On the way home after a tough day at his music publishing business, Donald Seitz drove by a church marquee proclaiming, “He who kneels before God, can stand before anyone.”
The spiritual message was exactly what he needed to lift his cloudy outlook.
Seitz says he was so moved by the experience, he spent the next three years driving 20,000 miles across 40 states to photograph 100 church signs for a new book, which features other catchy lines like “Life is fragile. Handle with prayer” and “Don’t Give Up. Moses Was Once A Basket Case.”
Some drivers might roll their eyes or chuckle at the “drive-by sermons” on church signs, but the pun-heavy religious messages have become key to attracting the attention of worshippers and potential worshippers.
The signs are meant to enlighten, entertain and evangelize -- in usually 10 or fewer words -- and often give drivers a glimpse of what the church community believes and what to expect from the pulpit.
“Many of the people who read signs will not end up in their [churches’] pews, but they may be able to affect their lives in a positive way,” Seitz said. “It’s like a sermon on the road.”
Most churches began in the 1990s to give up wooden signs with sermon schedules in favor of marquees with movable letters.
Signs with humorous one-liners or simple spiritual messages communicated more information to the public about the church and perhaps intrigued newcomers to check out Sunday services, said Colorado pastor Ron Glusenkamp, who wrote the book “Signs for These Times.”
“It was a way to encourage people to utilize their church signs, to recognize it’s a valuable way to connect with people ... to help people kind of reflect on their relationship with God,” Glusenkamp said.
Seitz’s self-published book of photos titled “The Great American Book of Church Signs” highlights 100 signs covering themes like faith, forgiveness, love, prayer and perseverance.
Featured in the book are gems like “Feed your faith and your doubts will starve to death,” from Church of Christ at Brookhill in Killen, Ala.; “Love God with all your heart, then do whatever you want,” from Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City; and “Tithe if you love Jesus. Anyone can honk,” from Southern Heights Baptist Church in Russellville, Ky.
Not everyone is crazy about the marquees and believe they often belittle or misrepresent Christian beliefs.
Joel Bezaire, for one, started the blog crummychurchsigns .com, which offers “critical analysis of critically bad church signs,” according to the website. He says he’s gotten submissions from 40 states, and more than 400 signs have been cataloged on the site since he began it two years ago.
He says a lot of the signs are meant to be funny but aren’t -- and end up making Christianity look silly and irrelevant.
From Smyrna, Tenn., there was this one: “If Christ offends you, imagine what hell will do.”
“Only in America can we get a church sign to favorably compare Christ and hell,” Bezaire says on his site. “And, yeah, I know what they were trying to say ... that doesn’t count because most unchurched people wouldn’t.”
Joel Benbow, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Evanston, Ill., whose sign “To Belittle is to Be Little” is included in Seitz’s book, said his marquee is intended to make people curious about the church and that its message needs to be catchy to grab the attention of drivers.
“We try to use ones [signs] that are fairly clever, a play on the words,” Benbow said. “If they’re not, they’re not noticed as much. It’s got to be in four or five words to get people’s attention.
“If we can pick their spirits up a bit, that’s good. That’s a bonus. If it puts a smile on their lips, that’s really good.”
Joseph Shelton, a director of field education and church relations at Duke University Divinity School, said some signs are aimed at getting people to church while others are making a statement about what the church stands for and trying to enliven people spiritually.
“If they’re meant to be discussion starters, they can be great for that. I think dialogue is always good,” he said. “They get people talking, which could lead to spiritual dialogues.”
Seitz, who moved from Pasadena six years ago with his wife to start a music and book publishing company in Nashville, said his book is not intended to evangelize or make fun of church signs.
“I covered this country and saw thousands of signs, and the majority are meant to encourage us to live better lives,” he said. “They’re wonderful, uplifting messages. Sure, occasionally there’s a message that’s off the mark, that’s a bit off color. But most are sophisticated and funny.”