When the Rev. Steve Sjogren founded The Vineyard Community Church two decades ago with just 37 members, the truly big congregations in town were of the cloth that you might expect: institutions run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati or other "mainline" denominations.

Lord, how times"”and Sunday mornings in Cincinnati"”have changed.

Today, the Vineyard in Springdale"”as well as Crossroads Community Church in Oakley, Solid Rock Church in Monroe and dozens of other non-denominational churches across the Tristate"”are all doing their part to nibble away at the base audience of traditional denominations.

These community-based, individual churches, which didn't even exist until a few years ago, are successfully drawing crowds, and presumably siphoning off business from institutions that have been around for centuries. Three of the upstarts"”Vineyard, Crossroads and Solid Rock"”have battled their way into the Top 10 list of largest churches in Cincinnati, drawing a total of 15,000 in attendance.
For his part, Sjogren (pronounced "Show-grin") tells the Vineyard story this way: "My wife Janie and I came here 21 years ago. There were no non-denominational churches to speak of in the Cincinnati area. There was actually only one in the city and it was actually a part of a denomination, truthfully."

A graduate of a Lutheran Bible college, Sjogren and his wife began with a scripture study group and graduated to services, or celebrations, in a square-dancing barn. "I was asked nearly every single day for many years, 'Are you a part of a cult?' This is just the way people in Cincinnati think"”or the old way of Cincinnati thinking, anyway: If you aren't Catholic or Baptist, you must be a cult." 

"Great things have happened since," observes the founding pastor of the 6,000-member "mega-church," adding that the first Vineyard congregation was "the 'ice breaker' that re-defined spirituality in the city."

"Re-defined" is surely the word for it. So what are these new players doing right in terms of marketing and attracting the faithful of all ages? And how do these parables of consumer success translate into lessons for CEOs across the city?

Consider the example of Crossroads in Oakley, where an independent body took up house in what had been an HQ home improvement warehouse"”a classic "Big Box" retailer. And retail is certainly part of the mix, since the church's staff of 70 includes four former Procter & Gamble brand managers.

The Rev. Brian Tome presides over the congregation of 5,500, making it (according to one national magazine survey) the fastest-growing church in Ohio and one of the Top 100 in America. As senior pastor at Crossroads, Tome"”who delivers sermons wearing blue-jeans and professes to ride a Harley"”even made this year's Cincy Business "Power 100," weighing in as the 25th most influential leader in this region.
Many former members of traditional denominations have discovered that Crossroads"”where the mantra reads "A real place for real people""”is to their liking.

Vanessa White is one such convert. The mother of five children, she observes: "I grew up in a very traditional church background. The reason we started going

to Crossroads was I wanted to raise my children in a less traditional, less bricks-and-mortar setting. I wanted a more living-your-faith church, not a place where someone just speaks at you every Sunday."

What's the service all about? Crossroads' mission statement is neatly summed up in its original Articles of Incorporation filed with the Ohio Secretary of State: "The purposes for which this corporation is formed [is] to form a Christian church based upon the scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments."

Aside from a Bible-based foundation, there's another common denominator among the non-denominationals.

The city's fastest-growing churches are, in fact, modeling themselves on entrepreneurial businesses"”"pastorpreneurs" if you will. This might be called heresy, but the strategy apparently works.

Weigh in these facts: Contributions to traditional Protestant churches are at an all-time low, according to a study of 28 denominations done for the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. United Methodists, Episcopalians and others are all reporting lost members.
Attendance trends on the Roman Catholic side"”the ultimate model in top-down authoritarian management"”are equally grim. At least one dozen Catholic churches have closed here in recent years, a case of parish to perish.

"Alarming." That's the language used in a confidential executive summary of a 2003 Archdiocese of Cincinnati survey of their own faithful. The report refers to the "alarmingly high number of survey respondents""”20 percent, with another 18 percent uncertain"”who indicated that they would not attend a different parish if their current one closed or merged. 

The national slide in attendance at Catholic mass (down 7 percent in a decade's time) could simplistically be attributed to the scandals involving clergy and sex abuse. But the slide away from Vatican City is a long-term trend. Distrust of bishops and the huge bureaucracies within the archdioceses certainly hasn't helped. A declining number of men willing to be priests is also a factor. But many faithful have lapsed for a multitude of reasons: stringent Papal doctrine on social issues, interfaith marriages, rules on communion and divorce, abortion, male-only priests, you name it.

Strangely, some even blame all this on that exemplar of all-American virtue: the soccer mom. Youth sports leagues have grown 400 percent over the past two decades, and park districts and other field facilities are forced to schedule more and more Sunday morning games to stretch the resources.

One non-denominational church is finding a game-day solution to this challenge. After five years of meeting at Cincinnati Country Day School, the congregation of Horizon Community Church, numbering 1,000, has found its permanent home on the putting greens: Indian Valley Golf Course in Anderson. The church plans a facility that will include soccer fields and other recreational amenities.

It's all about serving the changing demographic of the Cincinnati church-goer. The non-denominational churches are wisely treating church-goers as consumers"”"church shoppers""”who can make a choice to switch brands.

"Churches are definitely businesses. You don't think about that," says Ernie DiMalanta, who approaches the question from two perspectives: He's vice president at Quest Marketing Solutions, where he specializes in helping congregations develop marketing plans, and he's a pastor at Embrace Ministries in Liberty Township. "It seems churches, often times, don't do marketing well....They are very scared of the term itself, 'marketing.' They think it's a very secular term."

Some ministers are comfortable only "with the traditional shotgun approach of buying a one-inch advertisement in The Enquirer's weekend church listings," he continues. "Churches are the one particular industry that should see the value of perpetually touching people's lives, of letting newcomers know they are here with [campaigns] that generate a high response...that communicate an image."

DiMalanta suggests this reluctant attitude to "sell" is changing as the marketplace changes. For one, the emergence of new churches is explosive, especially in the outer suburbs. "In West Chester and Liberty Township, every Sunday morning, every single school auditorium is taken up with one new congregation or the other."

In reality, seven out of 10 of these "birthing" churches will fail within two years, he says. "Pastors can launch a church, but they don't necessarily know the business, how to get the word out. They get bogged down in ministries." DiMalanta ticks off what he recommends to clerical clients: Get to know your target audience. Understand the demographics and needs of those you want to minister to in a given community. Get the word out. Repeat those last four words.

Ironically, these locally managed ministries fly in the face of the trend in other industries. Be it fast food, grocery stores or newspapers, chain ownership has almost always trumped mom-and-pop independents. Storefront operations can't survive in the glare of Wal-Mart. So what's the difference here? How can the "chain" churches"”that is, the huge denominations"”be losing ground to gatherings in a square-dancing barn or high school cafeteria?

The answer is astonishingly simple. Once upon a time, church shoppers might have chosen a church based on the family's ethnic background and church-going habits, or because of the parish school, or even deep-seated theological roots. For Christians, it was a business of steeples and stained glass, altar guilds and weathered hymnals"”a 2,000-year-old franchise.

Now, brash competitors promise differing musical styles and drama troupes, cutting-edge sound systems and giant video screens, cafes and coffee bars, contemporary youth ministries and"”heavens"”Starbucks at social hour. All the comforts and amenities of home, proving that old habits indeed can be broken.

Do the churches make compromises to appease their new converts? Perhaps. In the year that Jesus' birthday fell on a Sunday, both Crossroads and The Vineyard took raps from traditional clerics for canceling Christmas Day services, bowing to audience pressure (families who wanted to stay home to open gifts on Christmas morning). The Vineyard actually developed a Home for the Holidays CD for its families to take home.

Jon Weatherly, academic dean at Cincinnati Christian University (formerly Cincinnati Bible College & Seminary) in Price Hill, has called these mega-churches "seeker-sensitive."

"These kinds of churches want to make their congregation comfortable," is how one Protestant priest in Cincinnati put it in a recent pulpit address. "But comfort is not the reason we should be here."

Perhaps, but it's hard to argue with success. The number of mega-churches in America (defined as having weekly attendance of 2,000-plus) has doubled in five years. Locally, Turner Construction has added on a division devoted solely to building new churches and schools in the Tristate. Worshippers are flocking to new players in the marketplace offering a confluence of alternative products and services: Gen-X liturgy, user-friendly doctrine, get-with-the-times ministry, an adventurous spiritual journey. All the elements that morph into a "calling."

Once upon a time, a church could settle for being a temple. These days, the spirit may still be willing, but in some failing temples the "flash" is weak. Worshippers expect their church to also serve as a child-care facility. A theater. A gymnasium. A singles club. A rock concert arena (at Crossroads' auditorium, bookings in May included popular local musical acts such as Over-the-Rhine and Katie Reider).

Not content to deal with the Big Three traditional rites of passage"”"hatch, match and dispatch""”these New Age clerics advertise catchy slogans and jump without reserve into new technologies as dot.com deacons. (When Outreach magazine named the 100 best church web sites in America, Crossroads came in at No. 29 and The Vineyard at No. 80.)

A traditional American church typically has 200 members and an annual budget of $100,000. The average mega-church draws in $4.8 million, according to a study by the Hartford Seminary. And, of course, most of that revenue isn't being drained by federal or local taxes, since churches are largely exempt. Crossroads paid a total of $365.86 last year on its complex, valued by the county auditor at $4.2 million, while The Vineyard paid $20,000 on a property valued at a full $13.5 million.

That means churches"”especially massive ones"”have the financial resources to market themselves. But denominational churches go about it in very different ways. Mainstream ministers tend to grasp the Ten Commandments in one hand and their marketing budgets in the other, seemingly determined not to break either. Denominational churches traditionally rely, instead, on "word-of-mouth" advertising.

Savvy non-denominational churches are at the other end of the spectrum, spending money to make money. (The Vineyard even noted, in the first paragraph of its Articles of Incorporation, that "The specific and primary purposes are: to proclaim the good news of salvation by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ by any suitable method or media." [Our italics for emphasis.]

Media, of course, can encompass a variety of communication: print, broadcast, billboard and, in the case of Solid Rock Church in Monroe, a unique advertising concept designed to create a buzz.

That's exactly what the dramatic 62-foot-high statue of Jesus is doing for the church, creating a stir on the World Wide Web and attracting free press from The New York Times all the way to NBC TV. Spanning 42 feet, the Styrofoam and fiberglass creation"”hands uplifted"”rises out of the earth and grabs the attention of drivers along Interstate 75.

Solid Rock spent a quarter-million bucks on this one marketing strategy. The return? The church membership now numbers 4,000.
Other examples abound. Four Corners Community Church, housed inside the RAVE Motion Pictures theater complex in West Chester, has won a ton of press for its contemporary services (a regular hymn is a rock 'n' roll version of "How Great Thou Art"). And Eastside Christian Church in Milford, also occupying a movie theater, posts creative billboards visible from Interstate 275.

The concept of enhanced visibility all plays to the idea of these churches not being timid about broadcasting themselves in new ways. Publicity, marketing, branding, advertising, campaigning"”it seems it's all about tactics and strategy, about finding the sweet spot where faith and pop culture intertwine.

"Jesus was the greatest marketer of all time," suggests Ernie DiMalanta. "He came down to interact with his audience, to find them and reach them, instead of just staying above."

Cutting-edge views, indeed. In the world of marketing churches, it seems, nothing is gospel. Except the Gospel. 

PHEW! The Pew Report
What a differrence a decade makes.
Ten years ago, the Top 10 largest churches in Cincinnati were all Roman Catholic.
Today, three non-denominational (ND) churches have all bumped three Catholic (C) churches off the list.

Top 10 Greater Cincinnati Churches in 1996
(Based on membership)

1. Good Shepherd, Symmes Twp. (C) 11,480
2. St. James the Greater, White Oak (C) 8,000
3. Our Lay of Lourdes, Westwood (C) 6,318
4. St. Ignatius Loyola, Monfort Heights (C) 6,010
5. St. Maximilian Kolbe, West Chester (C) 5,500
6. St. Antoninus, Western Hills (C) 4,800
7. Church of the Assumption, Mt. Healthy (C) 4,500
8. St. Vincent Ferrer, Kenwood (C) 3,600
9. St. Michael, Sharonville (C) 3,600
10. St. William, Price Hill (C) 3,400

Top 10 Greater Cincinnati Churches in 2006
(Based on membership)

1. Good Shepherd, Symmes Twp. (C) 12,116
2. St. James the Greater, White Oak (C) 9,000
3. St. Maximilian Kolbe, West Chester (C) 8,472
4. St. Ignatius of Loyola, Monfort Heights (C) 6,729
5. Vineyard Community Church (ND) 6,000
6. Crossroads Community Church (ND) 5,500
7. Our Lady of Lourdes, Westwood (C) 5,000
8. St. Antoninus, Western Hills (C) 4,700
9. Church of the Assumption, Mt. Healthy (C) 4,500
10. Solid Rock Church, Monroe (ND) 4,000

Tracking the Trend: One Case Study

Think it's just the two Roman Catholic archdioceses that are hurting in Greater Cincinnati? The news hasn't been good for some other traditional denominations here, as well. Take the Episcopal Church, one of the few"”if not only"”denominations to post 10-year attendance and giving trends for ALL its individual churches. Here's a peek at the Top 5 Losers and Gainers over the past decade. (Overall, the Diocese of Southern Ohio reported losing 1/25th of its members from 1994 to 2004, while the Diocese of Lexington across the river flatlined).

Episcopal Church 1994 Members 2004 Members
1. Redeemer, Hyde Park 1,500 1,250
2. Christ Church, downtown 760 600
3. All Saints, Pleasant Ridge 310 170
4. Christ, Glendale 650 525
5. Grace, College Hill  340  260

Episcopal Church 1994 Members 2004 Members
1. St. Timothy's, Anderson 650 1,070
2. St. Barnabas, Montgomery 620 870
3. St. Thomas, Terrace Park 1,210 1,390
4. St. Andrew's, Fort Thomas 580 760
5. Advent, Walnut Hills 125 180

Parish to Perish

"Alarming." That's the language used in a confidential executive summary of a 2003 Archdiocese of Cincinnati survey of  their own faithful. The report refers to the "alarmingly high number of survey respondents" (20 percent, with another  18 percent uncertain) who indicated that they would not attend a different parish if their current one closed or merged.
Meanwhile, the following churches in the Archdiocese have already closed over the past two decades:

Holy Angels
Closed 1999, members directed to St. Francis de Sales

Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Closed 1989, members directed to Holy Family

Our Lady of the Presentation
Closed 1986, members directed to St. Leo

St. Aloysius
Closed 1998, members directed to St. Clement

St. Bonaventure
Closed 2003, members directed to St. Leo

St. Charles Borromeo
Closed 1998, members directed to St. James of the Valley

St. George
Closed 1993, members directed to St. Monica

St. Matthew
Closed 1994, members directed to Holy Trinity

St. Michael the Archangel
Closed 1998, members directed to Holy Family

St. Patrick (St. Aloysius)
Closed  1991, members directed to St. Boniface

St. Peter and Paul
Closed 1994, members directed to Holy Trinity

St. Pius
Closed 1998, members directed to St. Joseph

St. Richard
Closed 1992, members directed to St. Therese