Selling Jesus

To the dismay of the diocese, a Catholic church takes its marketing cue from evangelicals.

St. Stephen's billboard put the church in a - compromising position.
St. Stephen's billboard put the church in a compromising position.
When Matt Minarik and his wife Sarah first walked into St. Stephen eight years ago, they found, to their delight, unpadded wooden kneelers on which to pray. To their left was a stained glass window so finely crafted, they could see the hairs on a Roman soldier's arm.

The Minariks live in Fairview Park. They found a spiritual home on West 54th Street. "We were struck by the beauty of it," Matt says. "It was as if the Lord was telling us, 'This is where you belong.'"

Minarik's embrace of St. Stephen was sudden and sentimental. His attempt to recruit new members is less so. Minarik helped develop a billboard with the headline "Tired of Catholic Compromise?" It touted the church to southbound drivers on I-71 as "Reverent, Conservative, Uncompromising." This month, St. Stephen will launch TV commercials urging people to "Come home to the church you remember as a child."

Though evangelical churches have long advertised, hidebound Catholics have been loath to play along. "I haven't heard of any other places marketing themselves quite like this, who are still under the auspices of the Catholic Church," says Tom Roberts, editor of National Catholic Reporter.

The ads are drawing fire from other Catholics, who don't appreciate the accusation that they compromise the faith. But like many urban parishes, St. Stephen is struggling to survive. Church leaders say they're just taking a businesslike approach to growing competition.

"If you do any research about inner-city parishes, you realize it's like a reality-TV show," says William Johnston, a member of St. Stephen's council. "Each year, a few churches go out of business. And you don't want to be the one who loses out."

St. Stephen was built by German immigrants in 1873, on what was then the western edge of Cleveland. By the time Father Michael Franz arrived 114 years later, the church was on the brink of collapse. "Most anybody who had an income moved out," says Franz. With 400 families, "We're a little under half of what we need. Sixty percent of our revenue comes from bingo."

Franz started experimenting with ways to make St. Stephen stand out among the 234 churches in the Cleveland diocese. He revived the traditions of burning incense and ringing bells during mass. He introduced a German mass, which regularly attracts 100 to 200 new people once a month.

Franz also worked with Minarik to reach out to families who home-school their children. The monthly mass attracts about 50 families, who come especially for the home-schooling social hour held immediately after the ceremony. "Homeschoolers are more of a conservative group," says Minarik, who teaches two of his four children at home. "They typically follow the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church of not using birth control. So you go into the parking lot after one of these masses and see all these families with huge van after huge van."

Conservative theology lies at the heart of St. Stephen's renewal. On a recent Sunday, visiting priest Frances Walsh discussed the story from Luke, in which Jesus told the crowd that unless they repent, they would suffer the same fate as the 18 sinners crushed by the tumbling tower of Siloam. "Do you want to repent?" Walsh asked, striking an evangelical tone. After the sermon, Franz encouraged parishioners to meet in Beachwood the following Tuesday to pray the rosary across the street from an abortion clinic.

"Father Franz talks about topics like contraception and abortion, things that priests in some suburban churches might just dance around," says Johnston. "He's maybe a bit more confrontational. He's unbridled."

The ad campaign is certainly unbridled, at least by Catholic standards. The diocese received several complaints about the billboard, and Bishop Anthony Pilla wasn't pleased. "There's not a problem with Father Franz trying to recruit Catholics of a more conservative persuasion," says Pilla's spokesman, Robert Tayek, "but it's not proper to belittle anyone else."

Other priests were not so forthcoming. Father Mark DiNardo of St. Patrick Church in Ohio City offered a terse "No comment" when contacted by phone. Father Jerome Lajack of St. Wendelin simply hung up.

The diocese asked Franz to make the sign more positive. Members grudgingly agreed. "A major laundry detergent like Tide can afford to lose a few shoppers each week, if people choose the off-brand," says Minarik. "I don't think Bishop Pilla has to worry about these suburban churches going out of business just because a few people like what they're hearing at St. Stephen."

Minarik's business analogy is telling. When he's not serving on the church council, he runs the Midwest marketing effort for IBM. But religion is also a consumer commodity, and St. Stephen is proof: Its members started switching brands 50 years ago. They either found parishes closer to their new suburban homes or switched to different faiths. To stay alive, churches like St. Stephen now must compete with suburban parishes as well as evangelical churches, which started buying billboards, running telethons, and attracting religious conservatives decades ago.

Minarik speaks the new language of competition. "It's a niche-marketing play," he says of the advertising. "We talk about it in terms of cost per acquisition. If we get 25 new families from TV ads and billboards, it will have been worth it. It will pay for itself."

And because the ads are highly targeted, Minarik says, other churches have nothing to worry about. "We're only going after 1 percent of active Catholics. We're going after the people who want the old-style kneelers, who like the great big pipe organ, who are going from church to church, looking for a place. We're not trying to take members away from other churches."

To some, Minarik's thinking seems crass. "Immediately being divisive is a strange way to invite people into the mystery of the Eucharist," says editor Roberts.

St. Stephen's leaders admit that they've never seen another Catholic church market itself so aggressively. They don't know whether they'll succeed, but they do know what will happen if they do nothing. "We take in $2,000 each Sunday from contributions. That's a minuscule amount," says Johnston. "We decided to do this while we still had any money left at all."