By W. Clayton Brumby
Churches say a lot even when they aren’t saying anything. Individuals and congregations send all kinds of non-verbal communication about themselves, and about how they feel toward total strangers. You don’t believe me? Let’s take a short ride. I’ll drive. Let’s see what they’re saying, or not saying. I think you’ll see what I mean.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know anyone at these churches, so the only way they can engage someone like me is the way they keep their property, and what their signs say. Signs are kind of a hobby for me; I see them sort of like a lens that brings a church into focus. For instance, coming up here on the right is a church sign; one of those you can change messages on. “EASTER SUNRISE SERVICE, 6:30AM ALL ARE WELCOME.” Well let’s see, it’s now the third week in May. Easter was a full six weeks ago. I don’t know about you, but I get the feeling this church forgot about me over a month ago. Are they as thoughtless as their sign? I’ll never know…
This next church coming up has a little metal message board sign. It’s been here as long as the church has, a little over twenty-seven years. The paint has peeled and the top is coated with rust. People can’t remember how long ago the glass was cracked in the door that can’t be opened because they can’t remember when the key was lost. The sign no longer lights up. No one knows if it’s an electrical problem or that the light bulb needs to be replaced. Do they even make bulbs for that model anymore? It wouldn’t matter. As you can tell, the sign can’t be seen by traffic unless it’s pointed out; it’s mounted parallel to the road. Perhaps the church was making a concerted effort twenty-seven years ago to get the families who lived across the street to join them because that’s who the sign has been addressing all these years.
The church coming up here on the right is newer. Their sign looks like it once served as the construction sign for the property. It’s been redone several times. It looks like a professional was used originally, but that was a couple of paintings ago. The closer one gets the dirtier it looks, and the corners are rotting. And now a strange looking vine is making good use of the sign for its own purposes. They seem to have money – new playground equipment, resurfaced parking lot… you know; stuff for them. I kind of look at it as the buildings are for them and the sign is for me. And it says a lot about where someone like me, a non-member, stands in the scheme of things.
The three churches we’ve just seen have said a mouthful. So far, not so good. Next up we find a church that has metal architectural letters attached to a low wall . Kind of looks like a boundary marker. It tells the name of the church, but nothing more. The letters look classic, though, don’t they?
We’ll turn right here. At the end of this block are two churches that have brand new signs. One liked the more historic wooden look. The sign was sand-blasted and then painted even with what appears to be gold-leaf. Someone spent some money on that one. And if I was a faithful member of that denomination, I might be inclined to visit. But I’m not, so I don’t.
The church across the street took a decidedly different approach. They wanted a more contemporary look so they chose a crisp, rectangular cabinet with what appears to be letters cut out of the metal faces. At night, when it lights up, the letters are suspended in the darkness. Very tasteful. They even have a line at the bottom to tell the times of services. Someone was thinking, too, because they mounted the sign perpendicular to the street so it can be seen by both directions of traffic better than a block away.
Yes sir, it took some congregational politicking to get both of those signs done, and now that they are installed, the churches are very proud of them. They add such nice finishing touches to their respective properties, and both show a lot about how the churches feel about themselves. Unfortunately, how they feel about themselves is about all they tell me. Well, maybe not. Do they leave you with the same kind of impression they leave me? As if we are driving by a country club? MEMBERS ONLY. Sure, I’m welcome to visit anytime, so long as I’m accompanied by a member. Thanks, but no thanks.
Oh – here’s a new sign I want to show you. Big, bright and beautiful. It has a place to put messages. I’ve been reading this one for the last couple of months. It’s on my way to work. One week it had: “WE’RE LOOKING FOR A FEW GOOD MEMBERS.” I think it was a take off on the Marine’s slogan about looking for a few good men. Last week the message was: “A CHURCH ALIVE IS WORTH THE DRIVE.” Catchy. But a few messages like this and I’m wondering if they are really concerned about me, or are they just looking to add me to the ever growing list of who was in their Sunday School last week.
When not doing that, I’ve found the sign pretty preachy. They use the word “you” a lot, as if the messages don’t pertain to them anymore; like they’ve got it all together. One week it said: “YOU CAN’T GET CAUGHT IN PLACES YOU DON’T GO.” And then: “YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN.” I don’t disagree with either of those statements, but don’t they apply to all of us as human beings? I’m not looking to be around people who’ve “got it all together” and are going to make sure I get it all together. I want to be around people who live in the same world I do, and who struggle with the same things I struggle with. In fact, wasn’t that why God became a man? So I could see Him relating to me?
Anyway, there is one last sign I’d like to show you. It’s as nice as the last one, but I get the feeling the pastor of this church hasn’t forgotten what it’s like not to have all the answers. I mean, I know Christianity has a lot of answers about life. I know a lot of Christians. But it’s what people do with what they know that makes or breaks the message for me.
For instance, this sign rarely uses the word “you” like the other church. The almost always use the word “we” – like we’re all in this together. Most of the time the messages are just trying to be engaging and have some fun with those of us coming by. Every once in a while, though, they’ll zap me with a paraphrased Bible verse to let me know they are part of the solution, and have some answers. But most of the time the messages are non-sectarian. They just get me to think about things I wouldn’t normally think about; things from a different prespective.
The real impression I get is that this church cares; they aren’t indifferent about me – not like the first few churches we drove by. They are always putting something on their sign with me in mind. And that’s comforting. The effort they go to makes me feel good too. They not only change their sign once or twice a week, but they try to say what they say in a way I didn’t expect it; like they want me to do a mental double-take. Last week the message was: “THE ARGUMENT YOU JUST WON WITH YOUR WIFE ISN’T OVER YET.” I had to chuckle. I guess the pastor, or whoever changes the sign, knows something about marriage.
Over all, the sign just makes me curious: are the people who go here as real as their sign? I don’t have a clue, but it kinda makes me want to find out. I can’t help but think I might get more if I walked in the door. In fact, it almost makes me want to go back to church…
Me? No, I’m not a member anywhere. I was really involved in a youth group once, but, you know kids – I messed up a few times. I wanted to go back, but I didn’t think I was made of the “right stuff.” Would I consider going back now? Gosh, I don’t know. That’s pretty scary. If I did, though, I can tell you one thing: this last church is the first church I’d visit. It’s the only one that’s come close to earning my trust. Maybe you have point. Maybe I should give it another shot. What are their service times again?
Confessions of a Church Sign Reader. By W. Clayton Brumby.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”