As with all of the denomination’s state-wide conferences, attendees of both genders and all ages came from many towns and in all states of repair or disrepair. The younger attendees were mostly hopeful, excited, eager. The older ones were a little more apt to be a bit skeptical, maybe even cynical. Some at the conference, especially the pastors, were just plain tired. They had enough energy to show up for the workshop; they weren’t so sure that they had enough “oomph” left in them to do anything with the “secret” they were expecting to receive. But the presenter, Dr. Henry Maulson, was a nationally known church growth “guru;” just about everybody at least knew his name. Oft’ published and well connected, he had a long history in the church growth movement. Some of the workshop attendees were a little surprised that, though they had read every one of the speaker’s books, they had never heard of the “surprising secret of church growth.” Had Dr. Maulson just discovered something new? What would he have to say about all the previous “secrets” he had written about for so many years? Was he going to repudiate all those methods or would this simply be a new name slapped on an old principle – supposedly for the sake of a new generation of Christians?
Just a little past the advertised starting time, Dr. Maulson shuffled in. He was older and heavier than the picture in the conference brochure or the dust-jacket flap of his books, but he was still recognizable. He didn’t look very enthusiastic either, but he did look calm, composed and maybe even a little bit playful. Some thought he looked like an older guy with “something up his sleeve,” like a mischievous grandfather who had been saving up a trick for his grandkids since last Christmas.
After a few pleasantries and genuinely humble-sounding comments about his books and magazine articles, the speaker got down to business. “I’m going to make this short and simple folks. You may even be able to get a walk or a nap in before our afternoon coffee break.” Maulson smiled broadly. Most in the room didn’t smile back but they were poised and ready to take notes in their official conference workbooks.
“The secret to church growth isn’t anything I’ve ever written about all these years,” the speaker confessed. “The secret is the sign on the church roof. Every church has a big” – Maulson gestured with outstretched arms to make his point – “neon sign on the roof which the church’s insiders – members and regular attenders – can’t see. Only outsiders – people who don’t know Jesus or haven’t attended that church – can see it. It’s always ‘on’ and it’s always flashing on and off, on and off, on and off.” The speaker gestured by repeatedly opening and closing both hands and thrusting his arms almost into the faces of the folks in the front row.
“If a church is truly healthy,” Maulson continued, every eye glued to his unusual presentation, “I mean if people are right with God and right with each other, no fractured relationships, un-forgiven offenses or old grudges, the sign says ‘Come in here!’” Again, Maulson said it over and over, and let his hands do the flashing for the neon sign. “If the church isn’t healthy, God doesn’t want unbelievers and new Christians getting confused or hurt by attending there, so He turns on the other word on the sign, the one on the top, kind of like the ‘No’ that lights up above the word ‘Vacancy’ at the old motel. ‘Know what I mean?” Heads nodded all over the room. “The word on the top of the sign says ‘don’t.’” Maulson dramatically repeated his earlier performance with an emphatic voice and big gestures: “Don’t come in here! Don’t come in here! Don’t come in here!” After a pause the speaker added, “Anything you have to do to make it possible for God to make that sign say, ‘Come in here! Come in here! Come in here!’…do it! ”
Maulson was now speaking passionately, emphatically. He looked younger, stronger, but also like he was going to cry. He seemed to have the zeal of someone sharing something he had learned the hard way and wanted everyone else to learn the easy way. It was riveting.
After a long pause, the speaker finally continued: “If the sign says ‘Don’t come in here,’ nothing you can do can compensate for that. Nothing! You can have the best preacher, the best worship band, the nicest building in town, the best ministries out in the community. You can forget all that stuff if the sign on the roof is saying the wrong thing.”
Another long pause followed. Maulson seemed to know what some were thinking and added, “I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about those things, that they don’t count for anything” (some in the room were relieved to hear this) “but they can’t begin to compensate for the sign on the roof saying the wrong thing.”
Just about when people were thinking that the speaker had nothing more to say, he added: “And it doesn’t matter how long it takes or how much pain and trouble it takes you to get to where God can change the sign on the roof. When a church is right with God, when the sign on the roof says the right thing, a church can grow remarkably quickly. Years of empty pews and empty coffers can be compensated for and forgotten in a few short, wonderful months. But don’t ever think that you can get away with having the sign on the roof say the wrong thing. That’s it. That’s the secret. ‘Any questions?”
After a few moments of awkward silence, there were questions, of course. People asked about the priceless insights Maulson had put in his books. A little embarrassed, the white-haired version of his former handsome self chuckled and said, “All of that stuff” – was he being a bit contemptuous of his own writings? – “is good, as long as the sign on the roof is right.” By this time everybody in the room knew he was going to add, “But if the sign on the roof isn’t right, you’re wasting your time with my books or anybody else’s.”
Within a surprisingly short period of time, the questions ran out. There was just no getting around it. At least on this day, Maulson wouldn’t talk about music, preaching styles, longitudinal studies, chairs versus pews, advertising, community service or “seeker sensitivity.” Clearly, he was going to just camp on “the sign on the roof thing” all afternoon if he had to. So the room went silent, the speaker led in prayer and most of the stunned conference-goers filed out to take the old writer’s advice: some took naps; others went for walks. All would remember this workshop for a long time.
1. Can you think of Bible verses or passages that would support the idea of the “sign on the roof”?
2. Have you seen this happen in a church? (A period of unstoppable growth and prosperity after a time of “revival”?)
3. What do you think the sign on the roof of your church says?
4. What would have to happen to enable God to make the sign say “Come in here!”?
5. Knowing that you can’t change anyone except yourself, what do you need to do to
help enable God to change the sign on the roof of your church?