While churches are increasingly using the internet and social media to communicate with the wider community, the traditional message board in front of the building remains a steadfast favourite. Most famously the message board at Gosford Anglican church in NSW has attracted international attention for carrying challenging questions and social comment.
In a similar fashion, the Mountview Uniting Church message board in Melbourne’s outer east is referred to as the “roadside pulpit” and its reach extends a lot further than Mitcham.
Following the violent death of detained Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati on Manus Island the Mountview message board read: “Jesus and Reza: two refugees killed by government policy”. This provoked a hostile reaction from a Queensland talkback radio host as well as prompting thousands of responses and views on social media.
Mountview minister Rev Brendan Byrne said the church’s signs have a clear purpose. “They are to make people think critically about what’s going on and to ask, ‘Am I OK with this kind of society?’” he said. “It’s in line with the scriptural tradition of prophetic critique.”
While Brendan takes responsibility for each sign’s wording, he has strong backing from the church council. He said that community response is largely positive and people will make contact and say, “I’ve noticed the signs”.
However, Brendan knows the messages do not always sit comfortably with either some in the wider community or within the Uniting Church. One message about tax cuts for the rich resulted in complaints from UCA members that his views were “communist”.
Brendan is unrepentant.
“I will stop posting provocative messages, when politicians and others start treating the most helpless among us with dignity and respect,” he said.
Minister Rev Mat Harry regards it as one part of a jigsaw puzzle of notices and announcements that lets the surrounding community know the church is active, organised and involved in the neighbourhood. The outdoor message board is changed every fortnight and will occasionally have a play on words, but the church does not do this lightly.
“It is never about just putting up a witty sign and expecting people to come,” Mat said.
The Hampton church is also active on social media posting twice a day on Facebook.
“We post a schedule of announcements and updates for the community garden, playgroup, youth group, community lunches and other events,” Mat said.
“People know that we are not just sitting back.”
When she began in ministry 10 years ago, Richmond Uniting Church minister Rev Dr Sally Douglas was not disposed to using signage or social media to communicate in the public space. She has changed her mind.
Richmond Uniting Church is in a high volume traffic area in inner Melbourne and a combination of banner signage, posters, plus a website and Facebook presence have brought connections Sally would never have anticipated.
“I now realise the first place people look for a church is through websites – it’s imperative that we have up-to-date websites and communicate clearly who we are and what we believe,” Sally said.
The communication used by the Richmond congregation varies from the invitation to chalk prayers onto the church steps, to posters advertising Beer and Carols events or simply inviting conversation.
A recent sign read: “If you are interested in questions about life, Jesus, the Bible, the Divine, Christianity, faith and doubt and you do not want easy answers or lectures but you do want authentic conversation, maybe come along to Richmond Uniting.”
According to Sally, people have arrived at worship saying: “I saw the posters and I’ve been reading about you online. Or they say ‘I have never been to church before – or not in years. I finally decided to come’. ”
Sally has come to regard the public face of the banners, posters and invitational fliers as an important part of ministry.
“With many so-called ‘Christian’ voices that are judgmental in the public sphere, we need to tell people where we come from in the Uniting Church,” she said.
“This is a core way of proclaiming the gospel; it is not just an extra thing on the side.”
Sally views the banners as more significant than simply a way to capture attention.
“We are creating a space to engage with and go deeper into the scandalous way of Jesus,” she said.
One of the first banners at Richmond UC read “Church – but not as you know it”.
It went up in 2015 and featured a rainbow of threads passing through the eye of a needle.
The banner had to be remade after it was slashed during the marriage equality debate, but the vandalism provoked a tidal wave of support from local community groups and thousands of people around Australia.
When Rev Ian Ferguson arrived at Brunswick Uniting Church, also in inner Melbourne, early in 2013, there was a sign across the doorway-sized window that faces Sydney Road.
A few words written in a large font on poster paper simply declared, “Jesus was a refugee”. Ian says that in the last five years he has heard from people in many different places who have remarked, “I saw that sign in your window.”
In 2017 an installation in the church’s Sydney Road window provoked an even greater and overwhelmingly positive response.
At Ian’s instigation and with church council backing, a sign advocating a yes vote for the marriage equality plebiscite was placed in the window with rainbow cloths flowing from the cross. Ian spoke to the congregation and they were strongly supportive of the sign.
“We understand the love of God for the whole world to be a love that reconciles, that does not judge or condemn,” he said.
While some people outside the congregation contacted the church to say they were bewildered or angered, one particularly memorable response came from Ellen, a passer-by on a tram who wrote to the church via their website.
Travelling home on the tram today, the ‘yes’ sign caught my eye in your church window. I have a Pentecostal background, although I’d be hesitant to say that I still have a faith now, at 30, as a gay woman who has only recently come out.
[My] eyes fell on the remarkably simple, and utterly striking ‘display’ of the cross of Christ, standing over a rainbow of material. That installation, sparked a little idea that perhaps, Christ himself, is OK with who I am. Thank you to whoever made that installation, to whoever is in your leadership teams – I suspect I’ll look back on this moment as a rather pivotal one.