The Norman Transcript

January 3, 2014

Signs get hip with quips

By Jim Suhr
The Associated Press

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 out 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. “When you look at other churches with marquees that don’t put up messages, I think they’re missing the boat.”

He has hit a few bumps. His slogan — “Don’t Let Worry Kill You. Let The Church Help” — made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, leaving him to offer the confirmation that “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 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 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.”

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 suggestion: Make them welcoming, non-judgmental and theologically accurate.

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