It has become a common practice among some churches (generally Protestant) to post inspirational messages and catchy slogans on a marquee outside of their church for passers-by to read. These are usually brief enough as to be read quickly while one is driving through the neighborhood or strolling past on the way to somewhere else. Usually these messages are meant to spiritually inspire the reader or to express in a few words why this particular church would be a good place to worship.
…But in general, it’s all about the marketing. Slogans and sales pitches, memorable one-liners, popular catch-phrases spelled out in bold black letters and back-lit for night-time viewing.
Now, I’m not opposed to churches (even Catholic churches) having marquees in front of their buildings for posting information about Mass schedules, upcoming events, and even the occasional inspirational message (perhaps a quote from a saint or a pope, or an invitation to inquire about the faith and the RCIA program). What concerns me is the seemingly thoughtless approach of many of these churches that use their signs as cute gimmicks rather than as tools for ministry.
A (Protestant) church near where I work recently posted the following message:
“Our church is 2000 years old; our thinking is not.”
I did not stop to inquire what was meant by this odd statement, but it certainly seems to imply that ancient “thinking” ought to be rejected by the Church. Apparently 2000 years of Christian thought on various doctrines, on moral teachings, and biblical exegesis are simply not what the Church should be “about.”
I suppose this appeals to a certain breed of “progressive” Christians who wish to re-shape the Church into whatever form fits the current “in”-thinking. I know there are many liberal Catholics who could adopt this as their own slogan. The first half certainly fits the Catholic Church (being 2000 years old) unlike Protestant denominations that are at best only a few hundred. But if our 2000 years of “thinking” were to suddenly be jettisoned for a modern mindset, would we still be the same Church? Indeed, isn’t that what Protestantism did centuries ago. – reject 2000 years of Tradition and form a new church? Can we really say that a church is 2000 years old, if they have rejected their very roots? They cease to be the same church.
Who thinks up these marquee slogans and do they bother to check their messages against reality? But just as important, should the Church waste her time coming up with off-beat ways to express herself in modern terms? Is this a valid forum for the Church to reach souls?
I have read accounts of people who found themselves down-and-out, at their lowest low, messed up in drugs or prostitution or gangs, and were suddenly inspired to conversion upon reading a church sign that said, “Jesus saves,” or “God loves you,” or some such simple phrase. At that moment in their life the sign pointed to redemption, and it spoke to them where they were. These people owe their salvation to the bold black lettering of a church marquee. I cannot belittle their experience (although I do hope they find the fullness of the Catholic Faith to deepen their conversion). However I also think that these modern gimmicks can too often get in the way of the clear Gospel message. If the Church focuses too much on marketing strategies and bumper-sticker slogans that compete with the mass market, too much of the Christian message is watered down or left by the wayside. If it doesn’t fit on a T-shirt, then it doesn’t get printed. And soon our signs promote the message quoted above and we loose 2000 years of Christian thought.
Let’s face it, the Church cannot compete with the larger-than-life ads on Times Square or the glitz and glamour of the Vegas Strip…nor should we want to. The Church is not meant to be a worldly institution that draws people in with flashing lights and neon signs. The Church should draw people in as an alternative to the modern, over-hyped world of consumerism and materialism. The Church has more to offer than can fit on a billboard. She offers centuries of spiritual and theological substance, she offers spiritual truths and sacramental realities, most especially the Eucharist. She offers salvation that is eternal, not fleeting as the things of this world are.
If the Church tries to compete with worldly things in terms and conditions that are set by worldly powers, then the Church will begin to think in worldly terms, and we will forget what it means to think as Christ taught us. Instead the Church ought to preserve her vast treasure of accumulated knowledge and not stoop to the level of cheap advertising gimmicks or ploys to drum up more attendance…or to put it another way:
“My Church is 2000 years old; and so should her thinking be.”