Theological Reflection on Church Newspaper Ads

“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2.2
We are currently looking for a  church home.  It is a new sensation because I am a pastor turned seminary president.  Normally, the church I pastor is my church home.  Case closed.  But that’s all changed.   Now we actually have to search for a church.

Where do we start looking?   There’s word of mouth, the phone book, the internet, and the newspaper. So I started with this last one—the newspaper—and spent last Saturday night looking carefully (with a pastor’s eye) at church ads.   It’s amazing what I found.

First of all, I was struck with the vast amount of paid church ads.  In Orlando’s main Saturday paper, the Orlando Sentinel, there are not one but three full pages of church ads!   When I saw that, I knew that I was not living in Denver anymore…..or Chicago where I lived before that. There are hardly any church ads in the Chicago Tribune.  In the Denver Post, church advertisement is minimal.  It struck me that we are now living in the South, admittedly below the Bible belt, but not that far below.

As a church seeker, we look at an ad to get a sense of  “what is this church all about?”  We hope that something of the church’s ethos comes through.  We want to know what is supremely important to a church.  So we look for what is the first, the biggest and the boldest thing declared in a church advertisement.  For most churches it is a name or some characteristic—a saint’s name, a denominational label, a form of church government, or a geographical location.  Some churches want us to know they are the inclusive church, or the church with a reading room, or the church that has been here for 100 years serving Christ, or that we are the “verse by verse study” church.  The list is endless.  We are the drive-in church, the bell tower church, the safe church (bet they don’t highlight the International Sunday for the Persecuted Church),  the church where “you can find a warm smile,” the “Spirit greeting” church (whatever that is), the fellowship church, the building families church, the church that “rethinks church.”

In all this, I am surprised at the amount of insider language used that a non-churched person would just not understand.  One ad shouted—“we are the four fold ministry church.”  Another had “we are the five fold ministry church” (I was looking for the six or seven fold ministry church but couldn’t find it.) Another shouted, we are a “1928 Prayer Book church.”

Reading these ads reminded me that there is a lot of goofy stuff out there.  For example, one church had a, I kid you not, foot long ad explaining that they are the true church, the others are “all fake, false, deceitful and imposters.”  Another went out of its way to say that they were “Independent and Fundamental,” “standing against the apostasy of the National and World Council of Churches, the new evangelicalism and the charismatic movements.”  (Now I am not a WCC fan either, but I wondered, I know what you are against, please tell me what are you for?) Another church ad highlighted this—“we speak where the Bible speaks, are silent where the Bible is silent” (I thought to myself—but I bet they still have announcements!).

Other churches proclaim that comfort is their greatest value.  They have taglines such as “looking for a place you can relax?”   (Friends, if I want to relax, I have the pool!).  One had the bold words “comfortable atmosphere” (they must have grown up in a church with hard uncomfortable pews).  Another had “come and make yourself at home” (then why go to church?). Still another had the line “Do you want to go where everybody knows your name? (maybe some people do, but I don’t). Then there was the ad, “if you are tired of being disappointed by church as usual, come visit us and be pleasantly surprised….” (One wonders…..what….Disney characters doing the children’s message?  Expresso bars?  Chicago style pizza?).  One even had  “classes for infants!” (Now I’ve heard of nursery, but classes for infants?  This church is serious about Christian Education).

For many churches, top attention goes to the style of worship.  Lots of “we do modern worship here” (and I wonder, modern as in 60’s? 70’s? 80’s? 90’s?)  Another had the bold words in capital letters TRADITIONAL (as in, we are traditional with a vengeance, and you better not mess with us because we are darn serious about it).   A more moderately toned ad said,  “traditional yet relatively informal service!

Perhaps the most curious thing of all about many of these church ads is how Jesus rarely gets mentioned.  There are those ads where the pastor’s name is the biggest thing in the ad, usually accompanied by his or her picture.  One even claimed “the Holy Spirit will meet you here” (but even that ad had nothing about Jesus meeting us too).   Why is it there are so many other things we want to be known for besides the one who founded the Christian church?  Whatever happened to plain old “give me Jesus”?

In all these ads, there were, I’ll admit, a few that had some very attractive statements or mottos.  One had the line “loving God, loving people, affecting the world”  (not bad).  Another had “ancient faith for a modern world” (nice touch). Still another had “proclaiming the doctrines of grace in love” (always a good sign).   My favorites were the ones that said “leading people to a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ” or “Jesus is lifted up, the Bible is clearly taught, the gospel is lived out” (now, I thought, we are getting down to business).

And what is our business?  Well, I am ever amazed that God still uses the foolishness of the church.  He uses us in spite of ourselves.   And yet, one of the basic rules of advertising is that we should put up front the most important thing about us, what we really want people to know.  Sure it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people, but blessed are those churches that, amidst all their appropriate concerns about worship, classes and comfort, still feel compelled to exalt Jesus Christ.   That is where I want to go to church.

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  • Eddie J says:

    I have a couple of questions for you on this, since I think you are like me, a coastal transplanted into the Bible belt:

    1a) If people are unchurched unbelievers in the Bible belt, and hear about Jesus everywhere, does advertising Jesus at your church actually say anything they didn’t already know?

    1b) If people are unchurched believers in the Bible belt, and already know Jesus, does advertising Jesus at your church tell them that your church is different from the rest that claim it?

    2) If people are unchurched unbelievers in the Bible belt, and don’t know who Jesus is, why would saying your follow Jesus ring dear to them?

    I ask these things because in the Bible belt, it seems Jesus is everywhere. So people will either reply with a “so what?” to reports of preaching Jesus Christ and Him crucified, or they are already looking for Jesus and will say, “Why your church?”

    So what do we do?

    • dwsweeting says:

      Eddie, These are good questions. There may however be even more categories than the ones you listed. I suspect that some who refer to these ads are believers or seekers moving into an area who want to know what is available. Then also there are those unchurched or formerly churched people who by a move of the Spirit of God open up to the importance of belonging to a Christian fellowship. Add to this people who visit the city from other parts of the country or the world (and this happens a lot in Orlando). For all these reasons, I think church ads can be helpful. Yet I am a firm believer that the very best advertising a church can have is when the aroma of Christ ascends from a church that makes people want to find out what is happening there.
      Don Sweeting

  • Dr. Frank J. Smith says:

    Dear Dr. Sweeting:

    As you are in the process of looking for a church home, may I respectfully suggest that you try the Orlando Reformed Presbyterian Church? It is one of the oldest Reformed churches in Central Florida, having been established in the 1920s. It is committed to the city, being located still in the downtown area (324 E. Livingston Street).

    I don’t know if it spends money for newspaper ads. However, its website ( features the following motto: “To glorify God by communicating the truth of Holy Scripture to our community, while expecting believers to become fully dependent on Jesus Christ and obedient to His infallible Word.” I know that the folks there are a friendly bunch. Most importantly, they are committed to being serious about their faith, as well as their worship (as reflected in their practice of historic Presbyterian worship, including the preaching of sermons based on Scripture, and a capella exclusive psalmody).

    Perhaps you will decide ultimately not to settle into this particular congregation. However, I hope that as you seek to take in the full panorama of the Reformed community in Orlando, you will take the time to experience a congregation that is seeking still to perpetuate our Calvinistic and Puritan heritage.

    Cordially in Christ,
    Frank J. Smith, Ph.D., D.D.
    Pastor, Northminster Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA)

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