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Why Is My Name On The Church Sign?

sign1Church signs can be fun. We’ve all got the email forwards with some doozies. Friend and colleague Mark Wolfe gave an excellent sermon I heard recently and he highlighted a few of them:

“A God of your understanding would be less than you”

“This is a Sign. Come to Church!”

“God desires spiritual fruits, not religious nuts”

“For God so loved the world… that he didn’t send a committee”

I recently used a quote from one of my brother’s songs: “Nails did not keep him on the cross, love did.” (Here’s the video from his first album.)

The picture to this blog has the words, “It’s not just about getting into heaven, but getting heaven into you,” inspired by language-artist Max Lucado.

When I started at Westminster I noticed my name on the sign. “Rev. Matthew Ruttan.” It was a very kind and welcoming gesture. The elders and congregation were so hospitable. I still remember walking into the church on that day to see people’s smiling faces. Even still.

Going through a time of figuring out what God wants for you, school, field placements, psychological testing, guidance conferences, conversations with loved ones and mentors, church approvals, prayer and more prayer… and then seeing your name on an official-looking sign with “Rev” as a title cements in you that the world of theory is in the past.

And most church signs have the minister/pastor’s name on them.

But why?

I would understand if your name was Bill Cosby, Madonna (no pun intended) or Bobby Orr. People would know them. But the general public doesn’t know who “Matthew Ruttan” is. Or any other seminary grad.

Here’s what I’m getting at:

The church, to use Calvin’s phrase, is a lacerated body. The lacerated body of Christ.  (See 1 Corinthians 12: 27 and elsewhere.) But too often the church is the body of pastor so-and-so. Maybe it’s not the pastor; maybe it’s a strong interest group within the church.

But the Head is Jesus. My prayer is that we’re not people running around suffering from decapitation.

The minister’s name on the church sign, in my view, might perpetuate an unhealthy priority on the person of pastor.

We all do it. It’s just what we do. It’s custom.

But maybe we need a re-think.

Churches need to be led, and ministers (in many denominations) have good training and a calling from God to do so in preaching and teaching (and other things, see Ephesians 4 and elsewhere) as they equip God’s people for Christian service and life.

But leader-ship isn’t Head-ship. There’s only room for one Head on God’s lacerated body and it ain’t mine.

So when we update the church sign, let’s think about taking my name off. It’s a reminder that the minister is a trained servant, yes—but one among many in a shared ministry that belongs to Jesus. Ministry together in a world of beautifully designed but twisted carnage.

We are all people nailed to a plot and Person, and that Person is on a cross not behind a pulpit.

In a perspective-shifting book called The End of Words, Lutheran Professor Richard Lischer writes that it’s “not better performances the church needs, but truer characters.”

May that be a good reminder for us all.

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16 Comments »

  1. It’s just more convenient when all signs point to you and you do all the work.LOL.
    I like the analogy as the pastor as coach of the team rather than attempting to play all the positions on the field.
    Lesley

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    • Hi Lesley, haha! Maybe if my name comes off I can dodge some bullets! lol. Yes, I like the coach analogy too. In Ephesians it talks about pastors and teachers equipping others for the work of ministry. There’s a good connection between coach and equipment-giver.

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  2. Again, thought-provoking stuff, Matthew. And I cannot but agree. I had forgotten Calvin’s comment about the church as Christ’s lacerated body, a great image and one that keeps us aware that we are a sinful people in need of redemption and be drawn into the wholeness of the risen Christ. We had a lighted church sign and my name was never on it although at the entrance of the church on a painted board my name did appear together with worship times as such. As to church signs, I drive past a church in Vancouver a few times every week and I am so tempted to phone the pastor and have a heart-to-heart because if the statements on the sign are meant to provoke thought or make folk eager to investigate what this Christianity thing is all about, those statements on that sign might be understood by the in-crowd but in semi-pagan Vancouver they would only raise puzzlement in the minds of the passers by. Most of them are actually quite off-putting, even for people like me!

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    • Hi Tony, thanks for your words. I like how you say, “we are a sinful people in need of redemption and be drawn into the wholeness of the risen Christ.” You have a way with words! And I would agree: A lot of church signs seem to just provoke guilt, anger or just an over-simplistic faith. I like the one my friend Mark Wolfe saw: “A God you fully understand is a god who is smaller than you.”

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  3. We don’t have our names (there are two of us clergy-types at Knox Oakville) on the new sign, and we like it that way. We also don’t list ahead of time, or post, who is preaching. Helps to deflect some of that attention. I like it.
    And I like your blog post…as always!
    Keep up the thought provoking stuff, Matthew! It’s top shelf!

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    • Thanks Jacqui, for your comments and encouragement! Seems like you guys are taking a wise approach. One of the things about being in the pulpit every week is that I can’t get out and experience others preach. Hopefully I can see you again soon.

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  4. I think the name on the sign speaks to an earlier time when the pastor was a highly respected part of the community; when I served in Norval, Ontario, the Manse was second only to the Doctor’s house in size. To have a name to go with your church meant something because the postion meant something more than it means today.
    Personally, I like seeing the name there because I know immediately if it’s someone I’m acquainted with, especially when I’m far from home. While I agree that the church isn’t about you or me, there is something to be said about having a real person associated with a congregation. Kind of like seeking “Acme Products” B. Bunny, Prop. Turns a national brand into a local shop.
    I’m not sure that it’s a necessary addition, but I think it has its place if it’s thought through prayerfully.

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    • Hi Ybicjag, thanks for the thoughts. I would agree with you about times gone by when the minister had a certain place in the community. I’m reminded of a line by Henri Nouwen that really, Christian discipleship is one of “down-ward mobility”! … And I also certainly see there is some value in a name being there; my thought was to have us think intentionally about it, to ensure that, along with other things, there isn’t a culture in the church emphasizing too “high” a role on the minister.

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  5. Thought provoking for sure. I am someplace in the middle – I definitely see your point in that the name seems to point to you as the “head”. Or perhaps as Lesley says, the one to do the work! But I also agree with ybicjag, that it personalizes the institution for others. I know as a frequent visitor to churches that I appreciate being able to go in and ask for Rev. so & so because it was on the board and then introduce myself to him/her that way. Wonder if it said Teaching Elder? or Congregational Leader instead. Like most things in life – there isn’t a perfect answer.

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    • Hi Kim, thanks for the thoughts. Yes, sometimes there’s no perfect answer! But I think in the church we continually need to remind ourselves of what we’re doing and who the “head” is. Jesus is the Head, of course. But this extends to other things. Do we go to “church,” or are we going to “worship”? Do we make “good decisions” or are we taking God’s lead?…

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  6. Matthew. Great thoughts. I also wonder about having the name “Presbyterian” so prominent on the sign. How many people today know what that means? I think it’s just tradition to design our signs a certain way and it is expected of us. I have never met anyone who came to a church because of the sign!

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    • Hi Neal, thanks for the thoughts. The denominational name-thing in church names (and therefore on signs) surely hearkens to a time when there was perhaps a greater sense of identity with certain ways of being the Christian community. Maybe that’s why more and more churches are leaving the denominational monikers out of their official names. To me this isn’t a “new” thing but actually a more traditional one emphasizing the larger catholicity (universality) of the body of Christ.

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  7. I always think of the minister in a congregation as the cook, with the congregation coming to worship to be fed and strengthened for the task of sharing the Good News, and living out that Good News in the world in which they live. A nutritious diet is necessary for healing as well, so in our broken-ness we find nourishment and healing within the fellowship of God’s people, sitting down together to be fed from God’s word. etc. The analogy can be further developed as we think of the role of the Holy Spirit in the “cooking” process. And like all analogies, I’m sure it falls apart at some point. But it’s always fun to put something in the pot! Thanks for the “meals” you provide in your blogs, Matthew.

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  8. Hi Matthew. I just got time to read your blog. My comment , trying to satisfy everyone, is why not put Ministry led by OUR LORD through Reverend Ruttan. Then people could still ask for you by name but realize you are not the head. Just a thought.

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    • Hi Corry, thanks for your words. I like the sentiment! I think that ideally it would be a ministry through us all, and that we all have distinct roles to play. I hope last week went well; I was thinking of you!

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