add iTunes, YouTube and other dig­i­tal me­dia to the mix next year. But it likely will re­main a tough sell.

“My re­li­gion is based on per­sonal be­liefs, not ad­ver­tis­ing,” said Lisa Erb, 27, of the South Side.

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