Drive-by messages from God

When did “Worship at 10 am Sunday” become “1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4 Given”?

Church reader boardIf you spend time driving rural roads and small towns in this country, you start noticing those church reader boards—you know, the signs out in front of churches with plastic changeable letters?

Church reader boardYou can’t help but wonder about them: who comes up with those messages? Is the pastor burning the midnight oil every Thursday trying to come up with something attention-getting? Is the task assigned to a helper who empties the votive cash box, polishes the altar candlesticks and updates the reader board once a week? Or can you subscribe to a religious sign message service—52 weeks of inspirational sayings for just $19.95?

Based on driving by hundreds of them in the past six months, I’ve decided that church signs fall into a few categories:

  1. Church reader boardJust the facts ma’am announcements. (The Christmas Pageant is December 20. Sunday’s Sermon Topic: The Power of Prayer. Thursday Night Bingo is Cancelled.)
    A subset of just the facts ma’am is set it and forget it, ‘cuz I don’t have time to keep changing the message. (Sunday School at 9. Worship at 10:30.)
  2. Religion is no laughing matter. Stick to the bible; you just can’t improve on the word of God. (The Joy of the Lord is Our Strength. For Unto You is Born This Day a Savior—Luke 2:11. Satan Will Rule You All.)
  3. Church reader boardWe’re the fun church. Make people chuckle and maybe they’ll show up on Sunday; or at least tell their friends about our sign; or at least remember there’s a church here. (The Best Vitamin for a Christian is B1. To a Dyslexic Atheist There is a Dog. Can’t Sleep? Come Listen to a Sermon. I’m not making these up.)

Church reader boardIt’s safe to assume that bible-thumping quotations are advertising a more conservative or evangelical church, and those trying to find relevance in humor are targeting a more worldly congregation. It’s funny though—I’ve been a little surprised that you can’t generalize about where you’re going to find a given type of message. I thought we’d see mostly bible quotations in the bible belt but that’s not necessarily so. You can find churches trying to be thought provokingly clever in a small rural town in the South or Midwest. And you can find sober biblical church signs in northern cities. Although church reader boards are more commonly found on the outlaying areas of cities and smaller towns, you do find them in city centers too.

Church reader boardWhat I have observed—this is entirely anecdotal of course—is that sign message writers are subject to peer pressure just like anyone else. If the churches up the road are just sticking to the facts, I might look like I’m trying too hard if I have goofy messages on my sign. But if neighboring church signs are trying to be funny and memorable, I’m more likely to try to outdo them. In other words, in a given area one style tends to predominate, and it might not be the style you’d expect.

Church reader boardI thought I was kidding when I wondered if you could subscribe to a sign message of the week—but turns out you can. There’s a website where you can get new church sayings via email every Monday, or via Twitter. You can get messages for Columbus Day and Veterans Day, not just Easter and Christmas. There are topical sayings on faith, on the seasons, on prayer, sin and death. You can get an ebook with 597 sayings for $10—as a PDF or on your Kindle. You can find collections of memorable church reader boards on sites like Pinterest. There are bloggers railing against church signs trying to be cute, “all the while the world plunges on a tender slide toward hell.” And church marketers earnestly advising clients on church sign best practices.

Is it any wonder there’s an irreverent church sign arms race going on out there?

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