Head-turning church marquee witticisms inspire books, Web sites

Posted: Friday, July 09, 2004

DORMONT, Pa. ''The best vitamin for a Christian is B-1.'' ''God answers knee-mail.'' ''Don't let worries kill you, let the church help.''

Motorists glance at them for just a moment, but ministers see church marquee messages as a great chance to attract people with a groaner of a pun or a thought-provoking phrase. Coming up with pithy messages has even sparked a cottage industry of sorts, inspiring a half-dozen books and lots of e-mail traffic.

Jack Frank, a member of the Dormont United Methodist Church in suburban Pittsburgh, has been posting messages since his church bought a changeable sign to replace a bronze and copper one that had been stolen. A recent message: ''When down in the mouth, remember Jonah. He came out all right.''

Frank, who gets ideas from friends and through e-mails, tries to change the sign every couple of weeks. A woman who doesn't belong to the church sent him a letter thanking him for the messages.

''My favorite is, 'The sign guy's on vacation. Come inside for the message.' I've used that a few times.''

L. James Harvey of Grand Rapids, Mich., has had two books published on the signs and sees them as a way to reach out to potential congregants. ''I like to have churches envision that they have drive-by congregations,'' he said.

He decided the messages were worth a book when the church he was attending in Maryland got a new sign about six years ago. Finding no ready source of material, he began compiling his own list, culled from other church signs and the Bible.

''The sign became very successful in that it brought people into the church who had never been there,'' he said.

While one goal is filling pews, Randy Friedman, pastor of the North Chester Baptist Church in Chester, said that ''we tried to put some sayings up there that will cause a person to think and ask some questions.''

Mary Katherine Compton, a Goldsboro, N.C., native living in County Cork, Ireland, has written two books with her husband, David Compton. She's noticed an increasing number of signs during her visits to America.

Last year, the J.M. Stewart Corp., a maker of church signs from Sarasota, Fla., had its best year ever and expects sales to be up again in 2004, said Tim Self, the marketing manager. A basic 4-by-8-foot church sign averages $4,000 to $5,000, but electronic signs, which are growing in popularity, are much more expensive. They start around $20,000 and can cost four times that, Self said.

Ryland Sanders, a Web developer from Austin, Texas, created the ''Church Sign Generator'' site and posts contributions from readers. They include, ''Staying in bed shouting 'Oh, God!' does not constitute going to church.''

''I think they're meant to amuse and maybe to attract and maybe to a certain extent to reassure people,'' Sanders said.

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