Getting people's attention is the purpose of the clever signs, one pastor said.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Almost every week for 18 years, Betty Willis and Nancy Van Dusen have met on the front lawn of Upsala Community Presbyterian Church in Sanford, Fla., for what they call their "sign ministry."
On Monday or Tuesday mornings, they approach opposite sides of a small steel-and-concrete structure and begin spelling out sometimes humorous, sometimes inspirational sayings that can be read by passing motorists on State Road 46-A.
Willis' recent postings include, "Live Your Life So You Don't Have To Hide Your Diary," and "God Does Not Have a Plan B." Van Dusen's include "An Idol Is Anything I Love More Than God." "We feel like this is our ministry," says Willis, who draws on a variety of sources for her sayings. "We want people who pass by to be touched, and to understand what the message is saying to them."
When the Bible speaks of "signs and wonders," the marquee outside Upsala and scores of churches across the nation may not have been what the scribe had in mind. But churches spanning denominational lines see these billboards, especially those along high-traffic streets, as "sentence sermons," providing an opportunity for drive-by evangelism.
Reason behind them
"The purpose behind it is not just to be cute," says the Rev. Jerry Glaze of Southside Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla. "It's to get people's attention. It always has an underlying spiritual thought behind it. Hopefully it will create a curiosity in people that will see this sign to the point that they might say, 'I'd like to attend that church."'
"I'm convinced you have to touch people's minds or their emotions, because that's what impacts them," says the Rev. Aaron Ankeny, pastor of the College Park United Methodist church. He came up with the "Big Bang Theory? Who Lit the Fuse?" line that appeared on the church's marquee recently.
The Rev. J. Lawrence Cuthill of Winter Park Presbyterian, says he tries to "walk a line between cutesy and being clever enough to stimulate thought, sometimes with a smile."
The Rev. Virginia Barnes, of Beachside Lutheran, once used her church's sign for a personal need: "Pastor Seeks Christian Husband. Apply Sunday 10 a.m." Unfortunately she was not able to snag a spouse.
At Second Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Sanford, "I look for what would catch them on their level of understanding," says Dietra Frederick, the church secretary, who chooses the sayings. "We've had people actually attend services because of what they saw on our sign."
The phenomenon has become so widespread that there are half a dozen books and at least one Web site devoted to church signs.
Ryland Sanders, a Texas Web developer, became fascinated with the signs as he drove around his hometown of Austin. He took pictures of them and posted them on his blog, but interest was so strong he spun off a Web site: churchsigngenerator.com.
"Overwhelmingly they tend to be funny, or they try to be funny," Sanders says. "Sometimes they're trying to be funny, but they're hopeless -- old people trying to be hip. Or they're funny in a way they didn't intend."
Some signs take a stern, if not ominous approach: "If You Think It's Hot Here, Think About The Fires Of Hell." "The Wages Of Sin Is Death: Repent Before Payday." "Exposure to the Son Prevents Sin Burn" are some of the signs Sanders has posted on his site.
When trend began
The church sign trend began in the 1950s and by the 1980s and 1990s had "started to mushroom," says Verlyn Verbrugge, author of "Your Church Sign: 1001 Attention-Getting Sayings." And it's still growing. As outdoor advertising, the signs are cheaper than billboards, and Verbrugge predicts that larger churches soon will be using digital signs.
Cute wordplay and changing the sign regularly are key, he says.
"The background of what you're driving by just sort of fades, and so the goal is to continue to draw attention to the church and its sign," says Verbrugge, who also is a senior editor at Zondervan Books in Grand Rapids, Mich. "If you keep changing it, people will start looking for it."
Church signs are also imbedded in popular culture. "The Simpsons" has made the signs a running, typically snarky gag at that Fox show's Springfield Community Church for more than 15 years.
Some of the more irreverent include: "We Welcome Other Faiths [Just Kidding]," "No Shoes, No Shorts, No Salvation," "God Welcomes His Victims" and "Rapture Threat Level: ORANGE."
The Aug. 6 episode spoofed the whole idea. The sign read: "Stop Stealing Our Letters."
Not crazy about idea
Not everyone thinks the signs are a good idea.
The Rev. Joel Hunter, of Northland Church in Longwood, Fla., says they have "a high cringe factor for me." Churches should not try to "clich & eacute; people into the Kingdom of God," he says.
Jim Poorman, a pastor at the youth-oriented H2O Church in downtown Orlando, collects the slogans, although he dislikes them.
"At times I wonder what a huge missed opportunity church signs are," he says. "Because the truth is -- we all read them. Unfortunately, it seems to me that churches are more interested in being cute or catchy than being effective. Sometimes they border on smart-alecky.
"This has bothered me so much that I've gone so far to call some of these churches and ask them what they're trying to accomplish with their signage. So far I've been met with very humble people on the other end who really listened to my thoughts -- and their signs [become] way better! So there's hope!"