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Putting inspiration out front


There's no missing the message outside Harvester Baptist Church in Columbia.

For 16 years, the church has used pithy one-liners on its marquee sign along busy Columbia Road to attract people to its congregation and give them inspiration for their day.

"The Lord has blessed us with a great location," said the Rev. Ed Simpson. "We want to let people know about events going on in the community and use it as a ministry to the community."

Some of the witticisms include "Heaven: Don't miss it for the world"; "Sign broken: Come inside for message"; "Smooth seas don't make for skillful sailors"; and "A good marriage is a union of two forgivers."

The current one reads: "All we own is on loan from God."

Harvester, at Old Annapolis and Columbia roads, is one of many churches across the country using snappy sayings to grab the attention of motorists.

Chip Goudreau, division sales manager of J.M. Stewart Corp., a Sarasota, Fla.-based maker of church signs, said the market is growing.

"Churches are using them as outreach and marketing tools," he said. "Evangelical churches [were the first ones], but now we're seeing more Catholic churches and others with aggressive outreach efforts."

The straight-to-the-point messages often result in larger turnouts on Sundays and numerous phone calls to pastors from people thanking them for a particular phrase that may have touched their hearts.

As for the tone of the sayings, some are humorous, others more serious. But they all have one intended goal: to reach the community, said Simpson, explaining he finds different sayings from the Bible, daily devotional readings, people and books dedicated to helping churches make the most of their signs.

Not all of Harvester's messages on its $5,000 4-foot-by- 6-foot sign have generated positive feedback.

A few years ago, the church ran a message that said, "Children, like canoes, operate best when paddled from the rear."

Simpson said letters were sent to a local newspaper complaining that the church was not being an advocate for the best interest of children.

Simpson countered that Harvester "was advocating proper child discipline, which might include a [little spanking]."

Although precise numbers were not available regarding the number of people who joined the church because of the sign, Simpson said it ranks pretty high with those who joined because someone told them about Harvester.

"The two are running neck and neck," he said.

Merari McFarland said Harvester's messages resulted in her family joining the church in 1996.

"The messages help you on your daily walk [with God]," she said. "They also reach to the community to give light ... for life's challenges."

McFarland said her favorite sayings give her encouragement to pray.

"Praying is especially important when you're the mother of young ones," said McFarland, who has two young children.

After McFarland's family joined the church, she said it became like a "family" for her herself, husband and children.

"When my son got sick, we had meals and phone calls. It's just been a constant friendship," she said.

Harvester was founded in 1976 after Simpson, his wife and then-7-week-old son, Matthew, moved to Columbia from Miami. The first service was held May 9 of that year in a rented facility.

Land for the church was purchased in 1979, and the first building was constructed in 1984. Additions followed in 1986 and 2001.

Plans are under way to build a multipurpose room for worship and activities for children and teens by 2006. The fourth addition is expected to cost between $2 million and $3 million, Simpson said.

About 250 people attend the church, said Simpson. His son is assistant pastor of Harvester.

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