Vying for business, these roadside motels would tout their offerings on lighted signs: “Phones in rooms,” “Heated pool,” “Air conditioning,” “Color TV.”
These, of course, were accompanied by the changeable neon message of “Vacancy” or “No vacancy.”
Driving through some quaint tourist towns recently I noticed that some remaining off-the-interstate motels now proclaim different offerings — since travelers bring their own phones and all televisions are in living color.
“Free WiFi” appeared on the signs more than anything else — with “Free breakfast” coming in second. Some offered “Cable TV,” or more specifically, “Free HBO.”
Likewise, many church signs have evolved — though some still offer “sayings” that range from creative and catchy to downright goofy. And it’s interesting to note if the church signage promotes or obscures its denominational affiliation and if and how the minister is identified.
Slow traffic is required to read all that some churches put on their signs. I used to pass an independent Baptist church with multiple descriptors: “Bible-believing, premillennial, missionary…”
As a later addition, someone had painted “KJV only” in red to clarify which Bible is believed. Cheers to the church for making their exclusive identity well known.
Worship-style buffets that cater to the varied tastes of congregants can take up some signage such as: “Traditional 8:30, Contemporary 9:45, Blended 11:00, Taizé 6:00.”
Some churches send conflicting though surely unintentionally revealing messages.
Tony Vincent, a minister in Upstate South Carolina, once told of passing a small mountain church one December when Christmas landed on Sunday.
Approaching the church, he read: “Keep Christ in Christmas.” Looking back, he noticed on the other side: “No services Christmas Day.”
When consulting with a growing congregation about its communications I joked about how welcomed I felt by the church’s sign that read: “County maintenance ends here.” Sometimes fresh eyes (and ears) can help churches to see (and hear) the messages they don’t intend to send.
That same church had a visitor’s card that asked guests to indicate their marital status — including a check box for “divorced.” The church’s intentions were good; it had an excellent divorce recovery ministry. I suggested to the members, however, that they remove the “divorce” category from the card and promote the ministry program in other ways.
Also, churches convey messages by how open they are to community groups — farmers markets, community choirs, disaster relief stations, blood drives, etc. Seeing such signs about programs beyond the congregation’s own initiatives suggests a ministry of hospitality and engagement over isolation.
Traffic patterns impact communication. A bypass around a United Methodist church had rerouted the daily commute from the front to the back of the church facilities. I suggested to church leaders that they “turn around” their communications as well.
The “what” message, however, is more important than “how.” It is wise to ask: “What messages do ministers and members convey when not gathered together in this place?”
Not everything gets communicated on roadside signage or in printed materials. Messages are conveyed and reinforced by word and deed.
Some speak of using changing technology to convey the timeless message of the gospel. But does that message — based on our changing understandings of the gospel — not change as well?
Jesus’ question to his first disciples — “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27) — is fitting for today’s disciples, too. And how much of that understanding of Jesus flows clearly from the messages we convey — intentionally and unintentionally?
Whether on a church sign or from the lips of the preacher, or from congregational engagement in the community or the daily words and deeds of individual members, messages really do matter.
An effective Christian witness is neither harsh condemnation and self-righteous exclusion nor an unrecognizable gospel as watered down as the orange juice dispensed at a motel’s complimentary breakfast buffet. NFJ