Say it on a sign

By Melody Wilson Shobe

Last week on vacation, I was driving through a small town in Florida when I caught sight of a church marquee. I have to admit, church marquees are probably my favorite part of any road trip; they are almost always either inspiring or amusing, and sometimes both. Every time I drive past a church, of any denomination, I find myself craning my head to see what their sign has to say. This one didn’t disappoint; the big black letters of movable type read: “Exposure to the Son may prevent burning.”

While I might not like the theology of the statement, it is hard to argue with its effectiveness. The church certainly knows its audience: the hoards of tourists flocking to the Florida coast for some sun. And it was also memorable; over a week later, I still remember the slogan and the church that was sporting it.

That, of course, is just one example; church signs don’t have to be all fire and brimstone. Donald Seitz’s book, The Great American Book of Church Signs, shows signs of all stripes from church marquees across the country. He reveals that they can be puns, like the California church sign that read: “God answers knee-mail.” Or they can reference modern cultural icons, like a Virginia church that advertised, “Wal-Mart is not the only saving place: come on in!” Or, like the Tennessee church sign, “Visitors Welcome. Members Expected,” and the Alabama church reminder, “Give God what is right, not what is left,” they can make a serious point about church membership or stewardship.

Whether they snag us by their truth, their humor, or their all too often painful puns, today’s church marquees usually do the job of catching our attention. It may be negative attention, or it could be positive, but one way or another, they get noticed. And yet, they don’t seem to be used by the Episcopal Church. My church, which does have a marquee with movable font, lists the same service times week after week, only occasionally adding a reference to an upcoming parish event. There are no colorful quips to remember, no pithy maxims to ponder. There’s just bare bones, straight up information. My church, I know, is not the only Episcopal Church that avoids using the catchy sign slogans. In Seitz’s book, which includes over a hundred churches from states across the country and a wide variety of different denominations, there is not a single Episcopal Church sign pictured.

Maybe colorful church marquees are just not “the Episcopal way.” But if that’s the case, I have to wonder why. Are we wary of theological pitfalls, or reducing the complex matter of faith to a simple slogan? Are Episcopalians too “prim and proper” to muck around with kitschy humor and playful (sometimes painful) puns? Or are we just not creative enough to come up with good weekly sayings? Is there a way that we could use our church marquees better than we do now, while still being true to our heritage and self-understanding?

The Rev. Melody Wilson Shobe is Assistant Rector at a church in the Diocese of Texas. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and is married to fellow priest The Rev. Casey Shobe.

Past Posts