By Jeff Strickler

(MCT)

Listeners at his seminars exchange smirks when he says blogging should be considered mandatory. They look aghast when he recommends posting short video clips from their sermons on YouTube.

It's a lot better than the reaction he used to get.

Across the country, religious congregations have turned more to marketing to keep the members they have and attract others to their emptying pews. The trend is accelerating as the Internet and its explosion of social networking sites add entirely new ways to connect on spiritual issues.

But the growing emphasis on new salesmanship tools alarms others who say the onslaught undermines the idea that spirituality should be a respite from the constant clamor of commercialism.

But, Smith said, "Whether they like it or not, religions are being forced to compete for members."

SMART-PHONE SPIRITUALITY

That debate has intensified with this spring's follow-up study of a 2008 survey that discovered that 44 percent of adult Americans have a different religious affiliation than the one they grew up in. Surprised by so much movement, researchers went back and asked the respondents why they changed.

Along with the expected answers — marriage to a person of a different faith, the arrival of a new minister, disagreement with church rules — came the discovery that people have started to shop for churches the same way they shop for cars. They test-drive sermons and check out the "accessories," which can include everything from the music to children's programs to the co-ed softball team.

More than just bragging rights are at stake. Maintaining membership is critical for church finances, especially at a time of economic distress when contributions are dropping and endowment funds have taken a beating in the stock market. If belt-tightening members drop less money in the collection plate, the congregation needs to pack more people into the pews to make up the difference.

"Use new technologies to create a dialogue," he said.

The younger generation's reliance on these electronic social networks leaves religious leaders no choice, Herring said. "If you're not out there, there's no chance of your message being heard," he said.

"I felt very alone after moving a lot throughout my life and hopping to church after church," she said. "When I go onto Web sites like Tangle.com, Shoutlife.com and Mychurch.com I feel more connected with others. Before, I almost felt awkward in speaking about my beliefs in God, but after talking more and more about it with other Christians on these Web sites I feel way more comfortable in sharing my beliefs in depth with others. These websites have changed my life for the better and have brought me closer to God."

A SLIPPERY SLOPE?

"My advice is: Look at the stats, but stick to the scriptures and let the scriptures inform the ministry philosophy and practice of reaching out and into the community."

"People see it as too worldly or gimmicky for the church to be marketing itself," he said. "But most of the same people who say it is sacrilegious also expect their church to have a Web site, a listing in the phone book or an ad in the phone book. To me, this is marketing."

In fact, he said, one of religion's classic icons could be considered a marketing tool: the church steeple.

"Yes, it's there for artistic reasons and to symbolize pointing to God," he said. "But it's also like a big sign to people saying: 'We are here. Come and check us out.'"

THE RULES HAVE CHANGED

These days, the criticism focuses more on how the marketing is being done. Even the bluntly named Church Marketing Sucks Web site (www.churchmarketingsucks.com) limits its lambastes to poor-taste advertising. The bulk of the site offers tips on designing eye-catching Web pages.

"It used to be socially expected that people would go to church," she said. "That's not true with the current generation. We have to find ways to reach them. We have to be willing to try new things."

Some of the fastest-growing congregations — suburban, mostly evangelical Christian megachurches — embraced marketing from the start. Their success has caused more-traditional congregations with dwindling memberships to take notice.

"We have to reach people through the culture we find ourselves in," he said. "If we want people to hear our message, we have to get them through the doors first."