3 Things to Do — and Not to Do — with Your Roadside Message
By now we’re all familiar with the cheesy church sign. It’s become a cliché within evangelical culture and both a laughingstock and source of endless memes in the wider world.
“God answers knee-mail.”
“Sign broken. Come inside for message.”
“Come in for a faith lift!”
There’s got to be a better way, yes?
Many times I think bad church signs are simply the result of well-intentioned people who are out of ideas. We want to communicate a timely message in a pithy or engaging way, and we end up outkicking our coverage when it comes to winsomeness and creativity. Here are three all-too-common approaches to sign messages I think churches ought to avoid:
1. Corny puns.
Is there such a thing as a non-corny pun? Probably not. But the ecclesiological version of the “dad joke” proliferates on way too many highways and byways. Whether they’re curated from message websites or sign idea books (which actually exist), or just from the “funny” guy responsible for the sign, it is rare that punny signs actually feel inviting to people who may read them. They tend instead to make people groan (at best) and give people the impression the church is lame, uninspired, or stuck in a time capsule of bygone Sunday School cutesiness (at worst).
In any event, it’s difficult to be genuinely funny on a church sign, and we should probably avoid testing our comedic chops in that space altogether. Consider the possibility that your corny joke doesn’t actually endear people to your church but actually makes you seem tired and desperate. It may make your own churchfolk chuckle, but if the purpose of your sign is to attract potential guests, save the cheese for the potluck.
And speaking of who the sign is for, here’s another thing to avoid:
2. Insider lingo.
Down the road from my home is a quaint little Methodist church that has featured on its sign for as long as I’ve noticed it the announcement that “Common Grounds” is at 9 a.m. Sundays. I can assume that Common Grounds is some kind of coffee hour, perhaps, but that would only be a guess. For others, it would communicate almost nothing meaningful. Probably everybody in the church knows exactly what Common Grounds is—who it’s for and what happens there—but it’s immediately alienating to potential visitors who have no way of decoding the insider label. If it’s an informal coffee fellowship, say that. If it’s a Sunday School class of some kind, say that.
This is extremely common in our day of “cool” sub-branding of ministries within the church. We think it enhances the appeal of our programs but the names we pick often make sense only to those who are already involved. Do outsiders know that your “Radical” ministry is for teenagers? Do potential guests know that “Livewire” is a Q&A with your pastors?
In general, we should just name things what they are. (And, yes, I say this as a guy who once led a student ministry called Adrenalize. I know. I’m sorry.) But think of the way our insider lingo requires guests to decode it, to have a level of insider knowledge we assume as those already inside. Now picture putting those labels on a sign and expecting guests to know what they refer to. If the aim of the church sign is to reach potential guests, avoid insider jargon.
3. Shaming unbelievers.
You don’t know how good the good news is until you know how bad the bad news is, but Christians are defined and characterized by the good news. This is what it means to be an evangelical! (Root word: evangel, or gospel.) So guess what happens when we feature a wholly bad news message on our sign? Not only do we mischaracterize Christianity, we short-change the very reason we gather, which is not to dwell in the bad news but to celebrate and share the good.
I recently passed a church sign while I was traveling out of state that read: “We Are Open Between Easter and Christmas.” Look, I get it. You see bigger attendance from guests on holidays. But if you want bigger attendance on all the other Sundays maybe rethink shame as a motivator toward it. Do you really want to guilt people into attending your church? Is that the win?
Similarly, we see church signs that shame people for using social media, for neglecting their spirituality, for only praying when it’s convenient, for not contemplating the existence of hell. These are all worthy subjects to address in varying degrees in your sermons. But as a message to outsiders as a means of compelling them to come in, they really, really stink. People already suspect churches don’t like them or are full of judgmental legalists – why give them the ammo with even your well-meaning roadway guilt-trips?
So there are three common ways we mess up the church sign opportunity. If you have a sign and you’re at a loss for what to put on it, why not consider these alternatives?
– Just list your service times and say “All welcome.” Or “Grace found within.” Or something similarly clear and simple. It’s not sexy but it communicates what’s important and relevant, which, if you’re going to use your church sign, is probably the best route to take.
– A Bible verse. The word is living and active, isn’t it? Most people who pass by your church sign will never darken your church door. That’s just reality. Why not at least make sure they hear at least something from the very mouth of God as they go by? Preferably a passage that communicates the gospel (like the old standbys John 3:16 or Romans 6:23). Or something that similarly communicates good news or the gracious invitation of God to believe and participate.
– A special event. If you have particular ongoing programs or special one-time events for which guests would be interested, feel free to advertise those. Mom’s Day Out. A community meal. An Exploring Christianity class. Anything that would make sense to an outsider when they read it and for which they might be inclined to take the next step in being your guest.
Probably the reason church signs are so terrible is because we are overthinking them. So avoid trying to be a comedian, a marketer, or a prophet, and just think of what might actually intrigue a potential guest who literally has about 5 seconds to read what you think is important to their consideration of your church. The church sign message space for a great many outside our church may be their only point of contact with our message. Let’s use them humbly and wisely.