The Reformed Church in America, a conventional New York-based Protestant denomination, is using the techniques of commercial market research to get a toe-hold in the burgeoning Sun Belt.
Using census charts, computer analyses, telephone surveys and media campaigns, the RCA has zeroed in on this city for a new church development program.
"The old style of church growth no longer works," said the Rev. Peter Apulsen, executive pastor of what is called the Dallas Project. "You no longer can come into a community and put up a cinder-block building on a back street. God is an orderly God. And if you prepare yourself well, then God intervenes, which is the nature of a miracle."
The Reformed Church in America and its 230,000 members trace their roots to the 16th century. Rooted in Calvinism, it has been based heretofore almost exclusively in portions of Michigan and the Middle Atlantic states in areas settled by immigrants from Holland.
It has conducted a continuous ministry in the United States since 1628, when Dutch seamen and church members landed at Manhattan and called it New Amsterdam.
The preparation for expansion began two years ago, when the church voted to start a $5 million development program. Dallas, where services began in three locations Sunday, won out over Houston, San Diego, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Portland, Ore., as the cornerstone for the plan.
"We did a standard survey of the communities," Paulsen said. "In short, we were looking for the Reformed Church type -- a well-paid, well-educated family."
The computers said the affluent north Dallas suburbs fit the bill.
"We found that there are few churches in Dallas for people with a serious biblical commitment who didn't want to get locked into a rightwing life style," Paulsen said.
Once they picked the city, church officials moved into high gear, gathering data from the Chamber of Commerce, the North Central Texas Council of Governments and newspaper marketing research.
They consulted with other Dallas church leaders and conducted a telephone survey, placing 4,500 calls.
A multimedia ad campaign suggested, "If you have a hangup about church, don't hang up on us."
The Dallas ministerial staff was selected partly on the basis of surveys that showed ministers in their 30s to be "hungriest for success." The winners were the Revs. John Buteyn Jr., 34; Richard Koerselman, 35; and Frederick Kruithof, 38.
Much of the research was directed by the Rev. Douglas Walrath, who calls himself a "social ecologist."
"In a sense, you could locate a K-mart the same way we are locating our churches," he said.
Dr. Arie Brouwer, chief executive of the Reformed Church, said other churches are scouting his game plan.
"I know that the Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ are watching the Dallas Project carefully," he said. The United Church of Christ, with 1.8 million members, recently began a five-year development program that seeks to open at least 25 new congregations a year, half of them in the Sun Belt.