Donald Seitz had suffered through a long day during a bad week at his office on Nashville's famous Music Row.
On his way home from a business call, he drove past the Greater Pleasant View Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tenn. As usual, the no-tech sign out front offered a folksy thought for the week. This one caught his eye.
"He who kneels before God can stand before anyone," it said, in black, movable letters inserted by hand into slots on a plain white background.
Seitz pulled over and got out of his car to study the sign.
"It's all about timing," he said. "I've driven past thousands of church signs in my life, but this was the right sign on the right day. It got me. That's the thing about these signs. They grab you when you least expect it. They move you, somehow."
Before long, the president of Redbird Music crossed the line between intrigued and somewhat obsessed.
Along with his wife and their young son, he packed their car full of camera equipment and "lots of sippy cups" and hit the road. His goal was to find as many of these old-fashioned signs as possible -- the kind that say things like "Coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous," "Exercise daily, walk with the Lord," "God answers knee mail" and "Give God what is right, not what is left."
They spread their trips over three years and Seitz stopped keeping track of the miles after they passed the 20,000 mark. The result was "The Great American Book of Church Signs," which contains 100 photographs taken in nearly 40 states. The pilgrimage, he said, was like reading "one long American sermon."
Seitz did have questions. He wondered if these signs are still common at rural churches, but rarely used by city megachurches. Also, do some denominations embrace them, while others they are too simplistic? Would he find a red-church vs. blue-church pattern?
Many of his preconceptions were based on his experiences living and driving in the Bible Belt, especially two-lane roads in the Southeast.
"This book could have been done in Tennessee, alone. In fact, I think I could have done a whole book in Nashville," said Seitz, laughing. "In this part of the world, you can throw a rock in just about any direction and hit four or five churches that have these signs. ...
"Church signs are more common in some places than others, but if you keep looking you'll find them at all kinds of churches all over the country."
Thus, the Harmony Hill Church of God in Fayetteville, Tenn., proclaimed, "Faith is a journey, not a destination." But Seitz also found a sign that said, "Love God with all of your heart, then do whatever you want" in front of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, New York.
The Tompkinsville (Ken.) Church of Christ's sign warned rural drivers that, "A dam holds water back. It's not my last name. God." On the other side of the doctrinal aisle, the sign at the South Church Unitarian Universalist sanctuary in Portsmouth, N.H., announced -- with typically broad-minded sentiments -- that, "True religion is the life we lead, not the creed we profess."
Seitz said he was surprised that he saw very few signs that included political themes, although it was easy to read between the lines of one that said, "The Ten Commandments are still posted here." It was
also easy to interpret another marquee that stressed, "God is not a Republican or a Democrat."
This is not advanced theology. The message on a typical sign is only eight words long and is the product of a volunteer's clever imagination, research in old church bulletins or, in the digital age, a quick search on the World Wide Web. Most combine a chuckle with a moral message that strives to appeal to strangers as well as members.
After all of his travels, Seitz decided that the archetypal church-sign message was this one: "Life is fragile. Handle with prayer."
"It's succinct, it has that little pun in there and it's powerful, if you think about it for a minute," he said. "That's the essence of a good church sign message. That's what you're trying to do -- get people to stop and think for a minute."