You are an unchurched person. You believe in God, but you have little time for organised religion. If pressed, you would say you are a spiritual person, but church? Well, thanks, but no thanks. What will get you inside the church? Two things in particular. One: rumours that something good is going on at that place. They say it’s welcoming. It’s not embarrassing. It’s not too religious. They talk my language. They’re good with kids. They smile. And they don’t seem to be after my money the whole time. Two: a family member or friend or neighbour who says, “Hey, I’m going. Want to come with me?”
Somewhere on the list of inviting influences should be church signs. I put it in the context of the first two because the most welcoming church sign in the world is not going to help people access the church if #1 and #2 are not in place. But if they are, well, signs can help. After all, the church sign is the first thing people see as they pass the church property—-if the sign is big enough to see, of course. (Harold Percy points out that a tiny sign which reads “8.15 1 & 3, MP (BCP), 10.45 2 & 4 HC (BAS)” is neither helpful nor welcoming even to Christians who are not Anglicans, let alone to newcomers to church.)
Here then is a sample of the church signs I have collected. Look at them as if you were that unchurched person—-interested in spirituality in a vague kind of way, not opposed to church if it really scratches where you itch. You are idly curious as you drive along the street as to what advertising (including church signs) is to be seen: is it interesting, intriguing, thought-provoking? Does it offer a good deal? What do you see?
LADIES COME MEET MARY MOTHER OF JESUS What does this mean? Church folk understand that the invitation is probably to a Bible study, or a series of studies. Perhaps there will be dramatic presentations on the life of Mary. The sign is certainly intriguing, but, for the outsider, probably a little too mysterious. Are you really going to find (and pay) a babysitter so you can give up a Wednesday evening to find out what “Meet Mary mother of Jesus” means? Not likely. Of course, if that friendly, helpful neighbour who goes to the church tells me more of what it’s about, and is enthusiastic about it, and if she’s going herself, and if her teenage daughter offers to babysit my children for free . . . well, that’s different.
BEAUTY & HAPPINESS FOLLOWS THE INNOCENT I’m still thinking about this one. To be honest, I have not noticed that, as a general rule, “beauty and happiness follow the innocent”. In fact, the opposite is frequently the case. The innocent suffer, the evil get off scot-free. (Don’t the psalms complain about that sort of thing too?) As for the unchurched reader, how do they read it? How does it speak to the battered wife? The businessman who fears he has cancer? The couple on the point of splitting up? The child who doesn’t know where to turn to speak of sexual abuse? “Beauty and Happiness Follow the Innocent”? There’s not a lot of good news for anyone in that message.
CHRIST WILL COME—SAT. AT 6PM If this doesn’t make you laugh, it should make you cry. Church readers understand: an Advent celebration, a theme for the evening. Normal stuff for the time of year. Is the unchurched reader likely to show up? Unless they have some faint liturgical memory around the meaning of Advent, the sign won’t even make a lot of sense, let alone appear as a warm invitation. Sounds like a headline from The National Enquirer. They’ve got better things to do with their Saturday nights.
WHAT JESUS SAYS TO THE SMASHING PUMPKINS Someone here is trying. “Smashing Pumpkins? Aren’t they some kind of rock group? Wasn’t my high school son saying something about them? Sounds like the aftermath of Hallowe’en to me. But what’s that got to do with church? or Jesus? I’ll mention it to Josh when I get home. He’ll get a kick out of it.” Will Josh go to find out what Jesus says to the Smashing Pumpkins? That depends mainly on factors #1 and #2—of course. But the sign, and the topic, might just help.
This Article was originally published in the Spring 1999 edition of good idea!