WASHINGTON – North Bethesda United Methodist Church has a Facebook page, an Internet mailing list and a well-stocked website. But the congregation’s most powerful evangelization tool is a throwback to a less technology-driven age: a simple sign with changeable letters out front.
The expressions spelled out in black letters, aimed at connecting with the harried drivers streaming past on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, Md., aren’t usually explicitly religious or overtly Christian. Quotes cite the likes of Oprah and J.K. Rowling and tend toward the self-help-ish and the hokey.
“Limitations only exist if you let them,” read one this month. “Never iron a four-leaf clover because you don’t want to press your luck,” read another. The point, says the Rev. Debbie Scott, is to provoke, not preach.
Not so around Easter.
Thursday night, in preparation for Good Friday and Easter services, a custodian put up: “What happened early Easter morning?” a reference to the mystery and drama of Jesus’s resurrection.
For a nation increasingly fleeing traditional religious practice and belief, Easter isn’t a day to push the envelope. It’s a time when pastors who enjoy putting a clever or edgy sentence on their church signs proceed with caution.
Seven Locks Baptist Church in Rockville, Md., went from “iPad, iPod, iPray” earlier in March to “Because he lives I can face tomorrow.” Emmanuel Baptist Church in Manassas, Va., replaces its sayings with service times. Even Madison Avenue Baptist, a Midtown Manhattan congregation with a professional comedian for a pastor, a Good Friday service staged as a country music revue and a sign popular with tourists for its irreverent, secular vibe, goes traditional on Easter.
“Christmas and Easter are two of the rare occasions when I’m overtly religious. I mean, these [holiday] stories are the foundation of the church,” said Brian Crowson, the New York church’s parish administrator and sign-picker.
In past Easters, Crowson has chosen: “He has risen,” and “He is born.” On Friday, he opened the sign box and removed a seasonal, if not spiritual, message attributed to Albert Einstein: “The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.” In its place he put: “Easter says: You can put truth in a grave but it won’t stay there.”
If advertising is more traditional around Easter, it’s also regarded as more crucial by pastors whose pews are emptying and who hope to give the unchurched a transcendent experience.
Stewart Church Signs, one of the country’s most prominent suppliers of signs to houses of worship, says sales and upgrades boom early each year for the Easter run-up.
Churches add small yard signs to scatter on nearby roads and trade up to an LED sign with a digital display. Generally, Stewart spokeswoman Stacy Strom said, churches are becoming more experimental with the messages they feature on their signs because of “hard economic times and declining numbers of Americans attending churches. Most churches are in the position that they need to grow their congregation.”
But at Easter, she said, they stay classic.
Seven Locks Baptist Church is a small, traditional church with a strongly international congregation, including the English-speaking children of Korean parents who hold Korean language services elsewhere in the building. Its main outreach is a large English as a second language program, but it also relies on thought-provoking zingers on its sign.
“There are a lot of people passing by, and there’s a big opportunity to use the sign. People are sitting at the light; they have things on their minds. The sign might help them,” said the pastor’s wife, Cindy Wolfe, who picks the sayings and puts them out Sunday mornings. She searches the Internet for ideas and also turns to a photocopied 10-page list of expressions her mother used decades ago when she was a church-sign lady in Dayton, Ohio.
Expressions have changed, but the theology must be clear and unchanging, especially on Easter.
“People feel at least one Sunday of the year they need to go to church and hopefully God will speak to them then,” she said.
In its half-century, North Bethesda United Methodist has seen founding members die and the neighborhood grow more diverse racially and religiously. Half the congregation, Scott says, is former Catholics.
“That’s why we are intentional about not even being so religious or Christian” on the sign, she said. “That’s been our benchmark.”
Yet Easter presents a challenge. The story of Jesus’ death and rise is the core of the Christian Gospel. The purpose of the sign is to pull people in, but for what cause? It’s intended to be thought-provoking, but to what end?
Scott’s Sunday sermon wrestled with the drama and supernatural nature of the Easter story. That’s why the sermon title was a question: What happened that morning?
“It’s so beyond our understanding, to try and put it in definitive words is impossible. But the essence is that in that moment, death was overcome. And we all experience death in many ways – the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, or cancer, or a broken relationship. We have all sorts of deaths in our lives,” Scott said. “But the message of Easter is that there is a hope beyond all death that sustains us and is God’s promise to us.”
Bill Hansen, pastor at Emmanuel Baptist on Route 28 in Manassas, said 100,000 people drive each day past his LED sign. On Easter, he wants to be crystal clear about his church’s purpose.
“The scripture quotes or sayings end up being a filler. Now is the time to encourage most of all non-Christians to come, and to reach out to people who haven’t been in a while. It’s like the Catholics are saying to their people – it’s time to come back. Easter is the season for all that.”