Church signs: Spread­ing the Gospel one pun at a time

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Rose French

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — On the way home af­ter a tough day at his mu­sic pub­lish­ing busi­ness, Don­ald Seitz drove by a church mar­quee pro­claim­ing,“He­whokneels­be­fore God, can stand be­fore any­one.”

The spir­i­tual mes­sage was ex­actly what he needed to lift his cloudy out­look.

Mr. Seitz says he was so moved by the ex­pe­ri­ence that he spent the next three years driv­ing 20,000 miles across 40 states to pho­to­graph 100 church signs for a new book, which fea­tures other catchy lines like “Life is frag­ile. Han­dle with prayer.” And “Don’t Give Up. Moses Was Once A Bas­ket Case.”

Some driv­ers might roll their eyes or chuckle at the “drive-by ser­mons” on church signs, but the pun-heavy re­li­gious mes­sages have be­come key to at­tract­ing the at­ten­tion of wor­ship­pers and po­ten­tial wor­ship­pers.

The signs are meant to en­lighten, en­ter­tain and evan­ge­lize — usu­ally in 10 words or less — and of­ten give driv­ers a brief glimpse of what the church com­mu­nity be­lieves and what to ex­pect from the pul­pit.

“Many of the peo­ple who read signs will not end up in their pews, but they may be able to af­fect their lives in a pos­i­tive way,” Mr. Seitz said. “It’s like a ser­mon on the road.”

Most churches be­gan in the 1990s to give up wooden signs with ser­mon sched­ules in fa­vor of mar­quees with mov­able let­ters.

Signs with hu­mor­ous one-lin­ers or sim­ple spir­i­tual mes­sages com­mu­ni­cated more in­for­ma­tion to the pub­lic about the church and per­haps in­trigued new­com­ers to check out Sun­day ser­vices, said Colorado pas­tor Ron Glusenkamp, who wrote the book “Signs for Th­ese Times.”

“It was a way to en­cour­age peo­ple to uti­lize their church signs, to rec­og­nize it’s a valu­able way to con­nect with peo­ple, [. . . ] to help peo­ple kind of re­flect on their re­la­tion­ship with God,” Mr. Glusenkamp said.

Mr. Seitz’s self-pub­lished book of pho­tos ti­tled “The Great Amer­i­can Book of Church Signs” high­lights 100 signs cov­er­ing themes such as faith, for­give­ness, love, prayer and per­se­ver­ance.

Fea­tured in the book are gems like “Feed your faith and your doubts will starve to death,” from Church of Christ at Brookhill in Killen, Ala.; “Love God with all your heart, then do what­ever you want,” from Fifth Av­enue Pres­by­te­rian Church in New York City; and “Tithe if you love Je­sus. Any­one can honk,” from South­ern Heights Bap­tist Church in Rus­sel­lville, Ky.

Not ev­ery­one is crazy about the mar­quees, say­ing they of­ten be­lit­tle or mis­rep­re­sent Chris­tian be­liefs.

Joel Bezaire, for one, started the blog crum­my­church­, which of­fers “crit­i­cal anal­y­sis of crit­i­cally bad church signs,” ac­cord­ing to the Web site. He says he’s got­ten sub­mis­sions from 40 states, and more than 400 signs have been cat­a­loged on the site since he be­gan it two years ago.

He says a lot of the signs are meant to be funny but aren’t — and end up mak­ing Chris­tian­ity look silly and ir­rel­e­vant.

From Smyrna, Tenn., there was this one: “If Christ of­fends you, imag­ine what hell will do.”

“Only in Amer­ica can we get a church sign to fa­vor­ably com­pare Christ and hell,” Mr. Bezaire says on his site. “And, yeah, I know what they­were try­ing to say [but] that doesn’t count be­cause most unchurched peo­ple wouldn’t.”

Joel Ben­bow, pas­tor of Trin­ity Lutheran Church in Evanston, Ill., whose sign “To Be­lit­tle is to Be Lit­tle” is in­cluded in Mr. Seitz’s book, said his mar­quee is in­tended to make peo­ple curious about the church, and its mes­sage needs to be catchy to grab the at­ten­tion of driv­ers.

“We try to use [signs] that are fairly clever, a play on the words,” Mr. Ben­bow said. “If they’re not, they’re not no­ticed as much. It’s got to be in four or five words to get peo­ple’s at­ten­tion.

“If we can pick their spir­its up a bit, that’s good. That’s a bonus. If it puts a smile on their lips, that’s re­ally good,” he said.

Joseph Shel­ton, a di­rec­tor of field ed­u­ca­tion and church re­la­tions at Duke Univer­sity Di­vin­ity School, said some signs are aimed at get­ting peo­ple to church, while oth­ers are mak­ing a state­ment about what the church stands for and try to en­liven peo­ple spir­i­tu­ally.

“If they’re meant to be dis­cus­sion starters, they can be great for that. I think di­a­logue is al­ways good,” he said. “They get peo­ple talk­ing, which could lead to spir­i­tual di­a­logues.”

Mr. Seitz, who moved from Pasadena, Calif., six years ago with his wife to start a mu­sic and book pub­lish­ing com­pany in Nashville, said his book is not in­tended to evan­ge­lize or make fun of church signs.

“I cov­ered this coun­try and saw thou­sands of signs, and the ma­jor­ity are meant to en­cour­age us to live bet­ter lives,” he said. “They’re won­der­ful, up­lift­ing mes­sages. Sure, oc­ca­sion­ally there’s a mes­sage that’s off the mark, that’s a bit off color. But most are so­phis­ti­cated and funny.”

As­so­ci­ated Press pho­to­graphs

A church in Wytheville, Va., of­fered up one of the 100 pho­to­graphs in “The Great Amer­i­can Book of Church Signs,” which cat­a­logs catchy “drive-by ser­mons” from churches across the coun­try.

“Signs” self-pub­lisher Don­ald Seitz says he com­piled the pho­to­graphs be­cause of their up­lift­ing mes­sages — and be­cause they’re funny.

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