Churches Offer Spiritual Advice In Tiny Bites, Goofy or Profound

Rosa Uranga, the custodian at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Silver Spring, Md., changes the letters on the church's sign.
Rosa Uranga, the custodian at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Silver Spring, Md., changes the letters on the church's sign. (Sarah L. Voisin - The Washington Post)

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By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006

On Sundays, the Rev. Debbie L. Scott preaches to her congregation inside North Bethesda United Methodist Church. The other days of the week, her message is delivered to the passing cars on Old Georgetown Road, on a sign with black, all-caps lettering.

Scott's selections can be sassy: "Pessimists need a kick in the can'ts."

Clever: "Prayer is the best wireless connection."

Stern: "Jesus turned water into wine, but He can't turn whining into anything."

Ominous: "There is a way to stay out of hell, but no way to get out."

And even controversial. When the U.S. death toll in Iraq reached 1,000, the sign read: "The loss of 1 soldier is too many, let alone 1000 -- let there be peace on earth."

It's Madison Avenue slick, fortune-cookie corny and the Word of God -- all in three lines or less. But more than just roadside evangelism, the signs have become a popular way for churches to get a message out to their communities.

Sometimes funny, sometimes goofy, sometimes profound, they are written to elicit a chuckle, inspire reflection or, as Scott said, to show "there is a personality behind this congregation."

Years ago, pastors often fanned out in their communities, inviting people to church. "We're not knocking on doors anymore in this day and age," Scott said. So like many churches, North Bethesda has turned to displaying a little bumper-sticker wisdom on its signs, which she said are "probably our number one outreach tool."

Drive around the Washington area, and the signs are easy to come by, especially along the more heavily traveled routes. On South Capitol Street in the District, Faith Baptist Church has urged passersby to "Come in and get a faith lift." On Route 28 in Herndon, Emmanuel Baptist Church's marquee has said, "There is no pillow so soft as a clear conscience."

Situated on New Hampshire Avenue near the Capital Beltway in Silver Spring, Good Shepherd United Methodist Church has a prime location to spread the gospel. "The family altar would alter many a family," its sign read this month.

The Rev. Joyce Jones changes the message every week, choosing from one of hundreds she has stored on her computer. The messages come from other churches -- "When I drive around and see signs, I jot them down and steal them," she said -- or from one of the many books that have catalogued church sign sayings, or from the Internet.

"God answers knee mail," is a popular one, she said. But one of her favorites is: "What caterpillars call the end, God calls a butterfly."

"Churches are waking up to the fact that they've got a form of free advertising," said David J. Claassen, pastor of Mayfair-Plymouth Church in Toledo and author of "Silent Words Loudly Spoken: Church Sign Sayings" (2005). (One of his favorites: "Courage is fear that has said its prayers.")

The signs have inspired several books of collections, including, "Life Is Short: Pray Hard" and "Forbidden Fruit Creates Many Jams."

At Olney Baptist Church on Georgia Avenue, one of the most popular sayings was written by parishioner Robert Hudson, a retiree who is in charge of the sign. It came shortly after singer Janet Jackson's breast was revealed during halftime of the 2004 Super Bowl and read: "Clothe yourself in goodness. Prevent wardrobe malfunctions."

Recently, the sign read: "A perfect church wouldn't have you. Join ours."

The idea, the Rev. Gayle Clifton said, was to show that the church welcomes everyone, flaws and all. The sign, whose messages have ranged from funny to inspirational, hasn't brought in passersby on its own, he said.

"But it has promoted some community goodwill," he said.

Except for the time the sign read, "Making something legal doesn't make it right" shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. "We had some very irate phone calls," Hudson said. "And we took it down because we were afraid of vandalism." Hudson said that he'd planned to display that message well before the court decision and that it had nothing to do with gay marriage.

After posting the sign about the U.S. troops killed in the war, Scott also received some angry calls. "We try not to be too political," she said. "That seemed an appropriate statement around peace and justice. But there were some who saw it as anti-American."

Reaction to other signs, though, has been much more positive. From time to time, Scott will get a message on the church answering machine from people on their cell phones driving by. "They'll be sitting at the light at 11 at night, and they'll say: 'Thanks for putting that up. . . . You have no idea how much that spoke to me.' "

One time, Scott answered the phone and it was a woman who said that her husband had just left her and that she was moved by the day's message. "I just needed to hear that word of hope," the woman said. "Will you pray with me?"

"And as she was driving," Scott recalled, "we prayed on the phone."

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