They can make you think or laugh or groan at a pun, but church signs are as much a part of the roadside landscape as weeds and wildflowers.
That was evident this past year as interchangeable church-sign messages were photographed throughout Central Kentucky. Among the messages seen in 2011 were "Prayer is the best wireless plan" and "God is at the end of your rope."
As Lexington experienced its second-wettest April-through-June since records have been kept, Lafayette Church of the Nazarene posted this message on its sign in early May: "Whoever is praying for rain please stop! The ark is still under construction!"
An earlier sign had pleaded, "Whoever is praying for snow please stop," said Pastor Jared Henry.
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"We got a lot of attention from that, so then it got to be springtime and it was raining all the time, so we just added to it," Henry said.
Dan Bottrell, pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Madison County, said its sign across the road from the main gate of Blue Grass Army Depot has had an effect on motorists. Some have told Bottrell they look for a new message when they pass. Some even felt compelled to visit the church and join.
"We actually have people sitting in our congregation who are there because of that sign," said Bottrell. He counts it as the church's second-most effective evangelistic tool after door-to-door visits. "So it's reaching people even though we're not actually talking to them."
People interviewed for this story said they get sign messages from different sources. Some are original, some are provided by sign manufacturers, and some come from other church signs.
Ray Prater, a Lexmark retiree who has changed the sign at Pleasant Grove Christian Church in Garrard County for 10 years, said he has two main sources.
"Sometimes I make some up, and I have a friend who gives me some that he gets off the Internet," Prater said. "I don't have Internet, so sometimes I have to make them up myself."
The road in front of the church, Ky. 34, is heavily traveled, and Prater sees the sign as a way to get motorists to think about spiritual matters.
"That's the biggest reason we put them up there, to just have people think," Prater said. "Like, 'Let's keep Christ in Christmas.'"
The Rev. Jan Cottrell of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection on U.S. 27 north of Nicholasville said its sign "gets wonderful responses."
"People will call the church, and they will leave a message on the machine like, 'Loved your message this week. It made my day,'" Cottrell said. "It's really been a source of joy and a strengthening of faith."
Songwriter Donald Seitz of Nashville was so affected by a church sign that he wound up photographing and writing about signs for several pictorial books.
As a music publisher, Seitz had a difficult time with an agent who represented a big country music star. Seitz felt intimidated and ashamed to be "cowering to his will." Then, while driving, Seitz saw a church sign with this message: "He who kneels before God can stand before anyone."
"And I pulled over and I said, 'Why in the world do I feel intimidated? This man is not an angel, he's an agent,'" Seitz said in a telephone interview. "It really had a nice, positive effect on me, and I stood my ground thereafter with him.
"And then I had a second epiphany, which was, 'Wow, if this had this kind of impact on me, I wonder how it's affecting other people?'"
So began his quest to document church signs.
"It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say there are 40,000 to 50,000 miles of back roads in my church signs books," he said.
And his travels confirmed that church signs can have a positive influence. For example:
"I remember a couple spoke to me about how their marriage was in trouble," Seitz said.
"And one small way of how they started to patch things together is they would call each other and let each other know what church-sign message they had just read and what it meant to them. And it kind of opened up a dialogue for them, and I think, in part, healed them."
But whatever the source, the appeal of church signs to Seitz is that "in this high-tech world of instant messaging, it's about as low-tech as you can get."
His personal favorites are those that deal with perseverance, such as: "Don't give up. Moses was once a basket case."
But he also likes this one: "Honk if you love Jesus. Text while driving if U wanna meet him."
For Bottrell, outdoor church signs are a reflection of the members inside.
"People often say that a Christian is the only Bible some people ever read," Bottrell said. "After a while, all church buildings look the same. What comes out of that church building is what people are looking for."