Lord, give me a sign.
OK. How about, “Forgive your enemies, it will mess with their mind,” “Don’t make the pastor lie at your funeral” or “Eternity: Smoking or nonsmoking?”
We’ve all seen them — the signs in front of churches with a witticism, pun or saying that makes you groan, laugh or stop and think. A church’s roadside sign can be many things: a reminder of the need for faith, an advertisement, an evangelism tool and a window into the congregation’s collective personality, said Mary Ruth Johnson, who changes the sign at Englewood Presbyterian Church.
“You don’t want to be too pithy about it. You want it to be something that hopefully can make someone think about their relationship with Jesus Christ or the lack thereof,” said Johnson, director of music ministries.
The signs are not the most effective form of outreach and evangelism, said the Rev. Phillip Barton, senior pastor of Dortches Baptist Church. There aren’t droves of extra people pushing to get into the doors the Sunday after a particularly witty sign appears.
But when it comes to making people think about God, Jesus and faith, you never know what might be the first spark, Barton said.
“Maybe it addresses some of their personal spiritual issues at that particular moment. It may plant some seeds that God can use either at our church or in their own spiritual work,” Barton said.
George Griffin is the man responsible for the sign at Dortches Bapist. For the last few years, he has put up everything from notices about revivals, concerts and special sermons to the current messages, “Free trip to heaven. Details inside” and “What would this sign need to say for you to be here Sunday?”
Griffin tries to change the sign every two to three weeks to give people driving N.C. 43 something different to look at. He looks on the Internet for new sayings or makes them up himself and tries to vary between using funny and thought-provoking ones.
“You just need to keep something different up there so people will read it. ... For anybody going by it, if it is the same thing for two or three months, after awhile you just quit looking at it,” Griffin said.
Having fresh messages up on a regular basis is the trick to using church signs effectively, said Skip Carney, owner of Carney and Co., an advertising agency in Rocky Mount. If churches are consistent about changing their signs and using eye-catching messages, people will look forward to seeing them.
Used correctly, the signs could be an effective advertising tool, part of a larger trend of more churches and religious groups using marquee signs, banners and websites to market themselves and their events, Carney said.
Over the years, Griffin believes his signs have drawn in a few extra people. Even if it was only one person who didn’t normally go to church or the sign prompted someone to join another congregation, Griffin said he would consider what he does a success.
The most important thing is to minister to people, said Johnson, whose most recent message was “We don’t change the message, the message changes us.” Drawing people inside your church is great, but it shouldn’t be the only goal. If all a church is concerned with is putting people in its pews, it is going at the signs from the wrong direction, she said.
“If it causes them to think and maybe rethink their relationship with God and it causes them to go somewhere else, that is OK. We don’t necessarily put it out there thinking we are going to get people in the pews with it. Our spirituality is more than that anyway,” Johnson said.
The advertising isn’t always about drawing people to a specific place though, Carney said. Highway billboards carry simple messages “signed” by God such as “I haven’t heard from you lately,” “Keep using my name in vain and I’ll make rush hour longer” and “That ‘Love thy neighbor’ thing, I meant it.”
The Rev. Chris Abner sees the sign outside Rocky Mount Bible Church in Dortches as a way to introduce his church and congregation’s personality to the community. Sometimes that means a notice about CPR classes, and other times it is an interesting saying. After the much anticipated final episode of “Lost,” Abner created a sign that said “Unlike the Lost finale, we have some answers.”
Partly the sign was because the show was still fresh on so many minds, but Abner said he also wanted to show passers-by that just because people go to church and worship God doesn’t mean they don’t also do regular things such as watch television.
A church has to stay in touch with what people are talking and thinking about if it wants to stay relevant, he said. Sometimes they are effective, and sometimes they bomb, he said.
“Sometimes the sign works because it is an accurate reflection of what people are thinking or it somehow relates to what people are watching on television or thinking about socially or politically or what they are going through in their lives. And sometimes, it just doesn’t resonate,” Abner said.