On family road trips, I do the driving. And when I’m driving across the Texas prairie, I tend to notice the billboards. This is partly because there’s not much else to look at, but it’s mostly because billboards are terrible—they’re usually a sad combination of poor strategy, poor design and poor copy. As we roll down the interstate, I find my eye hopping from one ill-conceived rectangle to the next.
The modern American church’s affinity for billboards has been well documented here at Church Marketing Sucks and elsewhere because, let’s face it, we’ve produced our share of terrible signage. Last Christmas I encountered a billboard that underscores much of what is lacking in the way we attempt to communicate with the world around us. White letters against a black background offered these words:
Read the Bible
Follow Jesus Christ
Visible? Yes. Well-intentioned? I’m sure. Theologically unoffensive? Certainly. But that’s where the positives end.
Compelling? No. Substantive? No. Personal (or presented within the context of a relationship)? No. Story? No. Opportunity to dialog? No.
I think we like to use billboards (and other means of proselytization-on-the-go) for a few reasons:
- Billboards have a cost that allow us to quantify our commitment to evangelism.
- The cost, though tangible, isn’t prohibitive.
- Composing six words of copy is easy.
- Billboards allow us to consider our job done (the message has been delivered), and they put the onus on the heathen driver to respond.
- Billboards aren’t digital or social, so we don’t have to be afraid of losing control of them.
A drive-by approach to communication may seem more apropos than ever in an ADD-riddled world, but the opposite is true. Relationship and context are as vital to meaningful communication as ever, and billboards abhor relationship and context.
I’ve singled out billboards, but consider the billboard’s closest relatives: church signs, bumper stickers and statement T-shirts. Those are some of contemporary Christianity’s favorite means of expression, right? We see them as the perfect little platforms for hit-and-run declarations of eternal significance. These media dictate a compressed message, an abridged gospel, and post it in the peripheral vision of vehicles and lives barreling down the highway. At best, this approach is inert. At worst, it’s counterproductive to our calling: to be witnesses in our neighborhoods and to the ends of the earth.
I’m convinced this calling requires more from us than what will fit on a billboard. If we’re to truly be witnesses, we’ve got stories to tell. If God created the world, if he sent his son to rescue us from sin, if we’ve been redeemed, if the Spirit indwells us and binds us together, then we have plenty of material from which to draw. Even better, we have a compelling story into which we can invite our neighbors—the story of God, who makes all things new.
Billboards have their place in this world. If you need to find an attorney for your speeding ticket, or if you’re wondering how far it is to the next McDonald’s, billboards provide an invaluable service. But if we’re to announce the kingdom of God, we can’t settle for a drive-by. Not when there’s an amazing story unfolding all around us.
Want to learn more about story? Check out Scott McClellan’s new book Tell Me a Story: