As billboard evangelism expands, 1 SC man spreads the word
CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina residents seeking a sign from God don’t have to look far.
A trip down state interstates yields dozens of billboards boasting messages designed to save souls.
Phrases like “Who is Jesus?” and “Repent” posted along main thoroughfares are designed to inspire as many people as possible to reflect on their spiritual states and ask the Lord for salvation.
The practice, known as billboard evangelism, dates to around the 1970s and seems to be rising in popularity nationally. Some large religious groups that dish out thousands of dollars annually to spread the Gospel have recently reported increased funds dedicated to placing Christian messages on large signs along highways.
But while many of South Carolina’s Christian-themed signs are sponsored by large charitable groups, many are sponsored by private residents who take seriously Christ’s instructions to share the good news — some spending half of their annual earnings to reach the masses.
One of them is Daniel Brothers, a Santee resident who runs a log cabin staining business. Brothers, who makes $50,000 to $70,000 annually from his business, spent half of that on billboards last year.
He has 18 posters on signs across the state that offer a simple, suggestive prayer printed in big, bold red letters over a yellow backdrop:
“Forgive my sins Jesus save my soul.”
“There are people going to hell,” he said. “Every Christian has a responsibility to do something about the lost souls.”
Christian evangelicals have used mass media to promote Christianity for centuries since the Second Great Awakening of the 1790s, when believers passed out fliers promoting religious revivals and camp meetings. Aimee Semple McPherson gained popularity in the early 20th century when the Protestant evangelist used radio programs to broadcast sermons.
With the emergence of the religious right in the late-1970s, evangelical groups began investing in billboard messages.
“This is not kind of, at all, different from the way evangelicals have been the first to use media,” said Dr. Lenny Lowe, a religion professor at the College of Charleston.
The effort doesn’t seem to be declining. In fact, there are some indications that billboard evangelism is picking up steam. In 2016, reports surfaced that religious organizations spent more than they ever had on Christian-themed billboards throughout the country.
Christian Aid Ministries, a 35-year-old nonprofit that associates itself with conservative Anabaptist groups and does missionary work abroad, had posted more than 400 Gospel messages across the United States in 2015. Last year, that number jumped to more than 1,000 billboards.
Today in South Carolina, a state that’s part of the Bible Belt region where conservative Christianity dominates society and politics, CAM has messages on more than 20 billboards.
Managers with Lamar Advertising in Columbia said they aren’t seeing a large uptick in billboard evangelism, though ministries like CAM and other private residents have purchased additional boards in the past three years.
There is certainly a coordination with the election of a conservative president, Lowe said.
“Outspoken evangelicals probably feel very emboldened under the current administration,” Lowe said.
Decades before Brothers decided to spend half his yearly earnings on Gospel messages, he was smoking marijuana and contemplating Jesus’ existence.
Brothers, 68, who grew up in Michigan, didn’t grow up in a Christian home. By the ’70s, he had moved to Lexington where, in his early 20s, he dabbled in alcohol and drug use.
He became a Christian in 1976 after watching a televangelist preach about Jesus. After falling on his knees in his living room floor, Brothers demanded the Lord prove his existence. God’s presence fell on him like “a warm blanket of love,” he said.
“All I could do was cry and repent,” he said. “I knew I was going to be a Jesus freak. I didn’t care. After that, all I want to do is tell somebody Jesus is real.”
Brothers wasn’t very public about his faith until about three years ago when he and his wife decided that “just living the Christian life was not enough” and they must tell others.
Brothers started visiting local flea markets in Florence and Columbia regularly, holding up signs that promoted repentance. He and his wife started the Witness Billboards Fund where they would save money that’d be used to purchase posters on the large signs.
Today, with a home and cars paid off, the couple spends most of their earnings on evangelism.
“Tell me of a greater investment,” Brothers said. “That’s the only investment you can get eternal reward in.”
Columbia native Ed Harper has a similar story. A Vietnam veteran, he returned home to a broken marriage. He dabbled in drugs and alcohol and became homeless, sleeping in public parks and hitching rides across the country with truck drivers. He tried to commit suicide twice.
While in California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a “light of consciousness” sparked.
“God, if you’re there, please help,” Harper said.
God responded and salvation came.
“I knew that everybody needed to know,” Harper said.
Around 2000, Harper began working with Lamar Advertising to place passages of Scripture on the boards across the Palmetto State.
Today, in addition to tithes and offerings, Harper spends around $3,000 annually on the Gospel messages.
The boards are certainly reaching the masses. Lamar employees said signs on interstates can gain around 150,000 to 250,000 impressions a week. In 2018, Christian Aid Ministries’ phone team members spoke with more than 30,000 callers who dialed the hotline number posted on the boards.
Harper recounts conversations with motorists who thanked him for posting inspirational messages. One call came from a doctor who’d just delivered a baby. The child had been born with broken bones.
The physician, weary and a bit discouraged, saw a billboard featuring a verse from the Gospel of Matthew.
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”