Are Church Sign Ministries Important?


The woman eased her car onto Route 37 South of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her life was coming apart. A bitter divorce and a broken family had brought on a depression she felt could only be relieved by committing suicide. Her intention was to pull her car into the path of an oncoming semi-trailer truck on the two lane highway. Her life, and the pain she was in would end, and no one would know she had committed suicide. As she neared the town of Middleville, she noticed a church on her right. The church had a sign in front with a message on it.


The First Baptist Church of Middleville had placed a Christian message, or as the author prefers to call them, a “sentence sermon,” on the sign. The woman read the message, pulled over, and changed her mind about the suicide. She put her life back together and some time later picked up a pen and wrote the church a letter thanking them for the sign and message. She said it had saved her life. When the author talked to the pastor, who had received the letter, he could not remember the message they had on their sign when the woman passed by; it’s clear, however, that God used the “sentence sermon” to impact the woman’s life.


Are church signs important? Can they make a difference? Change lives? You bet they can. They won’t save a life every day, but they can minister to people who pass by the church, and they can present messages of hope and promise to, what the author calls, the church’s “Drive-by Congregation.”


Churches Have Drive-by Congregations


Some churches have thousands of people driving by in a 24 hour period. A well maintained back lighted church sign can present God’s truth to these passers-by 24 hours a day at a very low cost. Most Christians will agree that if we are faithful to present God’s truth, even in small “sentence sermon” form, the Holy Spirit will use that message to speak to someone’s heart.


Churches that have well planned and administered church sign ministry programs will inevitably have stories like the one above to illustrate their effectiveness. But to be effective a church needs to envision a ministry that is designed to reach out and meet the needs of their “Drive-by Congregation.” Churches find, by the way, that if they have an effective sign ministry with potent Christian messages, people will alter their driving habits to go by the church to see what truth is displayed. People on their way to work will go by to get their “thought for the day,” which may become a topic of conversation at work and be passed on to others. Experience dictates that if churches are faithful to present God’s truth it will be used by the Holy Spirit and impact people in ways we can’t even imagine.


Some churches do a wonderful job of church sign ministry, others do reasonably well, while others do nothing at all. This article is written to encourage and help those who would like engage in this form of ministry.


Why Not Serve The Drive-by Congregation?


So why don’t all churches serve their “Drive-by Congregations” with “sentence sermons?” There are many reasons. Some feel it is unsophisticated to put up such messages – that it is not done in “high church” situations. Others have pastors who insist the only sign message of importance is their sermon topic for Sunday. Still others have old signs that are too small for the messages or signs whose letters are too small to be read by those driving by. Other churches reserve their signs for advertising church events and some have had negative reactions to previous messages and have given up on doing a sign ministry. Still others have trouble finding someone who will faithfully and consistently change the letters on the sign, particularly on cold winter days. And some don’t do it because they have never thought about the outreach opportunities presented by those driving by their church every day. Each and every one of these reasons can easily be overcome, if a church catches the vision of what can happen in effective church sign ministry.


Those churches that are most effective in sign ministry are those which are most evangelistic in nature and who are excited about carrying out the “Great Commission.” They see their passers-by as a mission field, as well as a diverse group of people who need God’s truth. Henry David Thoreau once said that all people are, “living lives of quiet desperation.” That is not necessarily literally true, particularly for the mature Christian, but it is true for many people. A bit of truth on a church sign can often reach out to these people with a message of hope to relieve the desperation.


Sign Ministry Requirements


So what is needed to have an effective church sign ministry? Here are some suggestions:


  1. The church and pastor must have a vision of the church sign ministry as an important part of the church’s ministry. They need to see it as one way of carrying out the “Great Commission” and a way to bring hope and comfort to those who pass the church. The sign ministry must be perceived as a “ministry” that is serving their “Drive by Congregation,” and worthy of church time and resources.
  2. The church must have a sign that is adequate for presenting the “sentence sermons.” A sign of at least 4 lines, 8” letters, and which allows 22-23 characters across works best. It should be back lighted for night time viewing. Some churches are going to the newer electronic signs, which are more expensive and have some advantages (and also some disadvantages). A good fixed letter sign with the specifications above will usually cost $5,000 to $7,000 and a similar four line electronic sign about $35,000. The J.M. Stewart sign company in Florida, which claims to be one of the largest church sign companies in America, suggests a fixed letter sign will pay for itself in 3-5 years from the giving of new people who come to the church just because of the sign. In a church in Maryland, where the author worked with a sign ministry, the church consistently had one to two new families a month come to the church because of the sign.
  3. The church should develop a series of policies regarding the church sign use and apply them wisely. These policies should cover such things as who will select the messages, who will change messages, when will they be changed, will the sign be used for ads or “sermons,” under what conditions, and who will determine this? Consistency in changing messages is important because the “Drive-by Congregation” will come to anticipate the messages, and even alter driving  patterns to drive by. The church sign also becomes, in effect, the church speaking  to those who pass by. It needs to be done with a great deal of prayer, thought, and  care. Some churches have run into problems when their messages touched sensitive political and social issues. It’s important to be aware of these sensitivities.


One issue often causes problems in churches using signs. Should the sign be used exclusively for “sentence sermons” or for other church announcements as well? This can easily cause problems as people and programs compete for sign space. This matter needs to be resolved and written into policy. If a church has only one sign, as most do, there are some possible solutions. Some will dedicate the sign completely to “sentence sermons.” Other churches will use the sign for “sermons” from Sunday through Wednesday and use the sign the balance of the week for other announcements including the sermon title for Sunday. Still other churches use one side of the sign for messages and the other side for announcements. Churches will find their “Drive-by Congregation” will adjust to the sign policy, as long as the church is consistent in its use.


The new electronic signs make it easy to change messages, usually by computer from within the church, and some churches with them intersperse announcements with “sermons,” however, every time the message is changed reading time is lost. The average driver has 3-5 seconds to read a message unless the church is located at a stop sign or light. Every second lost changing an electronic message may lose a potential reader. Some churches have purchased one or two line electronic signs, which are less expensive but they are not as effective in sign ministry, as a four line fixed letter or four line electronic sign, because they must constantly change material reducing reading time.


A few years ago a man passed a church with a sign ministry in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. He stopped his car, went into the church with tears streaming down his face. He gave the church secretary a $20 bill and thanked her for the message on the church sign. He said, “It’s just what I needed.” The church didn’t know who he was nor have they seen him since. He was a part of their “Drive-by Congregation” and that church sign was used by the Holy Spirit that day; and so it can be for any church which has such a ministry.


Church sign ministry can be an exciting adventure for churches who want to reach out to passersby and touch people with the truth of God. A well designed effective church ministry can save lives both physically, as shown above, but even more importantly spiritually, as the Holy Spirit uses the truth the church presents to impact the lives of people reading our signs. We will not know the full consequences of a good sign ministry in this life, as many impacted by it will not tell us, but we’ll know the full value of it in the life to come.

L. James Harvey, Ph.D.