George Martin’s office—the office of Saints Martha and Mary Episcopal Church—is in the basement of a funeral home. Public-school gymnasiums, library auditoriums, and all the other public meeting spaces in Eagan, Minnesota, have been taken by other church-planting efforts. Thus every Sunday, in one of the funeral home’s parlors, Martin erects a portable screen on which to hang a cross and a banner in order to help the brand-new 90-member congregation feel as if it has gone to church.

In addition to his job as vicar, Martin is also executive director of the Episcopal Ad Project, a high-quality, but low-budget, effort to get the attention of the unchurched. Appropriately, in a recent ad, the vicar of this funeral-home church appeared as one of a half-dozen pall bearers carrying a casket. The headline reads, “Will it take six strong men to bring you back into the church?” The fine print explains that the church “welcomes you no matter what condition you’re in, but we’d really prefer to see you breathing.”

Tom McElligott’s office—the office of the ad agency that produces Martin’s church ads—is in downtown Minneapolis, 18 miles from Martin’s mortuary meeting space. The Fallon McElligott agency occupies the fifteenth and sixteenth floors of the blue steel-and-glass 701 building. There the grey-carpeted hallways and the reserved grey, upholstered walls are punctuated by the eye-popping work that has brought the agency national recognition. Ads for Bloomingdale’s, the Wall Street Journal, and Lee jeans are mixed in with the more socially conscious pro bono work they have done for the Children’s Defense Fund and the Episcopal Ad Project.

“We’re trying to stop people with these ads,” McElligott says of the Episcopal Church promotions. “We’re trying to make them open up their mental boxes. This is the first step in opening the possibility of regular church attendance.”

The laid-back McElligott, relaxed in a green gingham-checked shirt and khakis, says he particularly enjoys beginning the ad brainstorming process with a piece of classical religious art. McElligott takes Titian’s portrayal of Daniel in the lion’s den as an example. “People have closed their minds to that art. But by pulling it out of its original context and giving it a contemporary point of reference, we’ve made it meaningful again. Although,” admits McElligott sheepishly, “I’m not sure I’d want to explain that to Titian.”

What McElligott and Martin saw in Titian’s painting was stress. Like the biblical Daniel, Christians have often been at odds with conventional values and had to live with stress—and help each other cope. So Martin and McElligott put a headline above the painting: “Contrary to conventional wisdom, stress is not a 20th century phenomenon.”

The Ad Project got its start in 1975, when Martin became rector of Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis. “The church had lost its punch,” says Martin. “There was lots of gray hair, and I was doing 20-plus funerals a year. The funerals way outnumbered the baptisms.”

Martin realized that going door-to-door in a highly churched area would not have paid off much in increased attendance. Sixty-five to 70 percent of the residents in this city claim a church affiliation, and Martin was realistically trying to reach the relatively small fraction of the remainder who would be attracted to the Episcopal church.

So he started to write newspaper ads for his church. Those early ads showed some creativity, but they lacked polish. “People told me, ‘George, you need help,’ ” says Martin, and they suggested he talk to McElligott, then a rising star in the advertising heavens and himself the son and son-in-law of Episcopal clergy. Thus began a nine-year collaboration that has not only earned national awards but has also called the unchurched to worship.

The advertising “brought in a steady, small stream of people,” says Martin, “never an avalanche.” But by the time he left Saint Luke’s after 11 years of ministry and 7 years of advertising, attendance was up 30 percent, and the average age of the congregation had dropped from 55 to 40. And baptisms finally outnumbered funerals—a noteworthy achievement in a mainline denomination with stagnant growth statistics.

In mainline churches it is taboo to be “anti-ecumenical.” Martin’s ads may have helped his church, but they have been called anti-ecumenical, as well as arch, elitist, divisive, and irreverent.

Lingering over coffee in the downtown Minneapolis Lutheran Brotherhood Building, Martin counters the “anti-ecumenical” charge by pointing out that many non-Episcopal churches have expressed interest in the ads.

“We asked ourselves,” says Martin, “do we have a particular claim on these? Can only Episcopal churches use them? I don’t mind anyone using them, as long as they bring people to church.”

Martin tells of a Baptist church in Nebraska that wanted to use his ads. “That Baptist church sits across the street from a very stuffy Episcopal church. I told them, ‘Go ahead and use the ads, they’ll never use them at that Episcopal church.’ ”

People have their complaints, but Martin, who believes advertising is a contemporary art form (“one of the few where people are paid what they’re worth”), is unmoved: “Some church people just can’t imagine advertising the church. Yet the Bible says that everywhere Jesus went, great crowds followed him. There just had to be some kind of advance P.R.”

Martin has also been accused of tastelessness and irreverence. “We have stepped on the edge,” Martin says, “but the edge changes depending on who you are. Our primary market is ‘the person who goes nowhere’—not the churched, the easily offended.” And so a traditional haloed Jesus is captioned, “You can’t meet God’s gift to women in a singles’ bar.”

Martin and McElligott, however, have their limits. They realize that although their project is a private one, representing officially only Martin’s own parish, the ads are perceived by many as speaking for an entire denomination.

So wisdom has dictated that they not publish their all-time favorite. Available only unofficially, as an “underground poster,” it is a picture of King Henry VIII under the headline, “In a church started by a man who had six wives, forgiveness goes without saying.” Martin and McElligott, loyal Episcopalians that they are, know not to push their luck.

By David Neff.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.

Tags:
Issue: