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New-Time Religion : Megachurches Master the Art of Marketing for the Masses

December 24, 1987|DANA PARSONS | Times Staff Writer

Pastor Tim Timmons looked at the poster of the Christian punk rock band that had been booked into his church auditorium and wondered when the phones would start ringing.

"Their picture was just atrocious," Timmons said, "the worst thing you've ever seen in your life."

When the phones did start ringing, church board members were on the line.

"They said, 'What are we doing in our auditorium?' " Timmons said. " 'Who is this group?' I told them, I'm the pastor and not the youth man. We pay him a lot of money to be the youth man, and I want him to be the youth man. If he screws up, we'll fire him. And if he makes it, we'll crown him king."

Now, four years later, Timmons can afford to look back and laugh. "It turned out to be one of the most wonderful things we ever had for young people. They packed the place, danced in the aisles. It made our board believers--if you can get kids to come, it builds bridges."

South Coast Community Church, which Timmons started with 430 people who peeled off from another Newport Beach congregation, is one of Orange County's "megachurches," claiming an average Sunday morning attendance at three services and Sunday school of more than 6,500 people. And as Timmons looked out from church property at the undeveloped adjacent Irvine hillsides, where thousands of new homes are expected to be built, you can almost see his eyes glaze over.

That's because Timmons, like many of his Christian brethren in the county, knows how to get people-- lots of people --to come to church.

They are clergymen to whom words like "retailing" and "marketing" and "packaging" are as palatable in the pulpit as John 3:16. Their techniques can be as sophisticated as direct mail and public opinion surveys or as splashy as the singing birds and 20-foot-high JumboTron video screen in the sanctuary of Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.

Their strategies can be the use of guest stars on Sundays, ranging from U.S. Speaker of the House Jim Wright to former Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon, or the booking of rock concerts on Friday nights after football games.

At some churches, the lure is even more fundamental and profound. Church grounds that a generation ago may have been home to ice cream socials, Bible school and a softball team have been turned into prolific social service networks, replete with day-care centers and preschools, gymnasiums and athletic fields, drug and alcohol counseling centers for teen-agers, and meeting places for Overeaters Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous.

The schedules of events are sometimes staggering. At the Crystal Cathedral, for example, a recent Sunday morning program listed 37 activities from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

In some cases, the vision takes on prodigious proportions: Timmons said his church plans to spend $25 million over the next 10 years on expansion, to include an office complex, an elementary school, a second auditorium and perhaps a high school. The grandest plan calls for adding 27 acres to the church's current 14 acres.

One county pastor called them the "full-service churches." And while not all pastors and church observers agree, some say it's the nature of the county--where people are used to top-drawer entertainment and personalities--that makes them resort to marketing for the masses.

"You go case by case, but we push hard that if it's not illegal, immoral or fattening, we try to do it," Timmons said. "We feel like we don't want to come out smelling like a church, we don't want to have that air about it, because sometimes there's a piety that goes with that that doesn't smell well."

Whatever form it takes, the goal of many churches appears to be the same: to tap into the huge pool of potential churchgoers in Orange county, which is mistakenly perceived as some kind of latter-day Bible Belt where every family goes to church every Sunday. Rather, statistics suggest that thousands of families are finding other things to do with their Sunday mornings than go to church.

For example, 58% of Californians don't claim church membership--the third-highest per-capita figure in the continental United States, according to 1980 figures (the latest available) from the Glenmary Research Center in Atlanta. The national average of so-called "unchurched" people is 41%, the center's statistics show. California, Oregon and Washington form what one expert on church growth describes as "the Unchurched Belt of America."

C. Peter Wagner, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said there is no reason to assume that the percentages for the county are significantly different. "You have a high divorce rate in Orange County," Wagner said. "Marriages are on the brink of disaster. You have a rock generation of baby boomers who have . . . their view of institutions and what they think they ought to be."

To find out what people want from a church, Mike Carlisle, pastor of Capistrano Valley Church, a few years ago commissioned a Nielsen survey.

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