Lots of churches, these days like to put a message or pithy saying on the sign out front to catch the eye of people passing by. You know the kind:
Like the sign in front of a Baptist church on a midsummer day in Wichita, Kansas that said: “You think it’s hot here?”
Or a Lutheran church sign that read: “Hipster, Jesus loved you before you were cool.” (Although I’ve got to say I’m not sure Lutherans who are still using the word `hipster’ would recognize `cool’ if they saw it.)
Or the Church of Christ sign that declared: “Acting perfect in church is like dressing up for an x-ray.” (Still, we do what we can do, right?)
It’s kind of like religion-lite for a secular culture in constant motion.
I remember one summer evening the church I was serving in Wichita was hosting a neighborhood block party; and a young Asian man who showed up—someone I’d never seen before and, frankly, never saw again after that night—came up to me with hotdog in one hand, and pointing to the church sign, declared, “This my church.”
“Oh…okay,” I said, having no idea who he was.
“Yes,” he went on. “I drive by every day and read sign. This my church.”
My response was of the typical mercenary pastor type, “Well, if you like our sign, you’ll love our worship service! Eleven o’clock Sunday morning!”
After a brief pause, my vicarious charge frowned and said, “No, no…” and then pointing again at the sign, “That’s my church!”
Wow! Okay. I get it. Message received.
The next Monday I had a long conversation with our secretary Louise, who was the one that came up with those pithy sayings for our front sign. Briefly considered ordaining her on the spot.
After that I found myself doing sort of an informal study of various church signs around town. And as I read these signs, I started wondering what people who knew little else about Christianity except for those front signs were led to think about the Christian faith because of those signs. My working theory being that the message on the front sign says a lot about a particular church.
For example, one sign outside an Evangelical Church said:
“Repent! Now is the Day of Salvation!”
Down the block was a Presbyterian Church whose sign out front read:
“Big Garage Sale Next Saturday! Cheap Prices! Great Deals!”
A few blocks from there was a UCC church with a front sign reading:
“Virtues are learned at a mother’s knee. Vices at some other joint.
Happy Mother’s Day.”
Just around the corner from that church another sign caught my eye:
“We’ve got room for you at our table.
Hospitality practiced here.
Everybody is welcome.”
And I remember thinking, `Wow! Now that’s a lovely thought:’
“The House of the Large Table”
You know what—I really liked that one.
Problem was, as I was driving by I took a second look and came to realize that that sign was in front of a restaurant, not a church.
But, still, I think I liked that sign the best. For my money, that would have been the most appropriate sign to put in front of any Christian church.
The clergywomen’s group that Diane lunches with once a month had a group discussion about an op-ed article Ginny Smith shared with them called: The Best Restaurant if You’re Over 50: It’s not just sex and sleep that change as you age. It’s supper.[i]
It’s written by Frank Bruni who makes the observation that while he used to go in for every new restaurant that opened up, since he turned 50 his taste in restaurants – indeed his purpose for going to a restaurant – has changed dramatically. Due partly to a physical evolution. But moreover because of a spiritual one. New experiences become less important to being able to actually talk to your table mates.
Bruni writes, “What you want from a restaurant, [as] it turns out , is a proxy for what you want from love and from life. All reflect the arc that you’ve traveled, the peace that you have or haven’t made.”
Bruni quotes the late American chef, author and culinary guru, James Beard, who summed it all up with his famous response to people who stopped him in airports or on the street to ask him what his favorite restaurant was. And he’d always reply, “It’s the same as yours, It’s the one that loves me most.”
“Making your way in the world today, takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, it sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away.
Sometimes you want to go, where everybody knows your name.
And they’re always glad you came.
You want to go where people know, troubles are all the same.
You want to be where everybody knows your name.”
Wouldn’t that be a great theme song for a church?
Our tastes in churches change too, as we get older. We’re not looking so much for excitement or innovation. We’re looking for comfort. We want predictability. We want stability.
Yet, at the same time, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a dying congregation bemoan, “The people all moved away,” or a better yet, “Nobody wants to join the church anymore,” to rationalize not changing in a church on the verge of closing.
On the other hand, have you ever tried to get into a local MacDonald’s on a Sunday morning? There was a McDonald’s just around the corner from my Wichita church. And, even though, as one of my Wichita parishioners once complained to me, you hear “every language in there except English”. “If they want to live in our country,” was the reasoning, “they really should learn our language.”
And yet, when you go into that establishment, people are sitting around in a bright, colorful environment; talking, laughing, enjoying themselves; obviously communicating to one another, breaking bread as a community so to speak; with no one making any particular judgments about what language another speaks, or anyone’s racial or ethnic or economic or religious background for that matter; the people employed simply, humbly striving to serve a particular need of that particular community.
And I must say I find it baffling that a hamburger joint has found a way to thrive in virtually every community in the county, while the church around the corner apparently has not.
Churches are struggling to survive. But here, in the same neighborhood, business at MacDonald’s booming.
Maybe the problem is PR.
Without a doubt, one arguably could go someplace other than MacDonald’s and buy a better hamburger. But, the thing is, MacDonald’s isn’t really selling hamburgers. What they’re really selling is a much more indispensable commodity: community.
With slogans like, “You deserve a break today” and simply `My MacDonald’s’, and more recently “I’m Lovin it,” Mackie D’s understands the psychology of need in an overburdened, consumer-saturated, highly mobile and driven marketplace—and have tapped into those deeper hungers of American life: community, diversity, acceptance, stability, nurturing, comfort.
And, in fact, MacDonald’s has just filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for their next motto: “Lovin is Greater Than Hatin.”
Wouldn’t that be a great motto to put on a church sign today?
The Apostle Peter was – one could say – a staunch traditionalist. He had some pretty strong views about who was and who was not included in God’s scheme of salvation. And then Peter had a vision. And it changed the way he looked at the world.
It was a vision offered in a way that a pragmatic, sometimes ill-tempered, somewhat impatient fisherman could relate to: short, sweet and to the point.
And after having been led by the Spirit to meet a Roman Officer by the name of Cornelius, and having even broken bread with this `unclean’ gentile, Peter figured out that his vision wasn’t about food at all; but rather about people.
The Voice in the vision said: “Don’t call anything I have created `unclean!’”
Talk about your pithy church signs.
`Don’t any one I have created unclean—not because of race, or nationality, or religion, or gender orientation, or political bent. Don’t do it! For they are my children. And they are precious in my sight.
Diane and I attended the Interfaith Works Leadership Awards Dinner a few weeks ago, held in the SRC Center, at Onondaga Community College; and there were several hundred people there: people of all races and religions and nationalities, all ages and gender orientations. The honorees that evening included a progressive transgender lawyer, a Catholic Priest, a Jewish professor, an African American journalist, and a Muslim physician among others. These were folks who (as the program stated) “…have served the underserved, advocated for equity, educated youth, broken barriers, crossed divides and advanced the community through innovative programs and projects.”
And at the beginning of the evening, Beth Broadway got up to welcome everyone; she looked around at the crowd, got a big grin on her face, and then – quoting one of last year’s honorees – said: “So, this is what heaven will look like.”
Who is and who is not in God’s scheme of salvation?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to judge.
The thing is, Peter never planned – nor would he have ever chosen – to be where he was: out baptizing Gentiles, for heaven’s sake. The Holy Spirit simply put him there.
Which begs a fairly pointed question, lurking just behind this passage in the Book of Acts, for the church today.
The question being, “Will we allow the Holy Spirit to prod us today, to give us a vision, to drag us, as it dragged our apostolic forebears before us, sometimes kicking and screaming out of the church, and all the way into the wideness of God’s mercy?
Our will we hunker down right here with folks who are `just like us’?
Doing things like we’ve always done them.
Safe. Secure. Boundaries firmly in place. Preferences left well intact.
Powers that be—yet remaining unshaken.
Even as the Holy Spirit – the primary instrument of a Living God determined to have the whole world as his own – moves on to . . . elsewhere.
The late great preaching guru, Fred Craddock, tells about a church he knew. He remembered it as the `status church’, First Church Downtown, it was called. Everybody who was anybody went to that church, when Fred was a boy. Not just anybody could walk in there and join. Income and proper attire seemed a membership requirement at First Church.
And need we say: people of color needed not apply.
As you might imagine, First Church did not receive many new members. Members they had simply grew older. As an adult, Fred learned that First Church had closed. Too few people of the `right type,’ I guess.
Then Fred Craddock had occasion to go back to town and discovered that old First Church was still standing. But now it was a restaurant, a fish restaurant, mind you. Now that’s poetic.
He walked in the big gothic doors and, sure enough, where there had once been pews, now there were tables, and waiters, and diners.
Craddock then looked down the nave of the old church, and where the communion table had once stood, there was now a salad bar.
He walked out the front, back down the steps, muttering to himself, “Now, I guess everybody is welcome to eat at the table.”
May it one day ever be so in the church as well.
In Jesus Christ.
[i] Bruni, Frank, “The Best Restaurant if You’re Over 50: It’s not just sex and sleep that change as you age. It’s supper,” The New York Times, March 30, 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/03/30/opinion/sunday/best-restaurant-over-50.html?smid=nytimes-ios-share.
(Acknowledgement for further inspiration toward church sign studies from William Willimon)