Church signs and signifiers

I’m sure you’ve seen signs like these:

God Bless America
America Bless God

(on a church marquis)

Pray for America
(at a tire store)

USA – Pray
(in a private citizen’s front yard)

Each sign presents something, doesn’t it?  Each one speaks.  They all express, on some level and with somewhat different prayer emphases, a connection of nationalism and faith in God.

Image result for flag on wallFlags divulge things, too—in a wordless, perhaps even more revealing way.  Having been raised in a relatively neutral congregational atmosphere in terms of nationalism and politics, it still catches me off guard to see American flags in and around church buildings.  Individual Christians may hold opinions about a nation, and they might opt to express national pride in some way, but it is out of place for a church group to display a national flag in its meeting place.

That said, I would not make the private display of a national emblem (in or around a believer’s residence) a test of Christian relationship.  Each person might feel, or not feel, the kind of patriotism that shows itself with flags and “God bless America” signs, so a private home might have one or more of these things on display.  I tend to conceive of church facilities not as institutional property, but as the domain of a collective of individuals.¹  I suppose the case could be made that a group of individuals could decide it wants to display a flag in its gathering place.  In other words, since individuals compose a church, those individuals could collectively determine they want a flag in their “sanctuary.”  In one analysis, there is room for a range of opinion, including that one, but I would put forward that the negative opinion—that the flag has no place in a church hall—is a valid one.  And in this case, the negative opinion should carry the weight.  Please read on.

A national flag is almost a prerequisite in public rooms.  I don’t know if Japanese or British or Chilean flags are found in school auditoriums and social club meeting rooms in those countries, but I suspect they are.  In this country, flags might not be found in all large conference rooms, but they are probably in the wings, just in case a group wants to recite the pledge of allegiance.  I’d say these flags can connote security, community, and collective identity in the eyes of the majority.  Are church halls just like other large meeting rooms, though?  Should there be national symbols in a Christian hall?

It’s been my experience that national flags are seen more often in some parts of the country than others.  But displaying a nation’s banner in a Image resultChristian gathering place in any state is problematic for multiple reasons.  First, it tends to obscure the church’s identity, covering it or replacing it with a lesser one.  What are we rallying around?  For some, it is the charismatic personality of the leader; for others, perhaps denominational dogma or legacy.  Of course, in the ideal, God is central.  But if a national flag is in sight, the raison d’etre of a church is at least symbolically watered down.  The nature of the group’s esprit de corps is compromised.  The problem, in a word, is kingdom.  Who or what ultimately has dominion?  Who is considered sovereign?  Surely no mainstream Christian church would explicitly say, “Democracy is first in our hearts, and Jesus is second.”  (Then they would have to remove all “Jesus is Lord” expressions from printed matter and prayers and slogans!)  But when the U.S. flag is displayed alongside a Christian flag—or in any place where praises are sung to God and apostolic scriptures are read and the Christ is preached—U.S. sovereignty is getting too high a billing.  Beyond the deeper symbolism, and beyond any kingdom or lordship analyses, I would add that any display of national emblems should be avoided because it could compromise the unity of the body of Christ.

For more on this topic, consider this thoughtful-yet-compromising Lutheran article.  It also refers to a Christianity Today piece that I found more incisive, and even prophetic.

Leaving the flags waving in the breeze for now . . . churches sometimes signify their interests and loyalties in other ways.  One church collectively performs three successive pledges of allegiance—first, to the country and its red white and blue; second, to Jesus; and third, to the Bible.  As sincere as these expressions might be, the triptych is misbegotten (not to mention mis-sequenced).  See another posting here for a bit more on that and other “triple whammies.”  In the same church, the weekly bulletin template provides for two items to be placed permanently on their prayer list.  The physical or spiritual needs may come and go on the template, but the font choice indicated that this church always prays for its military and its national leaders.  I suggest that the template, in and of itself, betrays an misplaced priority on the political nation.  On this point, please see this post about reasons to pray for a nation and or its leaders.

And then were was this:

As an erstwhile educator, allow me to grade that poem:

  • A for school spirit
  • A for the creative blending of athletic competition with Christianity
  • B for poetic rhyming
  • C- for punctuation
  • F for the misbegotten mix of athletic esprit de corps with Jesus

I do see evidence of great spirit at this school, so I’m sincere in the first two “grades.”  One end-of-line rhyme is suspect.  Someone had reduced access to the storehouse of commas and forgot about dashes and semicolons, but bad punctuation is common in song “lyrics.”  The main point is the final grade.

Who are we to think . . .

. . . that, because we call Jesus “Lord,” our sports teams will win and soar to new heights? 

. . . that His glory is our reward when we’re on the field or court? 

. . . that our courage (to steal the ball or strike someone out or hit ’em harder) is connected with his praise? 

. . . that when we fight, fight, fight as a team, we are figuratively raising His banner?

Please know that I actually like team sports, both practically and in principle, and I’ve played my share of team games in my day.  Our son has been on four sports teams already, and we anticipate more.  He’s an extrovert, so I don’t see him enjoying tennis or cross-country.  No, it will be baseball or soccer or basketball that becomes his favorite—because of the team aspect.  I certainly acknowledge a place for sports and games in people’s lives, but the signs of poor theological/philosophical conception are abundantly present in that fight song.

It is not my intent to take any church or group to task by name.  As a result, I have edited the above image and the one below, which in my view also radiates serious issues:

The particular church building is historic and architecturally impressive, and the sign, a combination of stately and changeable.  This church makes a point of doing things for its community, which is obviously a good thing.  I have nothing to say, here, about the splitting of “worship style” preferences into two separate gatherings.  But notice that two “reverends” are said to be “senior ministers.”  Out of the gate, this terminology displays the terribly common lack of understanding of the idea of reverence.  And what is it to be “senior”?  If there are no other ministers, these two can’t both be senior by rank.  One of them is a good deal more senior than the other, by age, so there’s no equality there.  And neither of them has been there for very long, so the tenure can’t legitimately be termed “senior,” either.

The U.S. flags signify something, too, don’t they?  I’ve said plenty in this post, so I’ll leave it to readers to determine for themselves what messages might be communicated by posting national flags on a church sign.

– B. Casey, Fall 2017, Rev. 2/10/18

[Substantial revisions 2/16/18 – 2/19/18]


¹ This philosophy can get me in trouble.  A traditionally minded Christian with misguided loyalties once took me to task for using my key and using the church copier after I had moved away and returned to town for a visit.  I was, that person thought, “no longer a member” (of the club).  Never mind that I had done so much for that church for years that I should have been paid a part-time salary.  I also got in trouble for raising questions about the church sign there.  As someone said, a sign should “identify something as it is,” but a sign can also perpetuate sectarian concepts.  I still think it is more important to manifest ideals of, e.g., Jesus and Paul than to display the moniker of a denomination.

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2 thoughts on “Church signs and signifiers

  1. Anne Boyd, via my other blog where this post was cross-posted:
    In today’s political climate, is the U.S. flag in a church building a sign that the church is ultra conservative?
    There is much research online…I choose only these 2…there are others who say basically the same.

    Most Americans Say They’re Christian. According to Gallup poll — Percentage of Christians in U.S. Drifting Down, but Still High
    news.gallup.com/poll/187955/percentage-christians-drifting-down-high.aspx
    See — Dec 24, 2015 – PRINCETON, N.J. — On the eve of Christmas 2015, a review of over 174,000 interviews conducted in 2015 shows that three-quarters (75%) of American adults identify with a Christian religion, little changed from 2014, but down from 80% eight years ago.

    BUT…
    The State of the Church 2016 – Barna Group
    https://www.barna.com/research/state-church-2016/
    Sep 15, 2016 – …most Americans identify as Christian, but 31% who profess to be Christians only attend services once a month.

    Americanism = Christianity??? Christianity = Americanism??? Is that why too many “missionaries” have gone out into the world to establish American enclaves (where the American has the last say about what the Bible says???)

    I have seen too much of this in my mission years upon this earth.

    The research I am pointing to is only concerning % professing to be Christians, and % attending any sort of “Christian” worship service…I think that speaks loudly.
    ~~ Anne B. currently in the U.S., seeing with clear eyes

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  2. My reply:
    The idea that Americanism = Christianity sounds ludicrous, but the evidences of that underlying notion keep rearing their ugly heads.

    Since I know you have personal, long-term experience in at least two countries, plus deep knowledge of other missions in other parts of the world, your opinion carries weight. (Plus, I already agree with it!)

    I’m glad you clarified that Gallup and Barna are dealing with surface-level identification. Not that a great number of those who profess Christianity are not Christian, but I think it’s an important realization that not all those who claim Christianity are claiming the same thing. How many would be identified as committed disciples, for instance? Or even “Bible-believing”? These are different kinds of “conservative,” and it is so important to clarify that political conservatives in a U.S. church hall with a flag are not necessarily of Christ and certainly can’t be assumed to be intentional followers of Jesus.

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