Signs of the Times?

“Sodomy Is a Crime Against God
and Nature.”

So declares a church sign
that my wife drives past each morning
on her way to work. Now I know what
you’re thinking: criticizing church
signs is hackneyed and is any way a
little like the proverbial “shooting fish
in a barrel.” To some these signs are
just the height of religious silliness,
hardly worthy of serious concern, much
less serious commentary.

Even given the fact that few people
expect much from the average church
sign, there is something about that
one my wife has been driving past that
causes a wave of sadness and frustration
to wash through my soul. And perhaps
part of the reason is because this
particular church is perched just inside
one of the most economically depressed
counties in the already hard-pressed
state of Michigan. Unemployment in this
county is pushing well past the statewide
average of nearly 11%, reaching sickening
levels in the 15% and higher range.
The county is filled with people who have
watched long-held and long-cherished
jobs get shipped to Mexico even as most
of the county’s small towns feature an increasing
number of shuttered shops and
restaurants along with the abandoned
dreams that each such closed business
represents.

Even though a church sign is not the
same thing as a sermon, there is a sense
in which a church’s sign is part of its
public proclamation even as a sermon is.
And that leads me to wonder just what it
is the church should proclaim, which is a key question that regularly crops up in
homiletics conversations. On the most
basic level, we in the Reformed camp are
quick to say that we preach the biblical
text. At the core of every good sermon is
a well-exegeted biblical text. Karl Barth
went so far as to say that a sermon must
be nothing but the text all over again, and
so woe betide the preacher who gets in
the way of that text by larding up a sermon
with clever introductions, illustrations,
or conclusions. Most people don’t
go quite that far but, nevertheless, at its
core preaching is about proclaiming the
Word of God.

But it’s not only that. Many contend
that every sermon is finally about
proclaiming the gospel. Even Old Testament
texts–where the name of Jesus
is never mentioned–need to connect
with the gospel. We preach Christ from
even the Old Testament. And no matter
what our text, what distinguishes
preaching from a Bible lecture or a
classroom presentation is that in the
end the sermon needs to point people
to all the hope, joy, and grace that just
is “Christ clothed with the gospel” in
ways that change lives.

Preaching is not just about imparting
biblical information. Also, preaching
is not supposed to be about doling
out “how to” advice. Preachers are not
supposed to resemble Dr. Phil in telling
people how to put their lives back
together through this or that course of
action. Preaching is not supposed to
encourage people in thinking they can
build their own stair way to heaven,
getting closer to paradise inch by inch
through good moral living and hard
work. Of course, if there is one thing
we know about church signs, it is that
they do have an unhappy tendency to bolster just this anti-gospel, moralistic,
self-help frame of mind.

Years ago in a lecture that railed
against moralistic preaching, William
Willimon mentioned passing a church
sign around the time of Mother’s Day
that said “Virtues Are Learned at Mother’s
K nee, Vices at Some Other Joint.”
As Willimon said, that may be clever but
his main concern was that some poor fool
was going to drive past this church and
conclude that that was the gospel of Jesus
Christ our Lord. And it is not. Nor
are guilt-inducing signs such as “Seven
Days without Prayer Make One Weak”
or the happy-clappy signs that seem to
forget that Christians follow a crucified
Savior such as “Put on a Happy Faith!” or
“We’re Too Blessed to Be Depressed.”

None of that is the gospel. None of
that radiates the grace of God in Christ.
None of that tells hapless, helpless, despairing
souls that there is hope to be
had in this sad world–a hope that declares
that it’s all been accomplished for
you, that true life is a gift. And if ever
there was a time when people need to
hear a strong proclamation of hope and
joy, it is now. The U.S. may have just
elected a president who campaigned on
the theme of hope more overtly than anyone
in history, but the fact is that hope
seems in short supply. As I type this,
CNN just published a story on its website
about what CNN discovered when
asking people to complete the sentence,
“The economy makes me feel…” The
responses included: Defeated. Annoyed.
Afraid. Confused. Fearful. Desperate.

All of which brings me back to that
church situated just inside that sad, sad
county thirty minutes from my home.
What is it that makes anyone who bears
the name of Christ think that what the
church is mostly about is being a beacon
of damning, judgmental news? When did
the Good News that just is the gospel become
a license to scream out Bad News
to all who pass by a place that bears
the sign of the cross? Compared to this
congregation’s screed against gays, even
those self-help church signs start to
look almost saintly.

It’s an open question, I suppose,
whether any given sign is a window onto
a congregation’s collective soul. But
when I look around at the sad, unhappy,
uncertain, and frightened faces of my fellow
Michiganders during these stressful
and uncertain times–and when I reflect
on the state of people’s lives in the county
where that church is located–I conclude
that a sign that screams bad news
of judgment is so tone deaf to the times
in which we live and (worse) to the very
acoustics of the gospel as to stem, quite
possibly, from the devil himself. After
all, who else has a bigger stake in making
the Good News of the gospel look so
sour and so bad?

C.S. Lewis would not be surprised.
In one of his many brilliant pieces in
The Screwtape Letters, Lewis depicts the
senior demon Screwtape advising his
underling demon, Wormwood, on how
best to lure a Christian bit by bit from
the true core of the faith. At one point
Screwtape suggests that nothing succeeds
so well as encouraging a Christian
slowly but surely to see the church
as an “us” that defines itself primarily
by being better than “them.” Make a
Christian get quietly self-congratulatory on being a Christian, on being on the
righteous inside of things, and you may
succeed in ruining the church. “Teach
him…to adopt an air of amusement at
the things unbelievers say. Some theories
he may meet in modern Christian
circles may here prove helpful; theories,
I mean, that place the hope of society in
some inner ring of ‘clerks,’ some trained
minority of theocrats… [T]he great
thing is to make Christianity a mystery
religion in which he feels himself one of
the initiates” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape
Letters
, Macmillan, 1961, p. 113).

When we define ourselves by what we
are not instead of what by grace we have
become in Christ; when finger wagging
defines our proclamation to the world instead
of trembling fingers that point to
the wonder of the cross, that is when we
start to lob bad, damning news into the
faces of genuinely hurting and despairing
people and not even notice the dread
irony of what we’re doing.

“Christ clothed with the gospel.”
Put that on your church sign and see
what happens.

Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in
Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand
Rapids, Michigan, and co-editor of Perspectives.