ST. LOUIS — Pastor Mike Butzberger insists he only had holiday spirit in mind when his Florida church’s marquee read, “Christmas — Easier to spell than Hanukkah.”
But after a passer-by told him she found the message offensive and a local television station inquired about it, the Lighthouse Baptist Church preacher hustled to blunt any uproar by begrudgingly changing the sign to: “Jesus Loves You.”
“By no means would I as human or Christian ever put anything on the sign with the intention of hurting or insulting,” Butzberger told The Associated Press from his church in North Palm Beach, Fla. “The purpose of the sign is to draw people to God, which is, in our ‘business,’ what we’re selling.”
Welcome to the challenge for pastors eager to update the age-old practice of luring in worshippers with messages on marquees in front of the church. Long the place for Gospel quotes and Christmas Eve sermon hours, now the signs are often clever, pithy or funny. But pastors are finding that joking about religion is serious business, and it’s easy to cross a line.
When Darrin Lee launched his suburban Detroit church six years ago, he had just 11 members, a rickety old building and a plywood board marquee. The sign was replaced, thanks to a benefactor’s $5,000 donation, with a roadside one Lee now uses for slogans he credits for helping his Cornerstone Baptist Church flock grow to more than 100.
“I think that sign added life to this church, saying, ‘Hey, we’re up to date. We’re not some old relic church,’” he said from his church, which is passed daily by 45,000 vehicles. “When you look at other churches with marquees that don’t put up messages, I think they’re missing the boat.”
Though he has hit a few bumps. One of his slogans — “Don’t Let Worry Kill You. Let The Church Help” — made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, leaving him to offer the obligatory confirmation “obviously we’re not in the killing business.” One caller wanted to chat about evolution after his marquee read, “If Man Came From Apes, Why Do We Still Have Apes.”
Dozens of websites and social media sites collect pictures of church signage, celebrating those that seem to work — “Many Who Seek God at the Eleventh Hour Die at 10:30” — or panning others, such as, “Stop, Drop and Roll Doesn’t Work in Hell.”
Some even inspired books. Pam Paulson and her husband, Steve, took a four-year, 122,000-mile trek through all 50 states to chronicle interesting church marquees after noticing the changing signs at two churches near their Florida home. With a van full of hundreds of maps, it was a slow go after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with churches seldom straying from patriotic themes. But around the middle of the decade, Pam Paulson said, cleverer messages began emerging.
“A lot of people we talked to thought it was just a good way to get people to at least acknowledge their church. It was true,” the 59-year-old Methodist said. “We weren’t looking for the humorous, but they were always the ones that caught our attention.”
And that’s the point, said Wes Henson, pastor at the Walnut Street Baptist Church in southern Illinois city of Carbondale. He admitted he once drew an earful from a woman angry about the potential sexual innuendo when his marquee read, “Waking up and shouting, ‘Oh God’ is not the same as being in church.”
“I guess I did that on a day I felt bold and confident,” Henson said. “But when you have something on there that catches attention, at least for a moment, it means at least they’re thinking about your church.”
Churches largely are left on their own when it comes to marquees. The 13 million-member United Methodist Church doesn’t tell its congregations what to write, said Larry Holland, the church’s global communications chief. But it offers a big suggestion: Make them welcoming, non-judgmental and theologically accurate.
“We do take them seriously because they are a communications level. We consider them to be grassroots,” Holland said.
But the messages should be fresh and avoid negative slogans, such as “’hell’s waiting for you’ kinda thing,” said Woody Murray, a former advertising agency worker who in recent years wrote a column about church signs.
“A clever message wears old in a few days, like television commercials that have a joke,” said Murray, a suburban Nashville Baptist now working for Gideons International. “Once you see it, you don’t wanna see it again.”
Sources of the signage run the gamut, from sermons to pithy themes found on road trips. At West Salem Trinity United Methodist Church in southern Illinois’ Mount Vernon, Brad Henson gets much of his guidance from the Internet — making the task far easier than when he used a 3-inch-thick book of illustrations.
Henson, whose church sign has sported such messages as “A closed mouth gathers no foot” and “Dairy Queen is not the only place that has awesome Sundays,” acknowledged motorists who see his signs may never come into his church.
But that’s not his goal. Henson said it’s simply about preaching in a different, sometimes softer way with messages that provoke thought or provide comfort to those passing by.
“That’s an awesome ministry, whether they darken the doors of our church or not,” he said. “That’s really powerful as far as I’m concerned.”