The Business of the Sign: How far would Calvary Church go to sell the gospel?

There was, finally, the business of the Calvary Church sign. Pastor Jack had placed the item at the end of the consistory agenda, not only because it wasn't top priority, but also because replacing the sign would prompt a ton of jokes, all of them aimed at him.

The villain was the old Chrysler he'd inherited from his father-in-law when, at ninety-six, the old man had finally flunked a driver's test. It was a New Yorker, huge, and therefore something of an anathema to Pastor Jack, a Walden Pond-erer since the original Earth Day. But the car was free, after all, and worth a lot more to drive than to sell.

The business of the sign was the New Yorker's fault. One day he left the church parking lot more quickly than he should have, and the accelerator stuck to the floor. So Pastor Jack, with the pedal to the metal, had a choice—take on the heavy traffic on 44th Street or the thirty-year-old sign on the church lawn. So he aimed the New Yorker at the thick posts on the church lawn and rammed the thing royally.

Hundreds of people passed the site every minute; that some parishioners would see it was inevitable. Long before the police arrived, Franny Selig, a reporter at the Gazette, came by with a full camera and created an 8"xl0" glossy that featured the preacher and appeared everywhere in church the next Sunday after adorning the back page of the first section of the paper, where it was posted along with a little bawling boy with his finger stuck in a Coke bottle and a robin's nest set conveniently in a traffic light—in other words, with other local jokes.

So he didn't want to bring it up at consistory, but something had to be done. "Now finally," he said, "there is the business of the sign."

Deadly quiet. All around the table, lips pressed firmly shut against the laughter.

"The real question," Ben Warren said, "is can we get the pastor to promise not to drive?"

That comment met with uproarious approval, of course.

"How much are you willing to pay?" Frank Visser said.

More laughter.

"I'm serious," Pastor Jack said. "The truth is, nobody's more sorry than I am for the grief I've taken, but I must admit I rather like the fact that we've now got to face the facts. How are we going to advertise our work here?"

"How about this?" Ben Warren said. "Since this thing has made you such a celebrity, we'll do something like the huge Duke Spacy Dodge thing just up the road—something big and tall along 44th—a cartoon drawing of our pastor in a cowboy hat and a lasso, rounding up the unchurched at Calvary."

Millie Bergson shook her head disapprovingly.

"Maybe something with a little more class—like Saigon Gardens, you know?" Mark Hasperse said. "You ever see their sign just up the street here? Lots of white space with an emerald border and a single tree—and a very chic kind of print."

"Too high church," Bud Bierma said. "All we'll get is the tea-and-pinkie crowd."

"Let's just do a neon thing like the multiplex down the road, something with running lights like a movie palace." Barry Testeverde used a finger to paint a pattern of lights zipping up and down. "That's where the kids are, you know—at the movies. Maybe we'll fake them into coming to church."

"You'd only see it at night," Millie Bergson said.

"I got it," Bud Bierma said, "how about a billboard? The only way to get anybody's attention on 44th Street is out-big 'em." He drew his hands wide apart. "'Calvary Church—a real experience'—big, black background and red letters—"

"Why red?" Millie said.

"Who cares? We're trying to get people's attention, right?"

At least the humor was dissipating, Pastor Jack thought. Down the row, Henk Lubbers was smoothing back his silver mustache, gazing down at the table in front of him. "Henk?" Pastor Jack said. "What do you think?"

"I'm retired—"

"That's no excuse," Bud said, and everybody chuckled.

"I was going to say, I'm retired and I can make for this church a steeple—a nice steeple like an old church." He stretched his hands and looked up at the others, a smile forming. "Time, I got lots of. It would be a gift, of course—a steeple, like the old days. You remember, don'cha? Was a time when a steeple was the way we identified a church—reaching for God."

"I like it," Millie said.

Bierma let out an audible breath.

"You don't like it, Bud?" Pastor Jack said.

"What's not to like?" he said. "I mean, Henk'll do a job—I know he will. It's a great offer—it really is. I'm sure it would look good. But do we want to look like something out of The Waltons? Why don't we just haul in an old windmill and a hay wagon. Is that the image we want to create?"

"Image," Millie uttered, disgusted.

"Well, it's something we've got to consider," Pastor Jack said. "What is our image?"

"What are we, anyway, a business?" she said. "Do we have to hire some consultant to do this for us, to come up with something that will sell? Do we sell the gospel here—is that our business?"

Dead silence.

"It's just like worship, really, isn't it?" she said. "How much do you have to look like every other business in the world in order to market Jesus Christ?"

Henk nodded almost audibly.

Millie rapped her knuckles on the tabletop. "It's just like worship planning. That's what it is all over again. What kind of music should we have? Can we have plays in the front of church? What about a dance? And now we're saying, 'Why don't we advertise ourselves like a movie theater?'"

"I guess we know where you stand, Millie," Bierma said.

"And me," Henk said, sharpening the point of his beard.

"Isn't there a point at which we draw the line?" Millie said. "Isn't there a point at which we start to look so much like the world that nobody knows the difference?"

Bud Bierma looked at the preacher. Pastor Jack knew very well that Bud expected him to come down on his side. "What do you say, Reverend?" Bud said, using "reverend" for the first time in years.

"Well, we are selling the gospel," he admitted, "aren't we?"

"I hate that word," Henk said. "Is this a business, really?"

"'I will become all things to all people,'" Pastor Jack said, quoting Paul, of course.

"And what does that mean?" Frank said. "I happen to know that KCAN made a mint on the Tough Guy Fights last week at the Civic Center. We going to sponsor fights next week and pass out tracts? 'Hulk Hogan takes on the Prince of Darkness.'" He laughed at the idea himself. "I guarantee you we'll draw a crowd. I guarantee you!"

"Not once in all the gospels did our Lord get more angry than when his house was turned into a market," Henk said.

"For pity's sake," Bud said, "we're not talking about Sodom and Gomorrah here. We're talking about a plain old church sign. Good night, just as soon move Pike's Peak to Oklahoma as get anybody to change anything around here—"

"All right, all right," Pastor Jack said. "We got choices, right? And we've got some parameters too: we need to get noticed—that's a given." He looked around the table. "We can all agree on that, right?

We can't just hide back here off 44th—we're the church of Almighty God. We've got to have a sign."

"We've got to attract the unchurched," Bud said. "That's our job. We already know who we are—that's not the problem. The problem is to get the unchurched to know who we are—"

"Do we know who we are?" Henk said.

"But Millie's right, isn't she?—there's some things we won't do, right?" Frank said. "We can agree on that much, can't we?" He looked around. "There's some things we wouldn't do ... Pastor Jack?"

Pastor Jack nodded his head, albeit reluctantly.

"Well, we're not a buffet, right?—and we're not a supermarket—"

"We serve up bread and wine," Bud said.

"Okay, we're not that adult bookstore a block down—we can agree on that, can't we?"

No one demurred.

"What the preacher is saying is, we've got some parameters. We can't hide, but we can't just be the world either. We're not exactly Circuit City here, even if we've got music that won't quit."

"We could light 'em up with music, too, you know?" Bud said. "If some people would just listen to reason and dump that organ all together—"

"That's another issue." Pastor Jack didn't feel like getting into that old hot one, not this late in the meeting. "We're not going into that right now because all we're talking about is a sign. That's another issue all together."

"Is it?" Millie said. "Is it really? You think it's not one and the same?"

"We're just talking about a sign here," Pastor Jack said. He looked around and felt the old antagonisms reemerging from what had otherwise been a pretty good meeting. "Can we just settle on something?" he said. "This isn't an issue that's worth a big fight."

Bud Bierma worked the edge of the table with his fingernails. Millie Bergson stared straight down at the photos of the missionaries beneath the glass of the table. Frank Visser just shook his head.

And then Henk said simply, "In the world, but not of it."

"That's it," Frank repeated.

Bud shook his head. "In, but not of," he said, grumbling.

"Yes," Millie said proudly, "in, but not of."

And that's where conversation stopped. There was nothing left to say. They all realized that what they'd come to by way of the discussion of nothing more than the business of a new church sign was something singularly profound and worthy of much, much more discussion.

"We'll take it up there next month," Pastor Jack said, looking at his watch and realizing he'd run up against something even tougher than the old sign in the front lawn of Calvary.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.