DFW churches use marketing to draw worshippers on Easter

A Colleyville church ran newspaper ads featuring a bobblehead figure of Jesus.

A megachurch used an aggressive Peeps campaign that included more than 45,000 printed invitations and a social media marketing blitz complete with a YouTube video of the talking marshmallow treats.

Billboards touting Easter services dot freeways across the Metroplex.

And residents -- especially in suburban growth areas -- found their mailboxes full of postcards touting special services on Easter, which has become "Super Bowl Sunday" for Christians.

Churches launch the aggressive marketing campaigns because Easter is typically the one time a year when many people attend church, particularly at the urging of mothers and grandmothers, said Sage Elwell, an assistant professor of religion, art and visual culture at Texas Christian University.

"Honestly, we're trying to come up with something that will just get their attention," said Martin Coleman, the media/communications minister at First Baptist Church of Colleyville, which ran the sticky-note ad with the bobblehead Jesus on the front page of the Star-Telegram last week. The ad read: "Plastic Jesus. Exposing fake claims about a real savior."

After the ad ran, the church fielded calls asking whether bobbleheads would be given out at services. (They won't.)

"Today's culture shapes Jesus into whatever we want him to be, but that's not true, as the Bible says what he is," Coleman said. "While people love Easter egg hunts, you can put out 10,000 eggs, say go, and in five minutes the eggs have disappeared and so have the people.

"We were hoping people would notice that we're different and be intrigued so when they were looking at all the neighborhood churches, they would come here."

Proceed with care

There appears to be no limit to what churches will do to draw visitors.

One megachurch in Canada is touting an Easter service titled: "Batman: The Dark Night, an Easter Story" complete with "Bat Place" and "Bat Times" designations on its colorful Internet ad.

Elwell said churches need to be careful when trying to reach potential visitors and not overcommercialize faith.

"In a consumer society like ours -- where you market everything -- well, applying an economic model to faith can give an air of inauthenticity," Elwell said. "When you buy a car, it depreciates the minute you drive it off the lot. When you're marketing religion, it is only successful if you have a good product -- a good church with a good community -- that sustains its value over time.

"A church has to live up to its sexy sales pitch once people get in the door."

Getting the message

Many local church leaders agree that the product -- the message of Christ -- is what matters most, but they say the challenge is to get people to give church a chance.

While ads work, word-of-mouth is key.

Southlake-based Gateway Church put a spin on the congregation's saying -- "We're all about people" -- and tied it to a Peeps promotion, which included ads in local papers and at movie screenings.

Parishioners from the Southlake church -- and at campuses in North Richland Hills and Frisco -- were encouraged to pass out Peeps-inspired invitations to friends and even strangers, share e-mail blasts and replace their profile pictures on social media networks with Peeps avatars.

The Frisco campus filled vases with the colorful candy to remind members to bring their friends to Easter services.

The church also ran spots on the sports radio station "The Ticket," letting men know that dressing up didn't have to be part of Easter.

While the messages are somewhat lighthearted, church officials hope they attract visitors looking for a new church home.

"On Easter, we get many who haven't been to church in years, or they recently moved to the area and are settling in, and this is the family's big push to find a church," said Lawrence Swicegood, Gateway's communications director.

"But I don't see it as a competition among churches. The efforts are just to heighten people's awareness of our own churches. Our hope is that everyone goes to a church this Easter."

Community updates

Others use the occasion to update the community about changes.

Lake Arlington Baptist Church sent out 27,000 postcards to families in its ZIP code and the one next door, inviting neighbors to visit the church, which has added a second service on Easter morning.

The mailer is part of an effort to raise the church's presence in the community and pursue relationships with area families, said Jason Medlin, creative-arts pastor. It features a new logo and pictures of the new senior pastor.

"We wanted to leverage that with Easter and say, 'Hey, there's something new going on at LABC, and we wanted you to know about it,'" he said.

"Easter is kind of like the Super Bowl for churches. All of us want to take the message of Jesus to the community."

Staff writer Jessamy Brown contributed to this report.

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700

Twitter: @fwstayala