When I came to St. Timothy’s in 1993, we had a worn out wooden sign on Beechmont Avenue that advertised our name and service times. When we undertook a full-scale building campaign in 1997, changing the nature of our sign was hardly mentioned. We simply planned to replace the wooden sign with a new version of the old one. One person did mention building a more versatile sign, but the consensus was “that is not our style.” How Episcopalian!
Fast forward about a decade when we began to have serious conversations about the inadequacy of our communications. We had always felt very strongly that the people of St. Timothy’s – how we live – is the fundamental “sign” for this church. I still believe that is the most effective sign for any church. But what also became clear was that we were missing an extraordinary opportunity to share the identity of this church by not having a more visible presence on Beechmont Avenue. Finally, after endless conversations and a fundraising effort delayed by the recession (digital signs are not cheap), we unveiled a new digital sign in 2016.
All I can say now is, “Why did it take us so long?” It would be hard for me to overstate the extent to which this sign lets the broader community know who we are. Seemingly overnight, almost every Sunday morning visitor mentioned the message on the sign as having an impact on why they decided to check us out.
[su_pullquote align=”right”]What a difference a digital sign, a little tree removal and better lighting makes[/su_pullquote]
We made a decision early on that the sign would express who we are and what we believe rather than advertise events. For the first several months, the main message was “God loves you. No exceptions.” Not only did newcomers mention the message, but one woman who goes to a neighboring church left a voicemail sharing how moved she was every time she drove by and read those words.
In light of the increase in hate crimes and political rhetoric disparaging vulnerable populations, in early 2017 we then added the message “Love your neighbors. No exceptions,” accompanied by photographs of a Muslim woman, refugees, and African-Americans. Once again, almost every newcomer mentioned the sign, and once again we became aware that our neighbors were taking notice. Another person left a voicemail that said, “I just wanted to compliment you on your sign … Keep up the good work.”
I also heard about the sign from a Muslim man whom I met at a fundraiser. When he found out that I was the rector of St. Timothy’s, he said with a big smile, “Is that the church with the sign?” He then said that he had taken a photograph of the sign to show the people at his mosque. Needless to say, I was deeply moved.
I have lived in Anderson Township for 24 years. For most of those years, when I told people I was the rector of St. Timothy’s, they would ask, “Where is that?” When I told them where we were, they would then say, “Oh, you mean the strange looking building below street level, surrounded by trees.” What a difference a digital sign, a little tree removal and better lighting makes.
Let me be clear about a couple of things: First, I don’t assume everybody likes our message, but it is clear that everybody notices. Not even all our own members like the message, but they all notice. Since the time of Jesus and the early church, the Good News that all are loved and included – no exceptions – has always met resistance. Some of our members have worried that the sign would be vandalized. To be honest, that has crossed my mind as well.
Secondly, I am also not advocating that a good sign is the key to a vibrant ministry; it is just the beginning of a connection. It is the beginning of a connection that leads people to our website. The website then leads to learning more about St. Timothy’s, The Episcopal Church, and the various ways we serve the neighborhood. The website raises questions, which lead to emails full of questions. After all that, this series of connections might lead to a conversation with a member of the staff and even showing up for Sunday worship.
We will obviously meet those who eventually make their way into this community, but I often wonder about the thousands of people driving by every day. I wonder how many of them are now entertaining the possibility that God really does love everyone – no exceptions! I also wonder how many are trying to love all their neighbors and strive to build a neighborhood in which everyone is included – no exceptions! I’ll never know the answer to that question, but I’ll bet some seeds have been planted that will grow one day.
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The Rev. Roger Greene serves as rector of St. Timothy’s, Anderson Twp. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.