It was just a billboard. We saw it as little more than a tool to help our congregation reach out to our community. But God had an even bigger plan.
At 8:30 Monday morning I received a call from an elder informing me that our billboard had been featured in the local newspaper’s blog. “Well, good,” I said, “that will be a good conversation starter for our people.”
I had no idea that by the end of the week people would be calling and e-mailing from all over the United States to talk about our billboard.
The billboard actually was an afterthought. October was to be the culmination of a monthlong process of mobilizing our small congregation to be salt and light in our community—a combination of showing the love of God by serving others, living godly lives, and sharing the gospel. The central theme was, “What a Bunch of Jerks!—Teachings of Jesus too Often Ignored by the Church.”
We chose this theme because we realized that in our Bible Belt community, non-Christians often have a negative view of church due, in part, to Christians who haven’t acted very Christlike. We weren’t ignoring the fact that some people simply find Jesus Christ offensive, but we wanted to acknowledge that if people think of us as jerks, it should always be for the right reasons (i.e., our godly beliefs and message). We want people to accept or reject Jesus Christ based on who HE is, and not based on our personal shortcomings. We realize some people simply never give Jesus Christ a chance because they are distracted by our mistakes. We wanted to try to change that by recommitting to conforming our lives to Christ’s teachings, while inviting those in our circles of influence to join us in our efforts to make a difference.
We started brainstorming about how to promote this theme and sermon series. Any advertisement we chose would need to help our members engage friends, neighbors, and strangers in conversations about our church, and more importantly, Jesus Christ. A billboard seemed ideal. Originally, we considered placing the entire theme title, along with the dates of the sermon series, on the billboard. But we quickly realized too many words on a billboard would make it difficult to read. So we decided to shorten it to “What a Bunch of Jerks!” along with our church name, Web address, and physical address.
We debated whether the phrase was too scandalous for a church billboard, but decided an attention-grabbing sentence, cross-promoted with an explanation on our Web site, would fulfill our purposes and be a conversation starter for our congregation.
The day after the billboard went up, our local paper blogged about it, and a newspaper from nearby Houston picked up the story and also blogged about it. Soon, yet another Houston paper called to find out more about our billboard and the series, and before we knew it, our billboard was a hot topic in the blogosphere.
The story then was featured on Fox News Web sites across the country, and by Friday afternoon, the story was in rotation on CNN’s Headline News. That led to additional local coverage, with our billboard being the lead story on a local evening news television broadcast.
As lead minister of this small Texas church, I obviously was excited. Our congregation certainly had been afforded a wonderful opportunity to engage in the type of conversation we had been seeking. But another conversation also was taking place that offered wonderful insight into the hearts and minds of those whom God has called us to love, serve, and ultimately “snatch from the fire.”
After the story was on Headline News, phone calls and e-mails started rolling in from all over the country. Some people loved the billboard, some hated it, and some just didn’t get it. The differing opinions were not surprising.
What was surprising, however, is that the strongest, most supportive calls and e-mails came from non-Christians. These folks went out of their way to tell us how much they appreciated our message. Many of them had been part of a church at one time, and many of them said they believed in God. But most said they had given up on the church, or given up their faith, or both.
Most of them shared stories of hurt inflicted by someone in their life who attended church and/or confessed Christ. There were stories about Christian family members who hadn’t spoken to their sister for five years because she and her husband went “outside of God’s will” to have children using fertility treatments; a church that said a woman lost her child because of her sin; and about Christians who ended relationships because their friends were “just too sinful.”
All across the blogosphere, people were chiming in as well. Some were saying, “Christians are jerks? That’s nothing new!”
But others said, “What a breath of fresh air.”
And a common opening line to positive comments was, “I’m not a Christian, but . . .”
We’ve learned a valuable lesson here in Beaumont, Texas. The responses to a silly little billboard have opened our eyes. We’ve learned that people appreciate it when we say, “I’m sorry.” We’ve learned that, though at times we’ve failed to reflect the God we serve, people are willing to give us a second chance. We’ve learned people really want to believe that faith in Jesus Christ can transform lives, and that they are looking for evidence of that in the church.
And we’ve learned that if we are going to be effective in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ, we need to stop acting like jerks, and start acting more like Jesus.
Chris Beard serves as lead minister with Christ Covenant Church in Beaumont, Texas. Christ Covenant was a church plant by Parkside Christian Church (an independent congregation) and Cornerstone Church of Christ (an a cappella congregation) in 2004.