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The signs of our Church

Do you pay attention to church signs as you drive down the road?  Do you ever critique the pithy little saying that is displayed?   Recently, I have taken up the hobby of photographing these church-signs.  It may sound odd, but believe me, it’s quite enjoyable.  Plus, you come across some interesting sayings.  For example, there was one that stated ‘If you knew you wouldn’t fail, what would  you do for God?”   One church displayed the oft repeated “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.’  Another displayed the quip “Don’t blame us when you are on the sinking ship!”  (It’s fairly difficult to hear the message of Jesus’ love in that last one.)

At first I would simply drive by these signs.  I considered them cheeky and harmless, believing that probably 90% of people who drive by these signs do so with little or no thought or attention.  Yet lately I have been pondering the messages that so often pepper these signs.  What if people do read them? What messages do they hear?  What perception of the church, or of God, do they garner from the slogans we slap on our front placard?

When I started being conscious of these signs, it was amazing how many of the slogans I saw contained subtle references to the garnering of our own success.  What is worse, some of the signs blatantly misrepresented the gospel for the sake of rhyme or a fancy turn of phrase.  For example, is it really true that God won’t lead me into something that I can’t handle’?  Sure scripture says that we won’t be tempted beyond our ability, but is temptation the same as ‘handling’ a situation?   God stripped Gideon’s army to a mere 300 people.  Is the point of that story that Gideon could handle it?   Frankly, there have been many times in my life and ministry where I have felt powerless against the tasks or issues I have faced.  There have been those moments when I have been at complete loss of what to say, what to do, or how to manage.  These times, however, proved to be powerful times of learning for me.  The lesson of course was that I was not called to ‘handle’ it, but to hold onto the one who can.  These times solidified that basic need I have for God’s presence in life and ministry. The fact is, if God won’t give me anything I can’t handle, then why rely on God in the first place?

And what about this sign:  “The last thing Jesus commanded on earth was to love.”  Well that’s fundamentally false!  The last command that Jesus gave on earth was actually to “go and make disciples.”  This isn’t just a minor oversight, nor is it a matter of interpretation.  It is, as Dallas Willard would argue, the great omission.  It is symptomatic of the way that we have forgotten the basic call to discipleship and mission.  It makes it seem like the Christian life is a life of pleasant feeling and positive emotions, and not about one about call, service, or mission.

The fact is the life of faith isn’t as simple as these signs make it out to be.  There are times where we wrestle with the dynamics of what it means to live the Christian life in this world.  Advertising that faith involves simple answers or constant miracles (or as one church put it “a cheerful heart creates its own blue skies), only suggests that one is not faithful enough if they find themselves in a place of doubt, struggle or wrestling.   Critically engaging in these signs may seem a little nitpicky, but shouldn’t it concern us if there is a basic misrepresentation of the Gospel?

I don’t know if there can ever be a perfect church sign.  It is an imperfect art.  Yet we do need to do our diligence in making sure that what we present to the world around us is consistent with the call of Christian life.  Are people getting an accurate picture of the community of faith?  Are they getting an accurate picture of Jesus?

The church isn’t about sound bytes.  Nor is it about fancy slogans or slick phrases. We aren’t called to make the Christian life sound palatable, nice, easy, or trendy.  Rather we are called to live out our faith in raw devotion, submission and authenticity.  We call people not to a faith of easy answers, but to a faith that can be sometimes downright confusing.  But in doing this, and as we recklessly launch ourselves in service to others, we invite people to meet the one who recklessly gives himself for our service, healing, and salvation.

Isn’t that what it is all about?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith. Connect with Kyle on
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6 Responses to The signs of our Church

  1. David Burrows

    Thank goodness that these signs are not sacraments. In the meantime, I try to consider what a sign does – it provides information, and perhaps an invitation to a deeper conversation and interaction with the community that has errected it.  The signs in our area always give opportunity for the wider community to engage in discussion.  A few years ago a parish in St. John’s was voted the second best sign by local media, second only to the signs offered by a local porn shop on Topsail Road! The signs at the church hopefully in some way have found opportunity for the Gospel to be considered and engaged in by those who might never consider their faith journey just through looking at the outside of our buildings.

  2. David, I’d love to know what exactly it was that led to the winning signs’ success! I’ve seen enough groaners and worn-out clichés on church signs (and seen their effect) that I’m quite interested to hear from those who use the tool well. In the end, aren’t these signs something like using Twitter? The challenge seems to be how to provide maximum information and spark maximum curiosity with a limited amount of characters.

    An interesting memory: one of my former congregations provided the usual mix of service times and children’s ministries on its sign, as well as seasonal quotes and scripture references. The sign didn’t seem to have much impact. During an unusually cold winter, while we were waiting on an order of new letters and punctuation, I went outside and changed the sign to read:

    R4N 0UT OF L3TTERS

    M3SSAGe INS1DE

    And you know, I heard people talking about it all around town. If nothing else, people were impressed that this church might just have a sense of humour. A number of visitors claimed to have dropped in because of the sign. And in all honesty, I had been tired and a little grumpy, and had been inspired by a sign I saw on a nearby synagogue that read, “THEY TOLD ME TO CHANGE THE SIGN. SO I DID.”

    Hmm.

  3. Kyle Norman

    Jesse, sorry that you are grumpy today but remember . . . “A cheerful heart makes its own blue skies!”

    Anyway – I obviously have a love hate relationship with these signs. Some of them just make me squirm – and I have actually e-mailed a church to complain about their sign and how it portrays a faulty image of church and faith.  I like the anaology of twitter.  There’s a lot of nonesense on twitter.  THe task is to use the tool effectively to communicate the gospel.

    I have also had successes.  In my last parish the sign was a forum to display the topic for upcoming sermons.  One sign read “Sunday’s Sermon:  Jesus wants your Tonka Truck”  The Tonka truck was the main image for the burdens we carry.  A few months later I was at a funeral reception, when someone approached me and asked me if I was at the church ‘with the sign’.  I said yes and she asked me “Why does Jesus want my Tonka Truck.’  So, I got to give a 5 minute sermon to this total stranger.

    Also, because of the tragedy in Boston, I have asked that our sign be changed to “O Come O Come Emmanuel  #prayforboston”  As David points out, it can be a place to incur discussion, and provide connection to the wider world. 

    The kicker is that this is an endeavor that deserves a lot more thought,  care and prayer than just slapping “Without the bread of life you are Toast!” up there.

  4. Worst sign I ever saw (made me audibly groan – and didn’t get a favourable response from anyone I heard from in town) – “For all you do, His blood’s for you.” (I still groan typing it…)

    Most success I ever had with a church sign, back when I was still in a parish, and we were at the main intersection in town, was “Be still and know that I am God”. I had people who actually arrived at worship because of that sign – and others who stopped me in town to say how much they had appreciated that… I NEVER got that kind of response from our usual signs!!

  5. Church  signs  with pithy or  humerous  statements  are in my opinion  out of place . Any statements  should be positive  and uplifting.  Not funny or  judgemental or  preachy.

  6. Church  signs  with pithy or  humerous  statements  are in my opinion  out of place . Any statements  should be positive  and uplifting.  Not funny or  judgemental or  preachy.

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