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On Faith

The Business of Filling Pews

Congregations Employ Marketing Consultants to Step Up Appeal

By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page C01

On Faith appears the first Sunday

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The Rev. John W. Wimberly Jr. took a page from the corporate world when his congregation was at a crossroads: He hired a marketing consultant.

In the past decade, crowds at the Foggy Bottom church have grown. And more important, the Rev. John W. Wimberly Jr. says, Western Presbyterian has energy to spare. (Photos Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)

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His church, Western Presbyterian in the District, had its membership decline over the years, once nearly closing its doors. Then, in 1994, its leaders decided to move from their aging building near the World Bank to a residential area of Foggy Bottom. Wimberly worried that the relocation might scatter his flock.

So he turned to the Alban Institute, a church consulting firm based in Herndon. Armed with demographic reports and professional advice on how to appeal to a neighborhood full of families with young children, Wimberly adjusted his sermons and created new ministries.

In the past decade, Sunday attendance has doubled to about 220. More important, he said, the place is brimming with energy.

"It was a great investment," Wimberly said of hiring a consultant. "It was clearly a turning point. We were either going to go in one direction or the other."

Alban is among the oldest and most established church consulting firms, some of which charge congregations thousands of dollars a day. In recent years, fast-growing companies in this field have been helping pastors incorporate multimedia technologies into Sunday services and use sophisticated marketing techniques to draw larger crowds.

Some of them recommend changing the content of sermons or adding contemporary music and drama to attract young people. Others help churches resolve conflicts, ease the succession of a head pastor or adjust to rapid demographic change in the pews.

"Lots of people have turned to us when they are in a moment of great congregational turmoil and pain," said the Rev. James P. Wind, Alban's president. "Now we are noticing more and more that congregations are coming to us [because] . . . ministries are getting sophisticated, incorporating drama, video technology, professional music and modern facilities. You can't do a one-approach-fits-all ministry anymore."

The major denominations offer free help and advice to their member churches, but many pastors say those organizations are overwhelmed and cannot provide as much attention as a professional consultant.

Alban, established more than 30 years ago, markets itself as an interfaith consultant, helping liberal and conservative churches as well as synagogues. Its founder, Loren B. Mead, was one of the first in the country to realize that churches would pay for research and good advice. His fee was $5 a day in the early 1970s. By the time he retired in 1994, it had gone up to $3,000 a day.

"What I would do is go to them and rub their noses in the facts and be sure that they understood what was going in their social context," said Mead, who lives in the District. "I think churches need to step back from the immediate and get some kind of perspective, for instance, on the demographics of an area and the population trends and also the financial trends."

Within evangelical circles, church consulting is a burgeoning business largely aimed at spreading the message of the movement.

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