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Some Western Pennsylvania churches count on earthly messages, too

Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review - The sign for Penn Hills Alliance Church presents passing motorists on Saltsburg Road with a thought provocative question on saturday January 18, 2014.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Sidney Davis  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The sign for Penn Hills Alliance Church presents passing motorists on Saltsburg Road with a thought provocative question on saturday January 18, 2014.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review - Ron Curcio of New Sewickley and volunteer at Ascension Lutheran Church post a message on the roadside sign in front of Ascension Lutheran Church on Peebles Road in the North Hills, Monday.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Andrew Russell  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Ron Curcio of New Sewickley and volunteer at Ascension Lutheran Church  post a message on the roadside sign in front of Ascension Lutheran Church on Peebles Road in the North Hills, Monday.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review - The sign for Penn Hills Alliance Church presents passing motorists on Saltsburg Road with a thought provocative question on saturday January 18, 2014.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Sidney Davis  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The sign for Penn Hills Alliance Church presents passing motorists on Saltsburg Road with a thought provocative question on saturday January 18, 2014.

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Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
 

Ron Curcio wants not to offend, but to get people thinking.

A church member at Ascension Lutheran Church in Ross, Curcio is in charge of creating and posting messages on the church marquee facing the busy Peebles Road.

Thoughtful, often witty and — to some — provocative, the messages aim to grab the attention of passing motorists, to get them to consider their faith along with their commute.

“I don't want to put up a sign that tells people what to do,” Curcio said. “If a person maybe doesn't have much of a faith or doesn't go to church often, I don't want to send them away. I want to get them to start thinking. If my signs do that, and if they're funny at times, well, that's OK, too.”

Curcio and Ascension Lutheran are not alone.

Churches across the country use roadside signs to gain attention and spread a message — some with more success than others.

During the holidays, for instance, a church pastor in Florida posted a sign reading: “Christmas — Easier to spell than Hanukkah.”

After several people complained and a local TV station called him for comment, the pastor took the sign down.

“By no means would I as human or Christian ever put anything on the sign with the intention of hurting or insulting,” the Rev. Mike Butzberger told The Associated Press from his church in North Palm Beach, Fla. “The purpose of the sign is to draw people to God, which is, in our ‘business,' what we're selling.”

Such attention-grabbing signs often end up on websites and are passed around through social media. The best are praised, such as one church sign reading: “I know where your meth lab's at — God.”

Others are jeered, such as the church that aped an old beer commercial for its message: “For all you do, his blood's for you.”

At Woodland Valley Church in Mars, the messages aim to be thoughtful and inspiring, but never controversial, said Dave Speicher, the church's administrative assistant, whose teenage daughter posts the weekly messages.

“She'll run it by the pastor if it's edgy, or even just witty,” Speicher said, “because a witty sign can be taken the wrong way.”

At Ascension Lutheran, the Rev. Brennan Gaertner, the pastor, said he understands that with creativity comes risk. Still, he and others encourage Curcio to have fun with the signs.

That's why the board on Ash Wednesday read: “Get your ashes in church.”

And why irony is included: “God, grant me patience, but hurry!”

And, of course, humor: “Biscuits and sermons are improved by shortening.”

Sometimes, people complain. A recent message reading, “Many who wait until the 11th hour die at 10:30” drew criticism, though church officials don't understand why.

“We thought, that's not provocative, it's just interesting,” Gaertner said. “It's interesting to hear people's takes. There is a risk.”

Others don't complain; they act.

When Curcio posted a Bible quote — “Don't let God spank you! Hebrews 12:6” — someone waited until night fell and rearranged the letters. In the morning, the sign read: “God spanked 126 Hebrews.”

Gaertner said the messages are not meant as a recruiting tool. Rather, it's a form of community outreach, he said, an attempt to get people in the community thinking.

“My favorite one is: ‘Lord, help me be the man my dog thinks I am,' ” Gaertner said with a laugh. “... We're just trying to connect with the community. A lot of people don't want to come to church. So we're trying to plant a seed and connect with them.”

And if people get mad?

So be it, said church member Mike Lapinski.

“It actually works when you excite people,” he said. “Indifference is what you don't want. We have to allow them to get upset because then it gets stuck in their head.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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