By Eddie Pipkin

I was in an artsy resort town in the hills, stopping off for lunch at this little café on the side of the road when I saw this “Park in a Circle” sign.  The parking area was out back, a small gravel lot with a narrow alley access, and the owners had decided the circle parking option was the best way to get people in and out without blocking anybody.  I thought it was a cute sign: it did the job efficiently, but politely, and it did it whimsically and artfully.  It enforced behavior (for the good of everybody), and it was emphatic in its suggestion, but it accomplished this goal in a way that communicated the personality of the place.  Oh, that local churches could be so thoughtful with their signage.  It’s an area that we overlook, and that’s a shame, because it’s easy to communicate a subtle but positive message about who we are.

Most of the time, when you see a blog about church signs, it’s one of those collections of messages plastered on the main sign for passing motorists.  These collections come in different flavors.  There are the ones about “the cutest church signs ever.”  There are the ones about “hysterical mistakes on church signs.”  And there are the ones about “church signs that turn people off.”  I’ll let you google the first two categories if that’s where you get your jollies, but I linked the third category because I think that negative messages communicated by roadside church signs are a shame (intentional or unintentional – and there are a lot of unintentional turn-offs being propagated out there).  In my opinion, cute sayings are superfluous and unnecessary, and, first and foremost, communicate that you are an institution that’s flippant and trivial – and that’s not what people in your community are looking for in a church; they already have Reddit.

People are looking to see that you are providing them with serious and thoughtful ways to address the challenges of life: a partner in genuine spiritual growth; a strong, supportive, welcoming community; and a way to make a difference as part of a like-minded team.  Those are the kinds of messages that should be reinforced on your drive-by signage.  I’m an advocate for using that signage for these purposes:

  • Inviting the community to participate in specific events, programs, or activities. Generally speaking, the more people the event would appeal to, the better, although you can say a lot about who you are as a congregation by sometimes focusing on a more niche issue.  For instance, an invitation to an “Opioid Crisis Support Group” is more limited than “Come to Our Fall Festival,” but it says a lot about what matters to you.  And as a reminder, no one in the community cares about your “Annual Business Meeting.”  If you feature that on your sign, that says an awful lot, too.
  • Directly communicating your vision and priorities. If you want the community to know who you are, tell them.  “ALL people are welcome here, especially you” sends a message.  So does “Depressed, suffering, feeling alone?  We’re here for you.”    Speak directly to people and their needs, as well as their hopes.
  • Embrace and celebrate other things happening in the community, not just what’s happening on your property. This is a great way to show that you are aware of what’s important beyond your borders.  Did the high school football team make it to the finals?  Give ‘em a shout-out.  Is there a community initiative happening?  Support it.  Did a hurricane impact the state?  Give people a link to respond.

Don’t let any one message linger too long.  Keep it dynamic.  Sign-changing is a great ministry for someone looking for a low-stress way to get engaged.  And by the way, virtually anything that we can say about the messaging on exterior signs is also true for social media posts.  Here are some go-to guidelines – actually red flag warnings – for consideration when promoting any publicly posted message (from the folks at “Church Marketing Sucks”).

But what I really wanted you to stop and think about is the signage that greets folks when they are entering our church buildings and the signage that helps them stay oriented once they are inside.  If we think about this at all, it tends to be a quick consideration, and it is a rare that a church has a unified strategy and a regular review of its signage.  We end up with a hodgepodge, sometimes contradictory approach, controlled by various players.

Signage is, however, a huge issue for visitors.  It plays a critical role in helping them feel welcome, valued, and comfortable in your space.  It is a prime example of how “knowing what we know” and assuming everybody else knows it too, can be a real turn-off for first-time guests.  We may think parking is obvious, restrooms are logically located, the nursery is easily found, and general information is accessible for those who need it, but that’s because we already know where all that stuff is.  Visitors may be having an utterly different (and frustrating) experience.  My favorite story in researching this blog was a pastor recounting a friend who, when visiting the pastor’s home, asked if he could use the restroom: “Of course!” replied the pastor.  Then the guest stood there awkwardly, waiting for somebody to tell him where that would be.  D’oh!

Clear, logical signage is good for longtime members, too!  It helps them help the visitors.  It’s a useful hospitality tool.

Campus signage can also, subtly and overtly, reinforce your identity and vision.

The folks at the “Facts and Trends” blog over at LifeWay have a solid overview of signage considerations (as well as web site issues, which share overlapping territory):

Good church signage is a statement of your church’s hospitality. It means you are expecting guests; and it means you desire for guests to come to your church.

Bad or no church signage is a clear sign of a lack of hospitality. It means you are not expecting guests, or you don’t care enough to get ready for guests. It means your congregation is focused on itself instead of others.

So let’s take the signage issue seriously. Let’s see what we can do to become a more welcoming church. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of others who have never visited our church. And let’s go through a checklist to make sure our signs really communicate that we are ready to welcome guests.

Here are observations:

  • Pay attention to the basics. Be focused on what first-time guests need to know.  Parking, bathrooms, children’s areas (particularly the nursery), worship services and times, and visitor information should be crystal clear from whichever direction guests are arriving.  Give them a clear and friendly path for getting help if they need it.  Don’t make them guess, and don’t make them feel dumb for having to ask (best accomplished by not making them have to ask – let’s say for instance, you have two handicapped parking spaces obviously positioned in the front, but several more located in the side parking lot: how would they know this?).
  • Insist on quality signage. Focus on sufficiently large, easy-to-read fonts and verbiage that make sense to people.  Take line of sight into account.  If your restrooms are at the end of a long hall, or your worship space is two covered walkways from the parking lot, you may need “breadcrumb” signs to help people make the complete journey.  Don’t do cute or fancy fonts.  Do the largest print that’s feasible.  If you have an awesome, quirky name for your nursery, like “God’s Little Angels,” it should be a secondary, bonus sign; you should have a basic sign that says “nursery” as well.  This goes for all ministry areas (youth, classrooms, offices, etc.).
  • Utilize mobile signage effectively. Things may be totally different around your shared space on different days of the week.  Use mobile signage (sign-boards, banners, etc.) to help people get where they need to be.  Never assume that anything is obvious.
  • Unpack the mystery. Mystery as a theological concept is good.  Mystery as a navigational or informational strategy is not good.  If your playground or other campus facilities are open at all times for the community, let them know with a sign.  If Sunday morning snacks are for everybody for free, celebrate it!  I know a Methodist church with candle-prayer stations.  It’s an interactive tradition they adapted that feels familiar to the many former Catholics who are part of their community.  A sign explaining their purpose and history is useful and communicates a message about who that congregation is.
  • Absolutely, positively avoid negative messages. Words like “no,” “prohibited,” “don’t,” and “only” should be avoided like the plague.  They are a real turn-off, and they communicate a basic attitude on behalf of your congregation.  “No trespassing,” “no parking,” and “church members only” signs hurt your community connection.  First of all, if you are feeling the need to put up a sign prohibiting specific behavior, carefully explore the reasoning behind it and whether you can modify the situation or use it as a catalyst for community engagement.  (What if we allowed some community parking at our facility even though it’s a hassle?  What if we invited sports leagues to use our empty field?  What if we gave the skateboarders a dedicated spot to do their thing?).  Even if a prohibition is unavoidable, try an approach of more positive messaging (“Please join us on Sundays when this playground is safely supervised and available for all to enjoy!  Families welcome!  No worship necessary!”)
  • Do a yearly audit! Be sure you know exactly whose responsibility signage is.  Have a regularly scheduled audit in which you evaluate all signage and adjust it as necessary.  Get feedback on signage from as many sources as possible.  Make use of an objective outsider to check out your signage and give you feedback.

Good signage leads to good outcomes!  Check out my “Park in a Circle” example and note how it checks off all the considerations listed above.   Every thoughtfully composed sign establishes your commitment to hospitality and reinforces your congregation’s sense of identity and pride of place.  And, of course, don’t forget the power of promotional banners and temporary signage to get people excited about events and programs.

Let us know about your own experiences with signage challenges and successes.  Share what you know so that others may grow.  (Sounds like a good excuse for a sign, right?)