Saturday, January 11, 2014


You’ve seen those digital signs, I’m sure, in grocery stores, on banks, at sporting events, even guiding travelers through airports.

Nowadays, at least in our neck of the woods, there seems to be a rash of these bright-bulb boards popping up in front of churches.

It’s not that they are simply for designating the denomination and hours of worship, but they also announce the current time and temperature, perhaps with a quick weather report, and sometimes wish passers-by a happy greeting regarding the next secular holiday. Of course, there is also the invitation to “join us” for worship and other church activities.

I know pastors and other people responsible for congregations are eager to get the word out so that new folks might find their way in on some Sunday morning. That’s perfectly reasonable. But so often these signs seem so crass that the invitations look like the welcome at Loew’s theaters, to “sit back, relax and enjoy the show.”

Church people are much too quick to jump on the latest marketing bandwagon. Those digital billboards on major highways have begat progeny in the form of smaller church signs. If it works on super highways to get people to go to the movies, it should be even better to draw a congregation for Lord’s Day worship.

Besides, a bright animated sign demonstrates how modern we Christians are, and just might impress the younger generation.

It took me a while to figure out why I really don’t like those blinking signs on church lawns. In front of a preacher-personality driven church, it seems appropriate, perhaps. But when one shows up at the front door of a mainline church in the Reformed tradition my issues come clear.

First of all, such digital signs advertise the worship service as entertainment. I have ranted about this problem sufficiently before, and so have many other people since Søren Kierkegaard. Christian worship is not for the congregation; the true Audience is the Almighty, and we come to perform our prayers and praise. Somehow if we don’t have worship as the fundamental act connecting us with our triune God, whatever else we do is in jeopardy of being vain and empty of purpose.

Secondly, the cute and clever flashing signs out front verge on false advertising. They indicate a nice, safe and pleasant place where one can come to relax. They glow with affluence. Such a sign signals a successful church—at least financially. It’s a comfortable church, and who wouldn’t want to go there with all they must have to offer.

The problem here is that such advertising is more about what the worshipper will get than what he or she will give. There are plenty of televangelists to have the easy solution to all problems, and you can tune in and get a feel-good gospel. The Gospel of Jesus, on the other hand, says something about “taking up a cross” in order to follow him. To be a disciple of the Risen Christ today is, or should be recognized as being, just as dangerously risky as it was in the early church and ever since. And it’s still all about giving, and then giving more.

Of course, if you put that on the sign, it just might scare off a few prospective members. So what does one do to fill the pews?

Telling the truth is a good start. Many of the heroes and heroines of the faith found that following Jesus was often rough traveling on a very bumpy road. Doing what needs to be done in this world, in our society, in your town and mine, to “prepare the way of the Lord” takes a heap of energy and effort.

The way we market our faith is to follow the most obvious principle of retail: The best advertising for anything is the endorsement of someone who owns one. Demonstrating our faith by action is more convincing than any blinking sign, no matter how bright and beautiful it may be.

It’s prudent for us not to get so enchanted with modernity and all the electronic do-dads and gizmos that flash so brilliantly that they blind us as we try to follow where Christ leads.

Does your church have a digital sign?