The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


The church with the sign

Tradition of weekly wit, wisdom helps a congregation reach its community

On a steamy summer day that seems a distant memory in February, Don Sandberg changes and rearranges the letters on the sign in front of Gethsemane Lutheran Church, St. Louis, until a new message emerges. It's a task he's performed week after week for 15 years.

"It's amazing the number of people who honk or say 'hey,' " he says. Just as Sandberg has become a familiar sight to drivers and pedestrians, so Gethsemane has become known locally for its timely, clever weekly messages.

Ronald Glusenkamp, Gethsemane's pastor for 11 years until taking a job with the ELCA Board of Pensions in Minneapolis last spring, said the messages entertain but also get people thinking about their lives and God.

"Everyone who comes to Gethsemane for the first time says it was because of the sign," says Glusenkamp, who was dubbed "Poet Laureate of Hampton Avenue" by Jerry Berger, columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Glusenkamp perfected the art of keying messages into current events and fads of the day, but with a good dose of evangelism.

When slugger Mark McGwire was in Jupiter, Fla., for spring training with the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals, the sign out front reminded folks the gospel could still be found at Gethsemane.

One sign was aimed at recruiting choir members, says Glusenkamp, whose ideas and philosophy are contained in Signs for These Times: Church Signs That Work (Concordia Publishing House, 1998).

Mary Hellwig, pastor of Gethsemane, is now following in Glusenkamp's footsteps. "He has shaped how we do outreach here," she says. "He has left his mark. We want to keep it in the same mode."

Parishioners give Hellwig ideas to keep the sign fresh and creative each week. "The sign broadens people's notion of the gospel," she says. "And it's boosted the morale at Gethsemane to be known as the church with the sign."


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February issue


Embracing diversity