The Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento is home to nearly 1 million Catholics. On a typical Sunday, less than 137,000 can be found in church.
Now, using a strategy straight from the secular playbook, its leaders hope to lure back those who have drifted.
The diocese and nearly a dozen others across the country are preparing to air several thousand prime-time TV commercials in English and Spanish, inviting inactive Catholics to return to their religious roots.
In addition to Sacramento, dioceses in Chicago, Omaha, Providence, R.I., and four other cities will launch the "Catholics Come Home" advertising blitz during Advent, the period before Christmas.
Four more dioceses will follow during Lent next spring. Los Angeles is not among the initial group but could be part of a nationwide campaign slated for December 2010.
"I'm hoping that a significant number of people will give us another look," Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto said of the campaign. "Many Catholics have a sense of believing but not always a sense of belonging."
The potential audience is huge.
Only about one-quarter of U.S. Catholics say they attend Mass every week, and a majority go to religious services a few times a year or less, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, which conducts social science research about the Catholic church.
Researchers there also found that two-thirds of Catholics believe they can be good members of their faith without attending Mass regularly.
Inactive Catholics cite a number of reasons for their absence. Many do not believe that missing Mass is a sin, the center reported. Others say they are too busy with family or work, or, as other analysts point out, are more interested in material happiness than spiritual fulfillment.
"There is a strange pattern of people who aren't practicing but still have beliefs and pick up parts of the faith," said Mark Gray, a research associate with the center. "They may give up meat on Fridays during Lent or attend Ash Wednesday services."
Most people raised Catholic remain so in adulthood, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which released a study on religious affiliation in April.
Pew researchers found that those who leave typically join Protestant churches or abandon religion altogether, with most saying they simply drifted away from their faith or stopped believing in its teachings.
Many who have given up their religion also said they felt unhappy with Catholicism's firm positions on abortion, birth control and homosexuality. About one in four former Catholics cited the church's priest-abuse scandal as a factor.
The movement of some Catholics into the ranks of the unaffiliated, a trend also evident among other religious groups, is occurring even as the Catholic Church in the U.S. grows steadily, thanks largely to an influx of Catholic immigrants, primarily from Latin America and Asia.
The new arrivals have helped push the U.S. Catholic population to more than 65 million, making it the nation's largest religious group. Catholics account for nearly one of every four Americans.
Religious leaders say they hope their welcoming message in the new ad campaign will appeal to those who feel disengaged or spiritually empty.
"People can oftentimes lose sight of what is most important in their lives," said Soto of Sacramento. "This is an opportunity for them to touch that. There's an emptiness that only God can fill."
Carson Weber, the Sacramento diocese's point man on the campaign, said he believes many Catholics may be ready to return but need a nudge. "We know there is a need," he said. "We just want to see what the Lord will do."
In one of the television spots, men and women watch scenes from their lives on an old movie reel, as examples of their own poor or embarrassing behavior unfold before them. Another ad features testimonials from once-inactive Catholics who returned to the faith. A third highlights the role the church has played in establishing hospitals, schools and orphanages.
"In this world filled with chaos, hardship and pain, it's comforting to know that some things remain consistent, true and strong," an announcer says. "If you've been away from the Catholic Church, we invite you to take another look. . . . We are Catholic. Welcome home."
The commercials were produced by Catholics Come Home, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization that is also helping the dioceses raise private money to run the spots.
The cost in Sacramento, about $380,000, is being covered by individual donations, parishes and a local Knights of Columbus council, officials said.
The national campaign was conceived by Tom Peterson, a former marketing and advertising executive in Phoenix who said he reembraced his faith several years ago after attending a Catholic men's retreat.
"There is no doubt that the glitter and glamour of pop culture has distracted people from God and his church and family," said Peterson, 48. "It's like the song says, trying to find love 'in all the wrong places.' "
During the last two years, Peterson's group tried two test runs, in Phoenix and in Corpus Christi, Texas. Catholic leaders in both places say the efforts showed promise.
In the diocese of Phoenix, for example, which has 1.1 million Catholics, officials credit the 900 "Come Home" commercials that aired there during Lent 2008 with an increase in weekend Mass attendance six months later. The officials compared the number of parishoners during October 2008 to the same period the year before.
About 90,000 additional people were in the pews, said Ryan Hanning, coordinator of adult evangelization for the diocese.
"People ultimately are hungry," Hanning said. "The commercials are confirming a compulsion they already have . . . to come back to the church."