Church signs are awful.

I don’t mean the one out front here; that’s very nice.  You know the ones I mean.  The ones with the movable letters.  If you don’t happen to live near a church with one of those signs, there are plenty of examples online to browse.

About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church
August 25, 2013
1 Kings 3:16-28; Luke 16:1-9

Now, for those of you who think I’m being harsh in my appraisal, let me read you some examples of church sign wisdom.

First there’s the corny: “Having Truth Decay? Brush up on your Bible.” “The economy is down but Jesus is still on the rise.” “Sign Broke; Message Inside” “Best vitamin for a Christian is B1”

Then there’s the bad theology: “Read the Bible; it will scare the hell out of you” “If you think it’s hot now…” “I’m also making a list and checking it twice – God.” “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has.”


And the shameful attempts to be hip: “Friend request from Jesus: Confirm/Ignore?” “God always answers ‘knee’ mail” “Check out God’s MySpace: The Bible”

Or the shameful attempts to be hip mixed with bad theology: “I kissed a girl and I liked it; then I went to hell.”

I’ve seen a lot of these kinds of signs traveling the country and they have helped me to understand very clearly why the church is in decline.

Whenever I see such a sign, I think to myself, has any of these signs resulted in a single convert.  Has a single person ever looked at one of those signs, especially the ones that threaten hell or the ones that shame you (“Christmas comes once a year, how often do you?”) and ever thought to themselves ‘Now that’s something I want to be a part of’?

And lest you think I’m giving a sermon on church signs, I think that these signs are symptomatic of a deeper crisis in the church of how we share our message. Of how we represent ourselves to the outside world.  Because these signs fail in two main ways that represent the two main ways that the church itself is failing.

The first of those is that they are inartful.


In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells a fascinating story of a manager who was about to be fired by his master.  Realizing that he was suited neither for manual labor or for a life of begging, he uses his last day on the job to give discounts on the debts owed by his boss’ debtors, creating grateful business contacts in the community.  When his master finds out what he’s done, he praises him (whom Jesus identifies as a “dishonest manager”) for his ingenuity.

It’s a curious story.  I mean, we’re used to wisdom and intellect being praised.  The very famous story of Solomon arbitrating the claims of two women over a child is an exemplar of pious and faithful wisdom.  And Christians will often aspire to this kind of Solomonic wisdom.

But Jesus seems to be talking about something else; not quite wisdom, but worldly craftiness. In fact, Jesus goes on to say: “People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light.”

When I read those words of Jesus and think about the ways that the church attempts to reach out beyond itself, I cannot help but think that those words are meant for us.

The church does so many things inartfully.  We want young people and we know young people like the rock-n-roll. So we’ll get ourselves a praise band.  We know that young people like the Facebook. So we’ll get ourselves a Facebook page.  But we won’t necessarily know what to do with it.  Given that the majority of my colleagues in the church don’t seem to understand the difference between “reply” and “reply all” on an email, perhaps this is not surprising.

One of the church signs I came across had a picture of Jesus with his arms outstretched saying “Whaassuup”.  There’s nothing like a dated beer commercial reference to drive the numbers up.  So much of what the church is doing fills you with the same cringing sensation that you have when you’re a teenager and your parents try to use the current slang—and fail.  Please. Just. Stop.

None of this is the shrewdness that Jesus is calling us to.  None of this is the artfulness that we need in reaching out to those beyond the church.


Of course, the bigger problem with the way we do church isn’t so much that it’s inartful, it’s that it’s inward.  That is, the reason that the church gets a lot of mileage out of corny signs and clumsy appeals to pop culture is that those things seem to appeal to people who are already involved in church.  The problem isn’t that we have a bad or corny sense of humor.  Half of the jokes every dad in the world makes are similarly corny and we appreciate that corniness on a level of deep affection.  The problem is that we don’t realize just how insider oriented these appeals are.

When I was a law student, I remember standing around at one law school gathering with a bunch of folks and everyone was making really bad law student jokes.  The kind of jokes that only a law student would find funny.  And even at one point, one of the guys said, “Ah yeah—law school humor.” And we all laughed because we knew it was ridiculous.  And that kind of humor is fine in those contexts.  David Hosey and I make all kinds of obscure theological reference jokes with each other.  And we’re convinced we’re hilarious.  But we know that no one else without having studied theology would ever think so.

No the problem is not the humor. It’s that there is no attempt being made to consider whether the people we are hoping to draw in with such tactics will respond to them.  We use insider language, insider ideas, insider thinking when trying to reach out to outsiders. Often without any realization—as my law school classmates had—that no one on the outside would find this appealing. Consider the following:

  • When was the last time you heard anyone outside the church or outside of a church context use the word “fellowship”?  Oh, perhaps in an academic context, when someone has just been awarded a fellowship that usually comes with some kind of cash prize.  But beyond that, I can tell you the only time you’ll hear that word outside of church: when someone is talking about The Fellowship of the Ring from The Lord of the Rings.  Do we ever consider that when telling people that we have “fellowship” after services? Or invite people to the “fellowship hall”? We speak in jargon so much that we have no idea that it is jargon.  And then we wonder why people are not quickly drawn to what we do.
  • Or this: In teaching a summer course in New Testament, I asked my students why study of the New Testament was important. One of them quoted 1 Timothy about the scriptures being the inspired word of God. I asked my students if there was any problem with that statement as far as they could tell. It did not occur to any of them that Christians making appeals to their scriptures in conversations with outsiders only works with people who already accept the authority of the scriptures.  If I don’t believe in the Christian faith, you telling me that the Bible is inspired because, well, the Bible says so, is utterly unconvincing. Christians would be unimpressed if someone tried to persuade them to a course of action using the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, and yet we act like the truth and the authority of our scriptures are self-evident.  And it is. To us on the inside. But there’s no reason that someone on the outside should find that convincing.
  • Or this: Christians will often refer to those who are not inside the church as “seekers”—as if we have what they’re seeking and all we have to do is let them know it’s here.  And so a lot of those church signs seem to address this perceived need of the outsider: “Life without God is like an unsharpened pencil—no point.” “Stop Drop and Roll Doesn’t Work in Hell”. “Wal-Mart is not the only saving place.” “Call 911: This church is on fire for God!” But we don’t stop to consider that there may be people out there who are not necessarily troubled by the notion of hell (or don’t believe in it).  Or who don’t necessarily think about questions of deliverance. Or who don’t necessarily long to be “on fire” for anything.  Christopher Hitchens, the noted and famous atheist writer, chafed at the idea that his religious friends could never accept the fact that he was not in fact looking for a religious experience.  He scoffed that he was, as his friends would describe him, a “seeker”.1Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great.
  • Or this: Nor do people necessarily find the promise of salvation appealing.  “Jesus saves!” we’re fond of telling people.  But from what?  Eternal hellfire and damnation?  But what if the person you’re talking to doesn’t feel that that’s a pressing concern? Do we first have to convince them of their need to sell them what we’ve got, the way toothpaste companies have convinced us that it’s shameful to have off-white teeth? What’s more, what if our talk about salvation itself sounds vaguely archaic and out of touch?


But there are people who need saving.  We’re often the ones who have it wrong about what they need saving from.

In his sermon, The Scripture Way of Salvation, John Wesley answered the question ‘what is salvation’ in this way:

The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness. It is not the soul’s going to paradise, termed by our Lord, “Abraham’s bosom.” It is not a blessing which lies on the other side death; or, as we usually speak, in the other world. The very words of the text itself put this beyond all question: “Ye are saved.” It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing; a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. Nay, the words may be rendered, and that with equal propriety, “Ye have been saved”: so that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul, till it is consummated in glory.

For us United Methodists, salvation is meant to be in the here and now.  It is not life after death.  It is life before death. The healing of the soul.  The restoration of the body.  And you know what? That salvation is something that people need.  But so rarely is it what we are offering.

Is it any wonder that our presence in the culture at large is slipping when people are looking for help in the here and now and all we can talk about is the hope that Jesus brings in the hereafter?

A.   50 Years Ago

Of course, it wasn’t always the case.  No.  Fifty years ago this week, the church was all about salvation in the here and now.  A Baptist preacher stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and made a speech for the cause of racial justice that echoes down to this very day.  That, was the church offering salvation, by witnessing for justice.

That kind of salvation is at the heart of our faith.  In Hebrew, the word for salvation means “rescue”, in Greek it means “healing”.  In the literal ways.  Actual rescue. Actual healing.  The hymn we just sang echoes this sentiment nicely: “Lord, your deep compassion healed the sick and freed the soul…” The church in the civil rights era was witnessing to both kinds: rescuing both the oppressor and the oppressed from the system of oppression.  Healing the wounds of the afflicted, healing the wounds of the nation.

I teach a course at American called “Religious Heritage of the West”.  The final paper in that course is for the students to write on any topic they like and explore how that topic was shaped by the Western religious tradition.  So many of them are shocked to discover the important role that the churches had in education, women’s sufferage, the abolition of slavery, the rights of workers, tenement reform, ending child labor, the labor movement, the civil rights movement.  When reminded of Dr. King, students will often make the connection, but to so many, it’s hard to believe that the churches were so… involved. So relevant.

B.    Talking to ourselves

Why shouldn’t they feel that way?  What have we accomplished lately that would disabuse anyone of that notion?  Most of the justice and social work is being done by secular organizations who are often doing it better than we are.  And the church has spent a lot of its energy on its own survival.  We have become inward looking.  Speaking our own language.  Thinking in familiar thought patterns.  Offering a vision that makes us happy with little regard for what it is the world actually needs.

V.   END

See, ultimately, there are Two Churches in the world today: one looking out and one looking in.  Oh, they both talk to people outside the Church, but one talks at them the other talks with them.  One seeks everyone to be like the people already in; the other seeks to meet those are without.

One church uses time worn but often ineffective messages—occasionally dressed up in contemporary packaging—that reach increasingly fewer and fewer people.  The other church listens to the people, clearing out the clutter of their own words to understand the needs and longings of the people they would serve.

One church imagines that it is wiser than those to whom they reach out, considering themselves to have what the others are looking for whether they realize it or not.  The other recognizes that they need to learn from the shrewd of the world to engage with the world.

One church views faith as a ticket to a life after this life; and will help you to overcome your obstacles to accessing that life.  The other views faith as a framework for helping others in this life; the obstacles to be cleared away are injustice and oppression, alienation and marginalization.

One church continues to talk in esoteric, spiritual ways, focusing on the otherworldly nature of our faith. The other talks about material need and real-world pains, envisioning a salvation of rescue and healing in the here and now.

There are Two Churches in the world today. And the only question that remains before us is: which one shall we be?

The Texts

1 Kings 3:16–28 • Sometime later, two prostitutes came and stood before the king. One of them said, “Please, Your Majesty, listen: This woman and I have been living in the same house. I gave birth while she was there. This woman gave birth three days after I did. We stayed together. Apart from the two of us, there was no one else in the house. This woman’s son died one night when she rolled over him. She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I was asleep. She laid him on her chest and laid her dead son on mine. When I got up in the morning to nurse my son, he was dead! But when I looked more closely in the daylight, it turned out that it wasn’t my son—not the baby I had birthed.”

The other woman said, “No! My son is alive! Your son is the dead one.”

But the first woman objected, “No! Your son is dead! My son is alive!” In this way they argued back and forth in front of the king.

The king said, “This one says, ‘My son is alive and your son is dead.’ The other one says, ‘No! Your son is dead and my son is alive.’ Get me a sword!” They brought a sword to the king. Then the king said, “Cut the living child in two! Give half to one woman and half to the other woman.”

Then the woman whose son was still alive said to the king, “Please, Your Majesty, give her the living child; please don’t kill him,” for she had great love for her son.

But the other woman said, “If I can’t have him, neither will you. Cut the child in half.”

Then the king answered, “Give the first woman the living newborn. Don’t kill him. She is his mother.”

All Israel heard about the judgment that the king made. Their respect for the king grew because they saw that God’s wisdom was in him so he could execute justice.

Luke 16:1–9 • Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’

“The household manager said to himself, What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.

“One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’ He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’

“The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.”

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