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Religion: God, Like, Loves You

An aging Queens congregation finds salvation on Madison Avenue

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Chuck Robison, the burly, John Goodman-like pastor at the North Presbyterian Church of Flushing, wanted to reenergize his mostly aging congregation, but none of his big ideas -- to build a bandshell next door to the church, to collaborate with a youth center -- generated much interest among his flock. Finally, last Thanksgiving, he hit on a project that scored with his Queens congregants: Prayers for People, a program whose members would engage in daily prayer on behalf of anyone who requested it. To spread the word, Robison asked Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners -- the award-winning advertising agency behind hip, ironic campaigns like Wendy the Snapple Lady -- to design ads that would draw attention to the church’s project.

“I was intrigued by the idea of how to market the Big Guy,” says executive creative director Bill Oberlander, who met Robison through the Art Directors Club (where the pastor, who moonlights as a photographer, is a member). “We decided to use humor, to soft-pedal the message in an appropriate way.” The ads, which currently run in Queens papers, feature Robison’s portraits of his parishioners accompanied by copy like “God is busy now. But Mary Lou will be happy to take a message for you.”

Robison says that since the pro bono ads started running in February, about 60 people have signed up to be the beneficiary of what the copy describes as “good, old-fashioned, free prayer.” Every Sunday, in his southern drawl, Robison reads off the people requesting the congregation’s attentions. The supplicants are identified only by their first names and what ails them, whether it’s physical (“those who are sick”), existential (“those who are anxious”), or spiritual (“those who seek peace”). And what if the demand starts outstripping the supply? Robison has worked that one out. “We decided we’d pray for 30 days, and if they didn’t see results, they could call back again in another 30 days. If we hear of change in the situation, we take them off the list,” he says. “And thank the Lord.”


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