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.