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Why not use a marketing plan to attract Baby Boomers to church?

Baby Boomers, who owe their identities at least in part to their affinity for expensive consumer goods, lately have attracted the attention of church leaders who see in the "boomers" a great potential for bolstering membership rolls. But how to get their attention?

One recent gathering considered imitating the Madison Avenue approach. In the brochure for a conference on "Regenerating Catholicism, a symposium on the challenge to reach Catholic young adults," the 25-45 age group was revealingly referred to as a "market" and one that "very few Catholic organizations, from the parish to national magazines," has tried to tap.

One of the presentations at the early October conference, organized by the staff of Old St. Patrick's Church here, was by Patrick Flynn, a marketing vice president for one of the nation's most successful marketers among youth, McDonald's Corp.

He gave examples of McDonald's marketing techniques, complete with commercials. He said the techniques serve a long-range strategy of "developing brand integrity" around basic values. The strategy includes aiming the corporate message at different audiences, for instance, at various age groups. Flynn told the church leaders that the techniques could be applied to promoting church membership.

The pitch met with some mixed reviews among the 350 Catholic leaders, organizers and young adults from around the country who attended. However, John Fontana, a member of the staff at Old St. Patrick's, likened the selling of Catholicism to missionary work.

"The great missionaries made the gospel come alive in many cultures," he said in an interview. They did so, he said, by paying attention to the needs of those to be converted.

The folks at Old St. Patrick's must be good at marketing. The parish, a half-mile west of Chicago's Loop, is thriving as a center of young adult activity. The parish even started a grade school recently at a time when parish schools and some churches are being closed in a rash of archdiocesan belt-tightening.

The trouble with Catholics in the 1990s, said Fontana, is that they are overly absorbed in what they are selling (the product) and not concerned enough with the needs of their clients. "The whole marketing movement tells us to pay attention to customer needs. It emphasizes our ability to sense, serve and satisfy needs of constituents." One of the projects at Old St. Patrick's is the Crossroads Center for Faith and Work which addresses questions of how to find God while working for a living.

Some participants at the conference found the McDonald's pitch too commercial. But Harry Fagan, founder and director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York, found it "provocative" in a good sense. "What we sell or promote is more complicated than hamburgers," he said, "but there are some marketing principles that people lose track of."

One of those principles was announced centuries ago by the great missionary to the gentiles, noted Robert J. Bies, a Georgetown University professor of management, who also addressed the group. Paul, he said, sought to become "all things to all men _ and women."

Church leaders should return to the "missionary model," he said in an interview. When Paul and others came to a community, they "thought strategically and politically and sought to build organizations responsive to the community." The Mormons do that today, he said, "but we Catholics miss opportunities."

There was no decision at the meeting on whether any new organizations would be formed, but some participants, eager to "network," as baby boomers might say, did what even Paul could not do _ exchanged fax numbers.