Consider it a sign of the times. In their efforts to reach those passing by, churches are turning to one-liners, posted big and bold on illuminated signs outside.
"Do not wait for the hearse to take you to church."
"Want to avoid burning? Use âSon' block."
"Try our Sundays; they're better than Baskin-Robbins'."
"Try Jesus. If you don't like Him, the devil will always take you back."
Some phrases might be a bit over the top, Dan Parsons admits. But church signs have to compete with sophisticated secular slogans churned out by advertising agencies, he said.
"There's nothing at all wrong with a church doing all it can to let the community know it's here and has a message for them," said Parsons, pastor of Central Christian Church in Roswell, N.M. "For years we've overlooked the best way we have to get messages to our communities. A church sign is more than what it appears."
When used properly, he said, the church sign becomes a powerful evangelism tool.
Parsons knows from experience. While on staff at a large Tampa church, he led the charge for putting a more noticeable sign in front of the building, which faced the second busiest road in Florida.
The new sign was lit and stood high enough to be seen by motorists, Parsons said. Within three months, attendance shot up.
"You don't give much thought to a sign until someone tells you they've passed right by you for five years and never even knew you were there," he said. "Signs make a difference."
Parsons now pastors a 25-member church intent on reaching its community and growing. The church's current sign -- small, wooden, unlit and with letters on only one side -- has to go, he said.
"We want something to grab attention, we need something to grab attention," he said. "It's a shame to have God's Word offered every Sunday and not have a venue to advertise it."
Signs, signs, everywhere are signs
When church leaders contact Stewart Church Signs in Sarasota, Fla., they're looking for more than a place to put their congregation's name, said marketing manager Tim Self.
"The church sign has really evolved into its own ministry of sorts," Self said. "Churches look at it as a way to communicate with their neighborhood. They want it to be thought provoking, and probably most important, a witnessing opportunity."
Tips for Signs
-- Change the message two to three times a week.
-- Place someone, or a group of people, in charge of changing the sign and coming up with new messages.
-- Purchase a vandal cover for your sign to keep people from changing the message. Stewart Church Signs offers a special key-locking system. The company also uses a unique paint system for their signs that is graffiti resistant.
"Often the sign is the first and only thing a person sees of a church," he said. "What would it cost you to have a full-time person to stand outside the church and let people know what time things are?"
Message boards are the most popular with churches, Self said, since clever one-liners can be posted in addition to times and dates for services or events.
And designs are much more dynamic and creative these days, he said.
"Even 10 years ago, if signs had artwork, it'd be a Bible, a world or dove," Self said. "Most have left the traditional icons. Now we see trees, rivers; everything is much more stylized, too."
Stewart Church Signs has two standard suggestions: Churches should brand their logos by using the same image on signs, business cards, letterhead, etc. And the simpler the better for sign messages since most will read it going 25 to 35 mph past the sign.
Message board signs run between $4,000 and $6,000, Self said. Flashier electronic signs with LED readouts start at $25,000 to $35,000.
Self expects more churches to move from signs with changeable copy to electronic message centers as the costs go down. Prices on electronic signs have dropped 10 to 15 percent in the last year, he said.
Most important, though, is the message itself, which Stewart Church Signs recommends changing two to three times a week.
"You will see all kinds of messages, from funny ones to thought-provoking," he said. "The best thing you can do is keep it fresh. Give people a reason to keep looking for that sign."
The message matters
A career as an advertising executive in New York helped Jim Semsar realize the value of a good sign. Semsar, a lay leader at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Baraboo, Wis., said signs can give passers by a sense of what the church is like.
Seen on Signs
"Free trip. Details inside."
"Forbidden fruits create many jams."
"ATM inside: Atonement, Truth, Mercy"
"Come in and pray today. Beat the Christmas rush."
"Life has many choices. Eternity has two. What's yours?"
"No God -- No Peace. Know God -- Know Peace."
"Plan ahead. It wasn't raining when Noah built the ark."
"The Ten Commandments are not multiple choice."
"The world rewards success; God rewards faithfulness."
"This church is prayer conditioned."
"Vacancy: Every Sunday 11:00 a.m."
"When we work, we work. When we pray, God works."
"A surefire way to get rich quick in 2003: Count your blessings."
St. Paul's sign messages have earned it three or four stories and photos in the local newspaper, Semsar said.
"We put as much thought into our new sign as we do anything else in this ministry," he said, noting that the church established a sign committee that comes up with the weekly messages. The committee falls under the church's evangelism ministry because "that's exactly what it is," Semsar said.
The sign, which came from Stewart Church Signs and cost about $5,000, was a reach for the church financially.
"We didn't have money readily available, but we decided that we either do it right or not at all," Semsar said. "Once people caught on to the evangelism aspect, money came very quickly."
It was stories like that from Third Baptist Church in Marion, Ill., that helped church members realize a sign's importance.
Third Baptist's pastor, Jerry Ford, said a young mother walked the aisle one Sunday to accept Christ as her Savior, later sharing her story in a letter.
"I had become despondent over my husband leaving me and had attempted suicide," she wrote. "The hospital had pumped my stomach and brought me back from near death. This however, did not relieve my depression over the event. I continued my thoughts about wanting to take my own life. While driving down Fair Street one Sunday afternoon, I saw this bright sign flashing alongside of the road. The message seemed to be speaking to me directly. I stopped my car and read everything on it. â¦"
The woman came to Third Baptist that evening and heard about Jesus' saving grace, Ford said.
"If it were not for that eye-catching sign, I might not be here tonight," the woman wrote.
"How much is a soul worth," Ford asks when members question the cost of the church's $24,000 electronic sign. "One soul cost God His only begotten Son's life on the cross. How can we place any monetary value on even one soul for whom Christ died?"
Resources for Sign Messages:
"The Missing Ministry" by Stewart Church Signs
"Signs for These Times: Church Signs That Work" by Ronald Glusenkamp
"Forbidden Fruit Creates Many Jams: Roadside Church Signs Across America" by Mary Katherine Compton and David Compton
"701 More Sentence Sermons" by L. James Harvey