The Semantics of Signage

Sometimes, semantics lead us into problems.

I recently talked about the degradation of language here, but, at the risk of becoming repetitive in my ranting, I passed another sign Sunday morning that really irritated me. This time it wasn’t text message language used in advertising, it was formal English. It wasn’t at a business, either, it was at a church. The sign simply proclaimed: “The victim of Good Friday is the victor of Easter.”

Victim? Victim??

Before we even discuss the concept of marketing and applying it to a community of faith, let us stop and think about this. Since when did Christ become a victim? As I recall the Scriptures, He specifically stated that no one took His life from Him, but that He willingly laid it down. He made the choice when He decided the Father’s will be done over His. Being a victim involves the absence of choice. Should you or I, God forbid, be victimized by a crime, we had no choice. We were walking down the street, for example, and the mugger stepped out of the shadows. We didn’t choose for that to happen, but it happened to us. We were, in this hypothetical situation, victims. Yet, if I pass someone on the street that is asking for money, and I give him that money, I’ve made a choice. I have no right to complain about not having the money later. I’m not a victim.

I’m sure the signage in question was meant well and with none but the purest motives, but their clever alliteration proves truly damaging upon closer inspection. Are we taking the victim mentality of which we’ve become so fond in America, with which we shun responsibility for our actions, and projected that onto Christ? Are we claiming Jesus was a product of His environment? Worse, are we claiming that He got pushed into something He didn’t know was coming? If He was murdered, then how in the world does that benefit us? What use was it? To say He was a victim is theologically very dangerous, because it robs Him of His deity, and thus robs the action of its power.

What disturbs me even more is what I perceive to be the issue behind this problem. Any writer or advertiser, when pushed up against a deadline, can come up with some low-quality copy in order to get the project in on time. I’m sure that’s what likely happened here, but let’s look at the bigger issue…you know, besides misrepresenting Christ to everyone driving by. The issue is: why do we feel the need to market our communities of faith? Why do we feel as though we have to place clever slogans on signs by the roadside to “bring people in?” Or worse, place gaudy digital light shows in front of the buildings that give the weather and announcements in addition to “clever slogans,” as well as make you think you’re approaching an emergency vehicle when you get within a block of the church building? Since when did we become convinced that Christ needs marketing? Doesn’t Scripture say that He draws people to Himself? I don’t recall reading anything about target demographics in the Canon.

I think we’ve derived this from our horrible Western tenacity that leads us to adopt the view that we are “building a church,” in the same way that one would “grow a business.” Suddenly, it is about raising attendance on Sunday mornings, about quantity over quality. And so we advertise. And so we market. And so we inadvertently damage so much, so many, in our pressure to make the deadline for the next sign, or the next set of bulletins, or the next set of graphics.

I hope that, at some point, we’ll realize that what we think is clever alliteration isn’t perceived by skeptics as clever at all, but is in fact perceived as stupid. I shutter to think how He perceives it. We’ve become enslaved to our Western business model as a manner in which to “do church.” I think we’re so entrenched in it, so shallow in what Packer referred to as our “thousand-mile-wide and inch-deep” faith, that we truly have become victimized by our own pressure for success.

Don’t blame us, though. We’re just products of our environment.

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