A few ideas to make church signs better

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 28, 2011

A recent drive through some local and state roads in rural eastern North Carolina has re-ignited my discomfort for church signs that claim to have a message. You’ve seen them in the cities, the suburbs and in the country: congregations that have large roadside display signs with letters that can be moved, changed and rearranged. They are everywhere.
However, these signs have evolved from being church mini-billboards to quirky faith clichés that, at best, come across as cute but misunderstood jokes. At worst, they can be perceived as smug and arrogant. Here are a few examples:
My concern is this: As Christians, how did we arrive at the point where our church signs, these wonderful evangelism tools, are now used as instruments of sarcasm disguised as wit?
Before I go any further, I want to thank to the faithful people who change these signs because it is not an easy job. The letters are hard to handle and organize; and the signs themselves are not user friendly and require much stooping and bending to remove and replace the letters. Also, the changes often have to be made in bad weather. Please take a moment to tell your sign person how much you appreciate them carrying out that ministry. It’s not easy. (Thank you Donna for changing the sign weekly at Concordia!)
Back to the issue: Church sign messages have become a cottage industry with books and websites devoted to providing puns for church signs that will get your congregation noticed. As you read this you can already visualize some of the ones you’ve seen.
Do these “temporary mission statements” truly represent the theology of the pastor, congregation, or church body? To the person driving by with no other knowledge of the congregation, the answer is yes; they do represent the values and opinions of each person associated with that community. That’s the perception, but probably not the reality. As a result, if you don’t say it in worship, most likely, you shouldn’t say it on your church sign.
Now, really, I get it. I understand the humorous attempts to connect people with faith. Before seminary I had an extensive career in advertising and I fully understand the need for creative promotion. But what we might think is cute and charming, can easily be misunderstood and offensive to the seeker (the one seeking a church home). And isn’t that who we’re trying to attract anyway?
There is another important question Christian congregations need to ask about their sign ministry: Are we faithfully extending the invitation of Christ (literally the hand of Christ) for folks to visit? Or, are we turning people away because our signs, though hip and fresh, come across as arrogant as smug?
Admittedly, I find some of the signs quite creative. Yet, other attempts at faith-speak through a church sign can appear to the passerby as lame without ever referring to the congregation’s core purpose or belief. Lame, cliché, smug and arrogant are not attributes one wants to associate with a local church whose outward activities are usually outreach, witnessing, discipleship and evangelism. Ask anyone who was ever a first-time visitor at a church, club, school or organization. When there is no initial experience of welcoming, warmth and hospitality, the chances are slim of a return visit.
The same is true for church signs. If your first and best opportunity to reach someone on a drive-by is your church sign, then make it an invitation to something special and specific. Ultimately, we are who we say we are. And our church signs should reflect the best we have to offer as a faith community.
A few church sign suggestions that I have found useful:
• Seven words. More than seven words and your sign becomes crowded and hard to read. Don’t believe me? Try reading a billboard while driving on Highway 29. Which billboard has the most impact on you? The one with the fewest and easiest words to read? Or, the one “busy” billboard with pictures with dozens of various-sized words, a website and phone number? Keep it simple.
• Change weekly. Regardless of how effective your message might be, if the sign remains the same for too long the eyes and the brain become numb to it. However, when it is changed weekly, the sign remains fresh and people will most certainly notice.
• Church Calendar. Use you church’s bulletin or newsletter calendar to highlight events. See # 4.
• Invitation. Invite folks to specific events (speakers, singings, youth events, special worship services, meals, scouts, senior gatherings, ministry opportunities), promote ministry partnerships with local food pantries, blood drives, fundraisers, community events, thank a ministry team, or promote something new. Then highlight only the basics of what, when, and where.
• Find a helper. Empower a faithful member to take ownership and pride in keeping the sign active and changing it frequently.
• Both sides. If your church sign has two sides, use each side for different events.
• Website. If your website is a one-stop-shop of information, then highlight it occasionally.
Christians, with our church signs, have been handed yet another golden opportunity to extend the hand of Jesus Christ to those who are seeking a place of faith to call home. Whether they are new or returning to the faith, looking for a new church home, new to the area, or simply seeking, we are called to welcome and prepare a place for those who are experiencing the Holy Spirit stir within them.
In St. John 1:38-39 people were seeking and following Jesus. He invited them to, “Come and see.” And again in St. John 1:43 Jesus extends the invitation to Philip, “Come and see.” Philip also models this powerful expression to Nathanael, “Come and see.” Jesus did not work under the limited meaning of clichés. He simply extended the invitation.
Our visual words posted on a sign indicate who we are and whose we are. One could simply say, “Oh, it’s just a sign.” And they would be right. But, when it stands in front of the very place that is called to proclaim Christ, it is more than just a sign. It is an invitation to Christ who loves, forgives, and calls us to a new way of life.
What does your sign say?
Pastor Ken Reed serves Concordia Lutheran Church-NALC in China Grove NC. You can email him at kenreed10@ctc.net.