CLEVELAND (RNS) Six years ago, United Church of Christ advertising spots promoting the church's openness and diversity were shunned by major broadcast networks as "too controversial."
Rejections of the 30-second spots--which showed unnamed churches turning away gays and minorities--sparked a continuing battle between the UCC and broadcasters over free speech, censorship, discrimination and promoting religion on public airways.
Now, the UCC has turned its back on television and is taking its message of inclusiveness and diversity into cyberspace with a massive, direct advertising campaign via the Internet.
On Friday (April 16), the 1.1-million member denomination will post a video ad on its Web site and ask 60,000 of its members and supporters to disseminate that message through social networking sites like Facebook, My Space, Twitter and e-mail.
In addition, the church is spending $50,000 to purchase space for the 60-second video on popular blogs and various social networking pages. Church leaders hope the advertising blast reaches up to 4 million people.
"We're creating our own network," said the Rev. Ben Guess, director of communications for the church.
Guess said the UCC, a liberal-leaning church that ordains gays and women, is taking on the Internet "like no denomination has ever done before."
The church's Internet blitz follows its long battles with CBS, NBC and their cable affiliates, which refused in 2004 to air two ads nationally. Some local affiliates did air the ads, as did some cable stations, costing the church $12 million for production and air purchases over five years.
But national networks, saying the ads were too controversial, wanted no part of them. A complaint filed by the church with the Federal Communications Commission is still pending.
At the time, CBS said its policy was not to air ads that proselytize on behalf of any one religion. NBC said it rejected one of the ads because it carried the implication that there are churches that don't accept some people.
Guess said the church is not backing down from its complaint with the FCC.
"We don't think the issue has been settled," he said. "There seems to be no clear FCC policy. Decisions to air or not to air ads are completely at the whims of network executives."
Guess also said the church has no intention of buying TV ad time, although he said that decision was not a reaction to the church's battle with the networks.
"It's about us seeing a new opportunity," he said. "It's about embracing the way people are making important connections on the Internet. Young people spend more time in front of a computer screen than a TV screen."