Many people living in New Zealand would have noticed church signs or billboards, often advertising events like the Alpha course, and sometimes displaying pithy one-liners or puns that suggest the reader of the sign is a sinner going to hell unless they go to a church service on Sunday.
This is another post in a series where I give some real-life true stories of what I call cringe communication from the church. Click here for the introduction to this series where I basically say I believe we can improve the communication of the church by eliminating cringe communication.
There is one Anglican church in Auckland known for its controversial pre-Christmas billboards: St Matthews-in-the-City church in the Central Business District. The controversy is normally only within other groups of The Church. The images are usually aimed at the debate around traditional Christian beliefs, and I suspect are intended to create a bit of intrigue with the general public.
For example, in December 2012, their billboard showed a picture of baby Jesus in a crib with the words:
“It’s Christmas. Time for Jesus to come out.”
There was a halo around the baby’s head in the form of a rainbow.
A clever pun, a bit of satire
This was a clever play on words because it is still common in New Zealand at Christmas time for the decorations in shops and homes to have symbols from the Nativity scene, such as wise men, shepherds, animals, and a baby Jesus in a manger. So just as all the other Christmas decorations, such as lights and tinsel, get dusted off, so too, the model of baby Jesus might literally come out of the closet.
In contemporary New Zealand society, it is also common knowledge that the words “to come out” are used to mean someone expresses publically that they are gay, and the rainbow is now synonymous with the gay community more so than the Old Testament flood story.
The church has traditionally been opposed to homosexuality and much of it still is, and so the Christian opposition to this billboard was the abhorrence that anyone might think Jesus was gay. In actual fact, the Bible does not say anything about Jesus’ sexual orientation.
On the internet many comments from the public can be seen about this particular billboard, including on St Matthews-in-the-City’s own Facebook page, where you can also see a picture of the billboard.
The point of the billboard was to provoke discussion about sexual orientation.
Reading through online comments about this, it seems a lot of the general public saw the humour, but the reaction from what seemed to be Christian people were, I suspect, seen by the public as parts of the church missing the satire, and lacking an ability to engage in discussion with a contemporary issue.
Vandalism as a communication response
I don’t know if this particular billboard example I’m using was physically vandalised, but a quick look online shows several other St Matthews-in-the-city billboards over the years with bits slashed out of them or covered over with paint – there are photos of people in the middle of the act of vandalism. In the past I have seen in the news Christian groups protesting around the St Matthews billboard.
Vandalising a billboard and protesting around it are a form of communication. As are comments on web page news stories and Facebook groups.
What makes me cringe is the public display of communication between different groups within The Church. I cringe because I think communication could have been done differently in a way that showed intelligent and willing engagement in the public sphere – rather than flaming online comments or vandalism and protesting.
Vandalism: thought out or reactionary?
I have seen some excellent vandalism and protesting, usually because it has been well thought out, clever or subtle, and communicating an alternative message that adds to the conversation. The vandalism and protest St Matthew’s-in-the-city billboards get is reactionary with the only message seeming to be that of shutting down the conversation, therefore ending the communication.
The irony here is that these billboard bashers give the media something to feed on, which usually emphases the original message.
Alternative outworking of sincerity
I do not doubt the sincerity of the Christian beliefs underpinning the communication I am taking issue with: I am sure that if I were to have open conversations with the billboard bashers they would have well-intentioned reasons backed with passionate commitment to the cause of their interpretation of the Christian church and tradition.
The nature of this communication (flaming comments online, or vandalising a billboard) is, in my opinion, through my own observation and understanding, at odds with the kind of communication that could be successful with people outside of the church, or at least done in a way that shares common ground and understanding.
In this particular billboard example the topic is sexual orientation. Within the church it is clear there are various views on this, and that there is a traditional majority view, which St Matthews-in-the-city appear to be challenging here.
What if those billboard bashers, rather than trying to shut down the conversation, which comes across as very defensive, what if they, on their own church property, responded with their own billboard in a similarly simple and engaging way, perhaps even using satire or irony, to get their message across.
I reckon the general public may have warmly received that kind of response, there may have been some common ground established, thinking and engagement might have been provoked in a similar way that St Matthews-in-the-city achieved with their billboard.
Would you like to create a simple and engaging billboard for your church this Christmas? Perhaps using satire or irony. Why not share your ideas in the comments below…
Image: St Matthew In The City, by russellstreet on flickr.com, Creative Commons.