What can a small congregation do when all around us the news is negative and the image of Christians continues to degrade? We can grab our picket signs and hit the streets.
I’m the moderator (council chair) of Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ in St. Joseph, Michigan. A small group of us were gathered to discuss church business a few months back, when the topic of conversation strayed to a certain Kansas preacher and his flock. They’re well known for demonstrating at military funerals in ways that (I think) reflect rather poorly on followers of a doctrine of peace and love.
A sudden thought dawned on me: What if Christians were seen presenting a positive message, instead of a negative one? What if we were perceived in our community as cheerleaders and supporters rather than angry critics?
And the idea of positive picketing was born. Instead of rallying around something we’re against, we rally around something in support of it.
Our church has done three such events so far, picketing a local chapter of the Red Cross, the fire department and a VA outpatient clinic. We meet ahead of time to make signs, we show up and let the “target” of our picketing know what’s going on, and we “demonstrate” on public property showing our support and love.
A few notes on our tactics and lessons learned:
1. Make it quick and easy.
Our approach is to keep it simple. We gather at our church beforehand to make signs. We carpool to the site, let the “target” know what we’re doing and “demonstrate” for an hour. That’s it.
2. None of our picket signs identify the church.
That’s intentional: We do not want any of the immediate attention to be directed to the church. We decided that to self-identify while picketing might be construed as marketing-for-gain rather than marketing-for-message. And this is a long-term project. We intend to keep doing this, once a month or so, and just let the consciousness build in the background.
3. Good locations and good causes.
Targets are chosen for various factors: Service to the community and location of site (drive-by traffic is a big plus) are the two main criteria. Our messages are simple: “Thank You!” “Good Job!” and we always make sure to have a “Honk if you love [target’s name]” sign. Cars honking offers a big boost to the participants and the target alike.
4. Don’t ask permission.
Our first event positive picketing event didn’t even happen because we made the mistake of asking for permission. After weeks of phone tag and negotiations we were turned down—the large local institution thought our efforts would be misinterpreted. Since then we decided that as long as we could do our work from public property we would no longer ask permission.
5. Keep learning and improving
For our third effort we showed up at the local volunteer fire department for our first evening attempt at positive picketing. We got a lot of attention from cars driving by, but we didn’t realize that the fire department would be empty at the time. So we’re still fine-tuning.
When we initially discussed different marketing ideas, I kept holding out for something demonstrative. In other words, don’t just tell people what we’re about, or that we’re different from most other churches, show them. That’s what makes positive picketing work.
It all crystallized for me when someone leaned out their car window and asked, “Why are you doing this?” I answered, “Because we can. And because it’s the right thing to do.”