No time to sign off
Where did all the good church signs disappear to?
Long a hallmark of Americana, church signs were at one time as ubiquitous as the now-departed Burma-Shave billboards. Regularly decked out with overtly religious pitches and general folk wisdom, passersby could find sentiments like “Free coffee, eternal life. We’ve got the best deal in town,” (at an Assemblies of God church) or “God’s grace: One size fits all” (that one came from the Lutherans). Once the legacy of evangelical and Pentecostal denominations and the aggressive proselytizing of the revival movement, church signs now make great coffee-table books, as in the recent Church Signs Across America by Steve and Pam Paulson.
But the traditional “church sign” (moveable black lettering on a white surface) is surprisingly hard to find in Sacramento. A recent three-hour Sunday drive turned up only two traditional-style church signs, both promoting upcoming events.
Central United Methodist Church at H and 53rd streets was using their sign to advertise regular services (Sunday at 10:30 a.m.) and an upcoming white elephant sale on November 8 (that’s this Saturday, from 8 a.m. to noon).
The other traditional sign was at the Arden Church of the Nazarene at Arden Way and Richmond Street, where it advertised a “Trunk or Treat” event in the church’s parking lot for October 26. “Games Food Candy,” it said.
The next closest contender for church-sign glory was out in North Highlands. At the Ark of Salvation Assemblies of God Church on Elkhorn Boulevard, there was a decidedly nontraditional church sign with a decidedly traditional message. Their painted plywood sign, large and in charge, was visible from all four lanes: “Jesus is Coming Soon,” followed by “John 10:9” above a large graphic of a Bible. It was a religious message, to be sure, although a stretch of the definition of “church sign.”
But the rest of the churches on a circuit from Midtown through the eastern and northern suburbs had small, tasteful signs and an occasional banner for an event. Reports from another SN&R staffer offered up three church signs visible between Placerville and Sacramento which said simply, “Yes on 8,” a reference to the proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate marriage equality for same-sex couples. That left us with a grand total of six church signs, two with events, three with political statements, one that fell outside traditional “church sign” parameters.
What’s up with that? Are Sacramentans to be deprived of local church signs, forced to go online to Church Sign Generator and make up their own?
I called the Rev. Leon Skinner at Arden Church of the Nazarene, home of a rare all-American church sign, to ask how they decide what goes up, how often they change it and what makes a good church sign. “We only use it for events if it’s something the larger community would be interested in,” he said, referring to the pitch I’d seen for the “Trunk or Treat” event.
“Most of the time it has either a verse out of the Bible or a cute saying,” Pastor Skinner said. It currently says, “Ordinary becomes extraordinary with just a little extra.”
“We really do get comments and phone calls from people who like what we say” on the sign, Pastor Skinner said. “We’ve had people stop in, too. It does create a lot of attention.”
It may be a sign o’ the times that there were so few of the traditional church signs out and about. But tradition dies hard, whether in the heartland or the Left Coast. There’s always room for a few good signs.