They Don’t Seek This Sign

July 14, 2009 by David Nelson

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Where I live it is hard to escape it. It is, to employ one of those expensive words, ubiquitous. It is impossible to escape. “It” is the practice of Christians who display silly sayings on church signs.

It isn’t unusual that a Christian would wish to say something. After all, our faith is rooted in revelation. Our God is the speaking God who calls his people to speak after him. That Christians speak, then, is not unusual. That they speak in the manner some do via signs is unfortunate. In fact, I think that many well-meaning Christians and churches are actually saying precisely what they don’t want to say through the use of sayings on church signs. (And in cases where they do want to say what these messages say, this is another problem altogether.) To speak as we should, in any instance, we should consider how the manner in which we speak comports with the gospel.

I am reminded about this penchant for Christians to speak their minds as I drive to work each day, since I pass a church that has a sign that is usually adorned with some snippy saying. And, as I work in a seminary community, there are a disproportionate number of vehicles with “Christian” bumper stickers on them. In this post I’ll tackle the issue of church signs and then in another post I’ll address the bumper sticker phenomenon.

As I see it, church signs fall into several different categories, ranging from the use of Scripture verses to the outright ridiculous or insulting. Some make theological statements, while others dispense social or political commentary in some form. Some are witty and some are, well, just stupid.

This morning “my church” (that’s how I like to think about it, or maybe it’s “my sign”) posted the following: You think it’s hot now. Escape the heat with Jesus. This is similar to other signs about hell. There is the classic, Turn or burn, along with Make your eternal reservation now – smoking or non-smoking? and a couple of other summer classics, Warning! Exposure to the Son may prevent burning and another Christological tour de force, Want to avoid burning? Use “Son” block.

If Christians really want to make the biblical point about hell, isn’t humor the way to go? Wouldn’t Jesus have turned the doctrine into fodder for a stand-up routine if they had a comedy club in Jerusalem? Perhaps not. These sayings have the advantage of not only distancing the doctrine of hell from the gospel itself (Don’t you dare suggest that mere mention of Jesus constitutes the gospel, otherwise I can think of some pretty profane folk who preach the gospel more than any Christian I know), they magnify Christ by making him analogous to sunscreen. Nice.

Consider some other church sign classics:

This is CH–CH. What is missing? U R

My boss is a Jewish Carpenter

Life is fragile – handle with prayer.

God said it. I believe it. That settles it.

The first is just silly. It was silly the first time I saw it, and it continues to be each of the thousand other times I’ve seen it. I’m not even sure what point the Jewish Carpenter sign is making. The handle with prayer, again, just comes off as silly. And the timeless God said it. I believe it. That settles it. is a theological mess. While God’s word certainly settles an issue, it is settled whether or not you believe it. At least with respect to the occupants of cars who drive by your sign.

Here are a few others that are plain silly:

Prayer: Unlimited access to God with no roaming fees.

Are you wrinkled with burden? Come on in for a faith lift!

Rapture: The only way to fly.

These are not just silly. I think, more importantly, they communicate virtually nothing to the sign’s intended audience. If it’s non-believers who are the target, you may as well put up sayings in Russian or Japanese (or pick a language). Passersby would understand those signs about as much as they understand our typical displays.

But it gets worse. We also put up signs that are insulting. My favorite example of this is: God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. That’s just great. We reduce the Scriptures’ treatment of a weighty subject like homosexuality with a line that is both insulting and humorless. Do you really think that those who struggle with homosexuality are attending these churches in droves and having their lives transformed? Such a sign does nothing, absolutely nothing, to convey the gospel to anyone. It may make you feel better about loathing homosexuals, but it does nothing for the sake of the gospel.

Finally, here are some signs I’ve seen recently that have obvious theological problems. It is troublesome that we could pack such theological garbage into such small sayings:

We’re too blessed to be depressed.

Never run faster than your guardian angel can fly.

Do your best and let Jesus do the rest.

God does what few men can do – forgets the sins of others.

Let me take these one by one, to be clear about what I mean.

We are too blessed to be depressed: Finding the grace of God in Christ does not assure you that you will not face struggles and, yes, even depression, in this life. Read the Psalter. I realize that some might like this little saying, and may walk around with smiles pasted on their faces as if there are no worries in this world. But they didn’t get that from Christ, and that is not the result of walking according to the Spirit. That is a fabrication that has no association with Christianity. So, please, write a self-help book, or perhaps a pop song, but don’t sell this as the gospel.

Never run faster than your guardian angel can fly: Does the Bible teach that we have a guardian angel? And do all angels have wings? And, if they do, would it be possible for me to outrun a flying angel? Hmm.

Do your best and let Jesus do the rest: A popular sentiment (and it rhymes too!), but it’s antithetical to the gospel, which clearly teaches there is nothing we do to help ourselves, and that our best is nothing more than filthy rags. And, if the point of this sign is about sanctification, then it is a confused theory of sanctification that somehow displaces the primacy of grace with human effort. Be very careful here.

God does what few men can do – forgets the sins of others. No, God does not. An omniscient God does not forget sins. The Bible nowhere teaches this and the idea is theologically incoherent. If God forgets sins, then He believes something false about those humans whose sins He forgets. And if He believes something false, then what god is He? Not the God of the Bible. Be very, very careful here.

So, yes, these signs may amuse, but they irritate me. More than that, we can do better than this. The gospel is too precious to sully it with such silly sayings. Just stop it. Put up information about the next potluck. Or put up a Scripture text that works well pulled from its larger context.* Or, don’t have a message board on your sign. For those who remain unconvinced and who insist on continuing to put such sayings on church signs, let me assure you, those who do not know Christ do not seek such a sign.

—————-

*I’ve recently learned that by posting a verse a day on your marquee, passersby could read the entire Bible in just 85.2 years. If that seems too long for you, you could do a verse for the morning and evening drive and cut the time in half (42.6 years). Imagine what this would do for the economy what with the rise of full-time Ministers of Sign at our churches. For those who just want to do the New Testament, you can do a verse a day (according to our crack statistical team, led by Ryan Hutchinson, who tells me these numbers are not adjusted for leap years) in 21.8 years or 10.9 years at two verses per day. And if those inclined toward Gideon would like to do the New Testament and Psalms, we’re looking at 28.5 and 14.3 years respectively.

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33 Responses to “They Don’t Seek This Sign”

  1. I’ve always liked this one I saw in my community:

    “Jesus is the bread of life. Turn to Him or you’ll be toast.”

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Your post has been my rant for years.

  3. Chad says:

    Great Post. My home church began the practice of spending the first few minutes every Wednesday night naming the signs that they saw for the week, and then writing them down in a book. Apparently, this was one ladies ministry which appeared to be an expected thing most Wednesday nights. Record the “pithy sayings” of sister churches in the community and abroad. Needless to say, I was sad when I attended one night and discovered this to be the case. I guess this is an example of using Christian sub-culture to contextualize Christianity and the Gospel with Pop-Culture.
    Oh, that we ministers could do better at feeding the flock with theological instruction.

  4. Chris Morrison says:

    Sir, I totally agree with you about these silly sign sayings. I live in a small, mostly Southern Baptist town. I drive by these signs, and sometimes even as a christian they don’t make sense. My church use to put them up a few years back, but they don’t anymore. Now its used for announcements and scriptures. Speaking of scriptures, that last bit of information about posting verses and completing the Bible in x amount of years was very interesting.
    THANK YOU for such an interesting article.

  5. Liz says:

    Along with many others who have commented on this post, this has been my rant for many years. I live in an area where there are these church signs everywhere. I saw one sign that said

    “Come to Jesus now or have hell to pay later.”

    I do not see how this would lead anyone into their church. This turned me off from the church and I am a follower of Christ.

    Thank you for your post. Maybe some people will see how this is not a ministry, but for some it leads them away from the church.

  6. Wayne Roberts says:

    Tune in to TBN and you wii probably hear every single one in your last group within 30 minutes especially during “praise-a-thons”. “Minister of the Sign” almost made me fall out of my chair with laughter…thanks!

  7. hannah says:

    hahahahaa the little postscript still makes me laugh hysterically.

  8. Jason says:

    Thank you for this sign. I have long been weary of the Christian sloganeering that attempts to present the truth claims of Christianity in pithy statements. The consequence, as you rightly point out, is a theological mess. When I was a new believer I wore all the shirts that I wouldn’t be caught dead in now (“turn or burn, fly or fry” and other such silliness). I think it’s a shame to reduce the good news of the gospel of Christ to these kinds of often-wrongheaded attempts at proclamation. It’s even worse when we post them on our signs for the world to read.

  9. Joshua Allen says:

    I often feel the same way about Christian music. Lots of the popular worship music has random inane lyrics that do not properly represent Christ, so I have to be really picky what goes on my iPod. I’d love to see you do a post on inane worship lyrics :-)

  10. Ben McRoy says:

    Dr. Nelson,
    Thank you for your post. I thought I would tell you perhaps the funniest one I have ever seen. In front of a small church in a very rural community I saw the following sign:

    “Reap the harvest, but don’t stop being a hoe.”

    I am not sure this sign would have the same meaning in an urban setting…

  11. [...] David Nelson on bumper-sticker theology. [...]

  12. Spencer says:

    There is another side affect as well. In this world in which the credibility of Christianity as a reasonable (acceptable, truthful, intelligent) worldview, these signs clearly tell the world that there isn’t much to our brains. Each time we try to reduce the gospel to a punchline we reassure the world that the church is a joke and that we need not be taken seriously. Speakingly the truth plainly does not mean that we should make ourselves sound like idiots.

    We ought to enjoy being the church and have fun in the process, but we also need to show the world that we have a credible, cohesive perspective and engage the thinking world on that ground. Putting up a silly quote on the church sign is like having the greeters dress in clown suits.

  13. David says:

    A certain Pentecostal church I drove by once had a sign advertising an upcoming fall festival at the church- it read, “Holy Ghost Weenie Roast.”

  14. Eric S says:

    Several years ago we saw a sign that said, “If you don’t go to Sunday school you have no class.” i told my wife, “I would never step foot in that church.” A few years after that we were serving on staff there. I became a proponent of posting the church’s schedule.

  15. Bill Nettles says:

    I’m interested in the phrase “will remember their sins no more” found in Heb. 8:12. Also similarly Heb. 10:17, Isa. 43.25, Jer. 31:34, Jer. 50:20.

    Micah 7:18,19 aren’t as specific, but how is “remember their sins no more” different from forgetting. Is it bad translation, or is it an accounting idiom?

  16. David Nelson says:

    Thanks to all for your thoughtful and amusing comments. To Ben McRoy, I almost injured myself laughing at the sign you mentioned. Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a new church sign classic!

    Bill, you raise a good question. Those texts must mean that God does not call our sins to mind any longer, that they are not counted against us. I say they “must mean” that because we have other texts that indicate that God’s knowledge is infinite, therefore He cannot fail to have knowledge of our past actions, even if they are sins. If you email me, I can point you to some key texts that help to sort this out.

  17. Talmadge Boatner says:

    I like this one:

    2009 Association Softball Champions

    Something to that effect. Yeah…..this is real important. I guess it is marginally better than some of the “witty” signs out there.

    I would rather see advertisement for VBS or time of the service over the rest of the year. Some of these folks who put the more ridiculous signs actually think they are clever. It fulfills some of the stereotypes about southern Baptists in particular.

    Amazing and sad.

  18. Nathan Finn says:

    I preached at a church in Virginia last Sunday. As Leah and I were returning to NC, we passed an Assembly of God church with the following on their sign: “Frogs Have It Made Because They Can Just Eat What Bugs Them.” My heart was strangely warmed by that one . . .

    I’m Standing on the Rock, ‘Cause My Name is On the Roll!

    NAF

  19. Nathan Finn says:

    Some of my other favorites:

    “Don’t Wait For a Hurst to Take You to Church”

    “Stop, Drop, and Roll Doesn’t Work in Hell”

    “Walmart Isn’t the Only Savings Place”

    “I Hate This Church–Satan”

    “Santa Claus Never Died For Anyone”

    “God Expects Spiritual Fruit, Not Religious Nuts”

    And my brand new, all-time favorite, which I just found today via a Google search:

    “I Kissed A Girl And I Liked It Then I Went To Hell”

    NAF

  20. Bill Nettles says:

    Nathan,
    Did it really say “…Hurst…” instead of “Hearse”?

  21. Nathan Finn says:

    Bill,

    I’m afraid so. I double-checked–something the sign committee probably should have done as well!

    NAF

  22. Mark Woody says:

    David, I’m afraid I’ll have to give you a thumbs up, and a thumbs down regarding your comments here. First, I’d have to agree that the majority of “Christian” bumper-stickers, signs, and t-shirts are a baffling mess. My “favorite” is the “Real Men Love Jesus” bumper sticker which, if intended as an evangelical effort directed at the driver behind you, really just says, “If you don’t love Jesus, you’re not a real man.” I’m not sure if insulting someone’s masculinity is really the best way to start a conversation about God’s love. Your frustration is shared. I think most of these items fall into the category of “fraternity”. The “fish” is the classic example. It’s a Christian’s way of saying to other Christians “I’m with you.” (in some way or another). Unfortunately, so many of these bumper stickers and t-shirts are insulting or meaningless to the reading unbeliever, the damage outweighs any other benefits. It’s odd to me that I’ve never seen a bumper-sticker or T-Shirt that says “Jesus loves you” without caveats (i.e. the rest of us think you’re a ____”

    I do however believe that there is a value in taking a stand–to say outright that something is wrong or that something is right or true. Whether or not a bumper-sticker is the appropriate means of such expression is probably worth exploration. A few such expressions, seen in context of their use, I would find appropriate.

    Where I strongly disagree with you is in your criticism of the “Give it your best and leave the rest to Jesus” concept. I’ll quote the late-great theologan Keith Green (read Melody Green’s biography on Keith if you haven’t) who sang “Give it your best. Pray that it’s blessed, and He’ll take care of the rest.” I do think that there is great application of this concept in the work that we are called to do, whether tending a garden, sewing tents, generating a return on an investment, preaching the word, or teaching at a university. We’re not called necessarily to results, but we’re called to effort. “Whatever you do, work as if unto the Lord . . .” In this context, I do believe that it is Biblical to, in faith, apply yourself wholeheartedly using the good gifts provided from above (“giving it your best”) and let Jesus determine the outcome (whether you generate 10 more talents, or just 5).

  23. Kyle Smith says:

    Oh man, this post and these comments have been cathartic reading for me. I’ve been griping about church signs for awhile now, and I think I may regularly pass the same one Dr. Nelson passes.

    I tend to agree with Spencer that a punchline gospel (or homiletical style) makes it hard to convince people that we’re handling anything weighty and profound when we open up the Scriptures.

  24. Rob R. says:

    Dr. Nelson,

    Thank you for this article. I did laugh while reading it, but the seriousness of what we say and how it effects people cannot be overlooked. Thank you for the reminder.

    BTW – Jennifer saw a bumper sticker that read….”Do you follow JESUS this close?”

    Rob

  25. Michael H says:

    “Holy Ghost weenie roast” just made me laugh so hard I was crying. I should probably cry for sadness too.

  26. Spencer says:

    A bumper sticker I spotted on the way home yesterday (while at a stop light, mind you):

    Are you following Jesus this close?

  27. Tim Howard says:

    Dr. Nelson,

    posted some church signs on my blog last month from Mobile, AL.

    http://timandlaurie.blogspot.com/2009/06/theological-gems-around-mobile.html

  28. David Nelson says:

    Thanks again for all the comments. I have gotten a few emails with some other classics, including a couple with pictures. We seem to have struck a chord here.

    Mark, as for your thumbs down on my point about “Do your best . . .”, of course I wouldn’t disagree that we are to work, heartily even, and that our efforts matter. But you and I understand important nuances related to that truth that the average passersby do not, and, therefore, it is too easily misunderstood with respect to the gospel (which was the point I was making). As well, that phrase implies that what is primary is me working, and then God picks up from there. At least I’ve seen a fair number of people (many) think that way, and I believe that’s a theological mistake. That, of course, is the trouble with “bumper sticker theology” – whatever it may get right, it often fails because it can’t communicate nuance or subtlety. But that is for the next post!

    Thanks again, everyone.

  29. Bryan Rabon says:

    Dr. Nelson,
    Once again you have spoken the truth and done it with a fine sense of sarcasm. It is greatly appreciated.

  30. Jason says:

    Joshua: You might check out this post by Scott Bailey.

  31. Steve says:

    Funny sayings and slogans may have a place within a small group of Christians in private conversation who know what is meant by the words, but to publicly post them for all the world to see not only gives a wrong impression of what a church teaches, but also gives an equally wrong impression of the salvific purpose of Christ.

    It is a truism that we never teach children things that must be unlearned as they grow older, yet we tend to forget this principle when dealing with the seeking public. To place in the heart of people any thought or idea that makes them think that the gospel of Christ is simply a collection of jingles and platitudes will tend only to desensitize people to the gospel message.

  32. mike y. says:

    one from a church in our hometown several years ago.

    “Wanted: Just one more soul”

    that actually creeps me out a little.

  33. K. L. says:

    Dr. Nelson,

    As a soon to be student at the seminary, I am encouraged by your philosophy and stance on the “bumper sticker theology.” Sadly, we have only ourselves to blame for this. Talk to the salespersons for the sign companies as their number one selling point for their signs – one-line sermon ministry. Go to the staff resources section of a local LifeWay store and look at how many one-line sermon books are on the shelf. While you are in there, take notice of two things. One, directly behind the registers is the mission statement that promises to provide christians and churches with the tools to spread the gospel. Secondly, take a walk around the store and look at all of the merchandise that has nothing to do with that mission – everything from your aforementiond bumper stickers and t-shirts to the flashing keychains similar to the ones in the novelty shops at the beach. Sadly, someone figured out that the gospel is profitable but not a profit maker. The scripture does say that we cannot serve God and mammon(money). I wonder what our christian stores and our churches would look like if our focus was on souls and not profits? I believe God is big enough to provide every single need, whether our sales experts say so or not. The truly sad part about the signs is that most of those churches do not believe they are doing anything harmful. They really do believe they are doing ministry. After all, that’s what the salesman said it would be used greatest for, that’s what the books on the shelves for staff resources provide assistance with, and that’s what the majority of products are in our “christian” stores.

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