Remember that song, “Signs?” It’s from 1971 by Five-Man Electrical Band. I remember it because my father was a high school teacher and principal who did not like long hair on guys. Male students were always looking for ways to get around the rules the schools set to prevent long hair. My husband tells me his school had a rule that their hair could not go past the collar on their shirts. They started wearing T-shirts so their hair could be just a little longer. They fooled no one.
Lately, I’ve been paying attention to church signs. Some signs only have the congregation’s name on it and maybe identify its affiliation. Others have gone digital and have all sorts of information flashing on it, often not readable by those driving along, unless they can stop and stare.
In a former congregation I served, we had a sign with the church name painted in large letters, and one of those changeable signs underneath. You know the type, one letter at a time gets added or removed. And if it’s windy or raining or snow on the ground, look out! There was this space on the sign where the pastor’s name was supposed to go. My predecessor’s name had been painted over, but mine had not yet been added.
At the same time, I noticed that many businesses around us did not have their street number clearly posted. Homes might have the number posted, but often not visible from the street. As a new person in town I was aware of how important it was to see the building’s number. (GPS does not always help when houses are close together!) So, when a member offered to paint my name on the sign, I made a suggestion. “Can we put the street number of our church in that spot?” Although the request surprised him, as we talked about why, he could see the value in it. Later, strangers thanked me for putting the address on the sign!
But, I digress. I’ve been amazed by the variety of messages offered on church signs. Some of them are theologically wrong, and others just aren’t Lutheran! Works righteousness shows up a lot. Often a sign doesn’t have enough space to provide enough information. Or, as I noted above, a digital message often scrolls by too swiftly to be read.
On my way to work I pass by a church which always has a Bible verse on its sign. It changes about once a week. I’ve never seen a judgmental message but verses offering hope, grace, and love. Seeing Proverbs 31:10b “A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised,” was much better than the one nearby that flashed an offending phrase for Mothers Day.
Some signs have clearly not been changed in a long time. Is the church closed? Was the key lost? Are the letters missing? Or, as in the case of all my former congregations was the weather being difficult, and the cover at risk of being torn off by wind? The invitation to Christmas Eve services was often still up in late January because no one could get to the sign. How we longed for a digital sign with indoor controls!
Then there’s the sign that says, “All are Welcome.” I always wonder, “do they really mean it?” How would they treat a man who shows up in woman’s clothing? What would they do if two men kissed, or held hands during worship? Or, what about the woman who sneaks her miniature dog into worship in a purse? Or the children who are noisy? A clergy friend of mine and his brother, as young children, were banished by their church for making car sounds in worship. When he was old enough for catechism he went back, but his brother never returned. Do churches really mean it when they post on their sign, “All are Welcome?”
Signs say a lot about who we are. The absence of signs say a lot too. Do we want people to join us? Do we want only our members to show up? Do we ever offer the simple Truth, “Jesus loves you?” Or, during Advent, dare we put up “You Brood of Vipers?” (I don’t recommend it!)
Whatever a church posts, remember that it might be the only opportunity we have to connect with a stranger on the road. Make it good news.