One of the remarkable aspects of our culture is that although we are inundated with advertisements all day long, we are often willing to pay for a tee-shirt or bumper sticker which advertises for someone. As Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) once said, “A good shirt turns the wearer into a walking corporate billboard.” When we aren’t wearing an advertisement or sticking one to our bumper, we are often promoting an idea or belief which serves to identify us with a group: “I learned these 10 things from playing video games,” “war is wrong,” “gun control is unjust,” or even “Jesus saves!”
It is this last use of slogans, labels, and branding that I would like to explore. Specifically, I would like to ask what is the purpose and effect of using clothing and bumper stickers to promote the Christian worldview, and should we support this form of promotion? To answer this question we should look at how labels and slogans usually function and their effect.
In general, most brands and labels promote either purely commercial enterprises (Nike), or some form of entertainment (the L.A. Dodgers, U2). In either case, the thing being promoted is only superficially important, if at all. As much as a person might love a band or a sports team, by promoting them on a tee-shirt they are saying more about their choice in entertainment, who/what they spend money on, and what cultural sub-groups they identify with than what their worldview is or what beliefs they hold. Of course, there are exceptions, but I believe that for most people a label or brand represents little more than an identifier of taste in entertainment and perhaps a fashion statement.
In addition, slogans, labels, and brands lack any significant power to persuade people of the truthfulness, quality, or goodness of the thing being represented; all they really tell us is that the thing is popular. In a political race, bumper stickers can be used to “demonstrate” the popularity of a candidate. The argument goes, “If so many people are willing to put a sticker on their bumper to support this candidate, he must be worth electing.” Labels, brands, and slogans are more often than not only an identifier of the choices we’ve made as consumers and our tastes. Additionally, the only real persuasive power they have is to convince us that the thing/idea is popular. With these concepts in mind, lets look at the effect of prompting a Christian worldview.
First, we should note that the primary purpose of brands and labels is to promote, while the goal of the Great Commission is to share the good news. We are called to share a deep, honest, and often times offensive truth in the Gospel. This kind of content is in stark contrast to the methods of conveying ideas found in advertisements, which are shallow, deceptive, and ear-tickling. Remember, we are not trying to dupe customers into buying our product over other products. Since the main purpose behind branding and labels is to promote, and we are not called to promote Christianity, on this point, at least, we should question the rightness of Christian branding.
Not only is “promoting” Christianity theologically problematic (at best), it is ineffective. When choosing a candidate, brand, or sports team, popularity is persuasive. But if you are trying to persuade people that they are morally depraved and need a savior, the amount of people who attest to this belief is not very relevant. The reason is that for most individuals, choosing a brand, sports team, or candidate is more a subjective matter of taste and preference than an objective seeking of truth and goodness. If a band appeals to the tastes of most people, than it is reasonable to assume that other people will enjoy the band, but it does not follow that if most people are Christians then Christianity is true. Thus, a shirt with a cross or scripture on it is not likely to influence someone to become a believer, while a shirt with a band name on it is likely to encourage people to listen to that band.
Slogans persuade differently that labels and brand names do. Slogans present content: a statement which tries to assert the importance, relevance, truth, or blessing of the Christian faith. Sometimes these slogans come in the form of Bible verses with clever commentary, other times a secular label, brand, or saying is twisted into a Christian message. An example of the latter would be a bumper sticker which read, “Know fear” or a tee-shirt which has an image of Christ bench-pressing the cross and reads, “LORD’s Gym: The Sin of the World. Bench press this!” Despite the fact that these designs don’t solely rely on popularity, they still lack any significant persuasive force. Fundamentally, tee-shirts and bumper stickers are not locales of thoughtful, rational discourse on important issues. People simply do not look to shirts to find answers to the most central and difficult questions in life.
Designs which parody secular designs (like the Lord’s Gym shirt) are even more questionable. The idea behind them seems to be to trick people into reading a Christian message by cleverly disguising it as a popular, secular design or ad. But one of the practical effects is that the message of the Gospel is identified with, compared, and tied to a commercial symbol. When Christ’s work on the cross is presented as Him bench-pressing the sin of the world, His work is compared to the often vain and thoroughly human act of working out. It is difficult for me to see how God is glorified in this. The deceptive nature of these designs and the combination of the commercial with the sacred seems to indicate that they are not appropriate (or effective) ways for us to be sharing the Gospel.
But someone may object that the real purpose is to provide opportunities to share the Gospel. Of course the shirt or bumper sticker does not accurately convey the Gospel, it is merely the conversation piece which allows me to share. In response I would like to point out that we are not called to share the Gospel by any method we wish. If the message is contradicted by the method, then we should seek other methods. Since labels, brands, and slogans on tee-shirts and stickers primarily are used to promote shallow consumer choices, it hardly seems appropriate to use these methods to convey truths about our fallen nature and Christ’s redemptive work.
Someone else might object that the real purpose is to stand out, to be different and set apart from the world. But when the Bible speaks of us being different than the world, it refers to our actions, our worldview, not (necessarily) the slogans we wear. Neither Christ nor Paul urged believers to wear clothes which Christian symbols or slogans. Christ said it is the way we love one another that will show that we are believers (John 13:34-35). To be set apart as a follower of Christ means to live in a manner worth of Christ’s work of salvation. If we are acting in obedience (loving), we won’t need to wear clothes that identify us as believers, people will just know.
I do not believe it is a sin to wear Christian clothing or have Christian bumper stickers. I have seen designs by Christian artists which are well made and do not “promote” or market our Faith. It is my hope, however, that we will not think of such things as just a neutral clothing choice. Instead, we should think about both the purpose and effect of the designs. And even more importantly, we must never let our witness live only in print; our very lives must be a witness of God’s love, grace, and mercy. Our faith should be lived out in Christ’s new law of loving one another, never merely worn on our sleeves.