Fairfax County church says sign that sparked lawsuit is about being a good neighbor


FAIRFAX, VA- AUGUST 28: An evening photograph of the LED sign in front of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Vienna, VA. (Photo by Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post) (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 19, 2012

Jim Toedtman is a member of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Vienna, Va. and a contributor to The Washington Post’s local faith leader network .

The roadside sign says we’re the Church of the Good Shepherd. That’s only part of the story. We also really try to be the Church of the Good Neighbor.

As a small Methodist church in suburban Virginia, we face the multiple challenges of distinguishing ourselves as constructive members of a small community, as a center of great activity as well as a place of refuge and renewal. In effect, we’ve created a small ministry to help accomplish what we could call the Good Neighbor Initiative.

Truth to tell, we’ve been in the news lately with our new technology because Fairfax County officials questioned how frequently the messages on a fancy new electronic sign should change. (The county has agreed to give us more discretion).

But that’s almost beside the point. Uppermost in our thinking is remembering to do right by “your neighbor who dwells trustingly beside you.” (Proverbs 3:29)

We’ve had a lighted sign in front of the church for almost 15 years. For the past 12, I was what might be called the church lamp-lighter, faithfully changing the message every week. The objectives of these messages were always the same: In a busy neighborhood at an anxious time, we extended an invitation into our sanctuary, or we offered passersby what we hoped was an inspiring idea or thought to ponder.

I suspect our motives are not unlike the thousands of other churches with roadside signs. Churches of all denominations and sizes have turned these messages, more or less, into the Burma-Shave signs of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They’re interesting, sometimes compelling, sometimes fun and always an indication of a church’s energy.

At the Church of the Good Shepherd, our message was invitation or inspiration or both. When possible, we included humor:

“Join Us!

God Approved This Message”

Sometimes, the weather provided the context. During last year’s seemingly endless rainfall, for example, our weather forecast offered some encouragement:

“After the storm, Son-shine.”

Sometimes there was a play on words: “God’s Souls Walk the Walk.”

Often, we used scripture: “Love your neighbor.” My favorite was a variation of Mother Theresa’s mandate: “Be a Pencil in the Hand of God.”

And once, we tried a 21st century shoutout: “OMG.”

For the neighbors, the greetings could have been a distraction. But more often than not, they weren’t. Instead, we’re told, they prompted a nod, a smile or even a right turn into the church parking lot for an evening lecture, a Sunday service or a Christmas Cantata.

Our church’s “Good Neighbor Initiative” has also inspired another dimension for our community. For a dozen years now, members of our congregation have written devotions for daily Lenten worship. We have printed as many as 15,000 and mailed them to the neighborhood.

If nothing else, this has been a wonderful exercise for our church as members shared wonderful and inspiring moments and insights. We know that the booklet has attracted some new members to our congregation. But more important, we have received several hundred letters over the years affirming that the booklet has become a welcome part of devotions during the Lenten season for hundreds and hundreds of households by neighbors who have never visited our church, but are grateful for the devotional guidance.

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