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?