Wearing Our Faith

tshirt.jpgOne 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.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

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  • David Dunham

    Well Put Alan.

    It is a shame that so many people think that evangelism consists of wearing a “Jesus Saves” tee, slapping a “Jesus Fish” on their car, or writing John 3:16 on the bathroom stall door.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    It’s true that those who stickerize their faith for the sake of the gospel’s spread are a far cry from either biblical or effective evangelism. But I wonder how many people wear Christian t-shirts with intent to evangelize. Or better, I wonder how many wear such items strictly for the sake of subculture identification.

    There’s a lot of talk about fashion-as-commodification (e.g., people wearing clothes as a way of advertising for the brands they wear), but I wonder how much of it isn’t just people seeking to present themselves as easily identifiable to those of their subculture.

    For instance, if I see someone wearing an MMW t-shirt, I can make an instant judgment about that person. I know the kind of music they like. I know that they are the kind of person who seeks to be identified by such. I also feel an immediate connection to them, for even if we’re entirely different sorts of people, we have immediately established one solid thing that links us – and therefore, we have camaraderie.

    I do this through the Me I present to the world every day. It’s nothing so conscious as thinking to myself, This is the image I want to convey and these are the people I to whom I hope to connect. But it’s there and I remember such being the case in 1990 when I wore t-shirts of my favourite Christian metal bands (i.e., Vengeance, Deliverance, The Crucified, etc.*). The shirts had blatant Christian slogans on them masked by the more overt horror of typical metal images (e.g., people burning in hell), yet I never hoped that the shirt would be a means to evangelize. But in some small recess of my mind, I think I hoped that someone would see the shirt and say, “Dude! I just saw them at a club in L.A.! The pit was incredible!” And then we would bond, become best friends, and then mosh a bit.

    I think the Jesus fish probably functions similarly. I think it’s a sign of comfort to other evangelicals. Every time one is threatened by the thought that Christianity is dead in America, one simply need take to the road (or visit a Starbucks) to see Christianity (in one form or another) flourishing through the propagation of Jesus fish, Jewish carpentry bosses, and Bud Wise Up t-shirts.

    Largely, I’ve come to terms with the team colours and though they’re not the colours I would choose, I understand the need for this kind of social identiation. Mostly, I just wish a) that Christians had better taste, and b) that they would realize that parody shirts are not cool or funny or in any way creative.

    *note: those were the days and I hope to never relive them.

  • Alan Noble

    The Dane-

    10 pts for saying “stickerize.”

    As for fashion as subculture identification, yes there is certainly some of that. As I said, not all designs fit into the categories I outlined. Shirts that promote Christian bands are a bit different. But even then, I think it is wise of us to consider how others will interpret the design.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @Alan – Oh I agree that consideration of outside interpretation would be wise. And I just happen to have anecdotal evidence to support the case.

    Way back in the when. Let’s say 1991. I was a senior in high school and not the most circumspect of individuals. I was wearing one of my Vengeance shirts—it featured a tormented face with blood running out of various places and the throne of God in the background and some horribly judgmental lyrics proclaiming the fate of sinners. This girl in my Government class walked up to me, looked at the shirt, and then started in on how deeply offensive she found it. I then realized that I was an ass.

    The end.

    And it was then that I realized that the Christian-esque messages on clothing can have a very negative influence on one’s ability to be a witness to the testimony of the gospel. There was no love in the shirt and yet it identified me as one as part of a ideology that supposedly champions love. It was right around then that I went back to wearing surf-culture shirts.

  • Alan Noble

    Dane-

    That story perfectly illustrates the problem of blindly and uncritically proclaiming the Christian message. Thanks.

  • http://scottedwardschultz.blogspot.com/ Scott

    You know, actually, a lot of what the Dane said meshes well with my own thinking as of late. Maybe there isn’t a serious need to call “bumper sticker” Christians to repent of their tackiness. Tackiness seems to be a transconfessional reality, spread across Christianity (even Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox imbibe). It seems that it’s a trait that even transcends Christendom, as there are countless pagans that feel inclined to express their various creeds in less than subtle formulae (e.g. “the Darwin Fish”).

    If Seth is correct that these things are actually intended as identity markers, then what some Christians resent about “stickerization” is – before anything else – its basic aesthetic lack. As aesthetic failure typically corresponds to low culture, I wonder if high culture has been baptized as appropriately Christian over against low cultural expressions of Christian faith. If that is the case, then someone is guilty of sinning against his brother.

  • Alan Noble

    I’m not sure anyone is telling people to repent of tackiness, but to think critically about the way they express their faith.

    I would also say that only some of these designs are intended as identity markers, and even when they are they serve other purposes as well.

    I think that making this a “high” vs. “low” culture issue is a distraction. It sort of insinuates that since they’re both cultures, we cannot make any value judgments about them. It also assumes a firm definition of “high” and “low” culture.

    Fundamentally, whenever any one of us refuses to critically and prayerfully consider the appropriateness of the way we display our faith, then we are being selfish and unloving. This selfishness might play out in tacky “low” art, or snooty “high” art. If you believe that shirts and stickers and “low” culture, then you could say that I am calling into question the “low culture expressions of Christian faith,” but that does not mean that I believe “high” culture to be guiltless.

  • Robert Brummett

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I believe we should share the gospel of Jesus Christ just as we are called to do. As you may or may not know I like wearing T-Shirts and since I am going to wear one it might as well be one that promotes something I love or believe in. However that should never substitute sharing my faith in Christ. But let’s be honest do we share the gospel effectively like we should. I am amshamed to say I do not. Alan have you effectively shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with anyone today, this week, this month, or year. And if so how did you do it. Did you just walk up to them and begin telling them about Jesus or did you use some way to work into it. Brother Paul would use anything he could to get to share Jesus even an alter for the unknown god. 1 COR 9:22 says: To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Anyway sometimes my wearing a christian T-Shirt allows me to get into a conversation about Jesus and that can’t be bad, right. God bless y’all.

  • Alan Noble

    Thanks to everyone who has been responding. Some really good points have been made.

    Robert-
    I believe that the best way to share the Gospel (particular in the US) is to built intimate relationships with people, demonstrate Christ’s love, and speak honestly about our beliefs. But I don’t want to go down a rabbit trail of discussing various stances on evangelism.

    On the issue of Paul, I have to disagree with you when you say that “Paul would use anything he could to get to share Jesus.” Paul only uses a limited number of things to share the Gospel. In addition, he never tells us that we can share the Gospel in any manner that we like.

    The verse in 1st Cor is addressing the idea that we should not let our liberty become a stumbling block to others. In other words, if we need to adopt a cultural custom in order to be acceptable in a culture, then we should. But tee-shirts don’t apply here. Paul would have offended the Jews by eating certain meats, but we don’t offend anyone by not wearing Christian tee-shirts. So I don’t think this verse is applicable.

    However, Paul’s words in Philippians 1:15-18 do directly apply:

    15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

    I think this is the proper attitude to have concerning this whole issue. Paul says here that the most important thing is that Christ is proclaimed. Even if the method is flawed or the intentions are wrong, if Christ is proclaimed, praise God! But notice that Paul still criticizes these people. Paul says that they are motivated by envy and rivalry and a desire to hurt him. There is a balance here. Paul can be thankful that Christ is proclaimed while still identifying the inappropriateness of the method. The implication here is that Paul wants these people to continue preaching the Gospel, but to do it in a way that is more appropriate.

    In a similar way I think we can be thankful to God that Christ is proclaimed through stickers and shirts, while still calling into question the appropriateness and effectiveness of these methods.

  • Alan Noble

    By the way, I don’t mean to insinuate that wearing a Christian tee-shirt is equivalent to preaching out of envy or rivalry. I think Paul’s attitude towards those people (critical, but thankful) is applicable to our discussion, but there is still a difference. Those people were clearly in sin, while it is not a sin to wear a Christian tee-shirt. We’re talking about an issue of good-better-best, not good or bad.

    Just wanted to clarify.

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  • http://scottedwardschultz.blogspot.com/ Scott

    Sorry to be the hit-and-run commenter, Alan. I just got back in town.

    I hear what you’re saying, but I find it interesting that for every criticism of snooty Christian “high” art (and I can’t quite say that I’ve ever encountered this), I’ve seen a hundred criticisms of Christian tees and bumper stickers. I find this to be more than just a coincidence. I think there’s a sort elitist thrill that comes with condescension and I think the fact that common “art” is so common gives a certain appeal to taking the noble high road against such “vulgarity”. And I don’t say this as someone who hasn’t fallen prey to this sort of thing. I just think it might be a mistaken cause.

    I agree with you that there’s a question of good-better-best at stake, but I don’t hear you saying that there’s anything good per se about Jesus fish on the back of cars.

    Don’t get me wrong, I actually agree with you that the stuff is a trite presentation of the Gospel, but frankly, to me, the crime isn’t that our bumpers and tees are littered with irrational and commercialized discourse about the Gospel. Rather, the most unfortunate aspect of these things seems to be that they comprehend things like clothing to be merely means to ends that only find their value as vehicles of propositions and ideas.

    I think a truly Christian approach to fashion (for example) would embrace clothing as a human good, as a sort of glory, given by God. Exploiting the aesthetic for the sake of (evangelistic) campaigning seems to be a much more significant and broader problem.

  • Alan Noble

    “I think a truly Christian approach to fashion (for example) would embrace clothing as a human good, as a sort of glory, given by God. Exploiting the aesthetic for the sake of (evangelistic) campaigning seems to be a much more significant and broader problem.”

    Well said.

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  • Alex Branning

    Alan, me and my wife were having a discussion about this topic before church and I came to realize something: sometimes we wear shirts geared just to encourage “our team” (I hate using that phrase but bear with me) as opposed to converting the “other team.” In other words, I may wear an ultra-cheesy shirt (“Porn is for Posers” or something like that) that I know will be a reminder to me and maybe a subtle message to the friend I’m having lunch with that day.

    On a separate note, wearing Christian clothing sends the message “I am a Chrisian” and draws an extra level of scrutiny to your actions. I think any negative effects that our branded/messaging clothing may send will be extremely minimal and outweighed by the positive benefits of identifying yourself (and keeping you on your toes).

    Very well written and thought out piece, by the way

  • Alan Noble

    Alex-
    Thanks for reading! I always enjoy hearing your views. You bring up to good points. Let me see if I have understood them correctly:

    1. Christian clothing is good because it is a source of encouragement to other believers.

    2. Christian clothing is good because it helps identify us as believers, therefore reminding us to be lights in the world.

    To reply to the first idea, I would say we need to keep several things in mind. First, while it may be a source of encouragement, not only believers will see us in these shirts. In other words, since clothing is public by nature, it cannot only function to encourage our team, it will always function (even if secondarily) to challenge the beliefs of the opposite team.

    Take the example of a Raider’s shirt. If you see someone wearing a Raider’s shirt, you would automatically know he’s making two statements: “Go Raiders” and “Other teams are not as good as the Raiders.” The shirt has both a positive and a negative statement inherent in its design. And the same thing goes for (some, not all) Christian clothing: it both supports the Christian message, and challenges/excludes others. By nature, in other words, Christian clothing is unable to only encourage believers.

    Secondly, even if we believe shirts could be a source of encouragement, they would hardly be a good source of encouragement. There are so many other more personal, sincere, intimate, and loving ways to encourage believers (outlined in Scripture), that we simply don’t need tee-shirts.

    In fact, there is a danger in viewing tee-shirts as fulfilling our obligation to witness to the world or encourage the Brethren, it can make us apathetic. We could begin to see our obligations as filled through our clothing choices rather than our biblically mandated actions.

    To answer your second point, I would point back to John 13:34-35. Christ has already told us exactly how we should identify ourselves to the world. If we want an extra level of scrutiny for our actions, then we should strive to live lives that are so marked by brotherly love that it is evident to all who our Saviour is. In comparison to loving one another, how effective is an item of clothing?

    And of course, please remember that I don’t think these issues to be matters of “sin;” I believe this is an issue of “good”/”better”/”best” not “right” vs “wrong.”

    “What is the best way to glorify God through our clothing choices?” is the question, not “is it sin to wear cheesy clothing?” (I don’t want to sound legalistic here…)

    Thanks again for reading.

    -alan

  • http://www.wearchristianclothing.com Greg Ryan

    Sorry I am a little late for this party but I am new to blogging.

    I fall on the other side of this discussion. I own a Christian Clothing Company. Our clothing line empowers the believer to be a better witness for Christ.

    We have no clever sayings, just a drop of blood on a spike. We instruct believers to pray before wearing our clothes (trying to involve them in basic Christianity) and ask God to have someone, they come in contact with, ask a question.

    As a personal testimony, when I wear the clothes with the logo on them, it helps Me draw closer to God. I am now able to “put on Christ” daily, spiritually and physically. I have had 100′s of conversations about Jesus. These conversations were not started by me, but by someone asking a question. “What is that on your shirt?”

    Why would a true believer not support a Christian Clothing company if the companies’ heart was for the lost and not primarily for profit?

    Since the fall of Adam, our nakedness must be covered. Why not cover it with something that will lead others to Christ and draw us closer to God?

  • http://www.faithfultrends.com Christian Necklaces

    Great post, I really enjoyed it. I will have to bookmark this site for later.

  • Alan Noble

    Christian-
    Judging from the quality of your comment and the site you linked from, I am a bit suspicious that you didn’t actually read the post, but I hope I’m wrong.

  • Gabriel

    Alan, I think that anyone can muster up a complaint about anything. Magazines are used for both evil and good. Bumper stickers and the like are often quite effective in planting seeds in the minds of those who see them.. I know of an ex-atheist who was of a mindset of challenging God to show him that he existed. It was a simple bumper sticker with a scriptural quote which led him to Christ.

    God meets people where they are, in the strangest of situations or

    I enjoy reading stories of how people came to find Christ, and one I always remember is of a man was sitting at a bar who happened to overhear something someone said in passing. That was the seed.

    As Christians we are not to be condemning everything all the time.

    Someone who wears at-shirt or places a bumper sticker on a car with a good message will never know just God used that seed to plant it upon good ground.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com The Dane

    @Gabriel – People have come to Christ because of the Holocaust. That doesn’t mean that part of our program to evangelize ought to be to hold annual Holocausts. Just because God uses something in someone’s life to brign them to him doesn’t make the vehicle a good thing. If people come to Christ through a bumper sticker or through mormon preaching, that doesn’t justify the use of those things. It may just mean that God sometimes uses harmful things despite themselves.

  • http://www.downtoearthapparel.com DowntoEarth

    I agree with a lot of what was said, the problem is what audience it reaches, most of the shirts that are made are parodies that most people in their right mind wouldn’t wear. Myself as youth I don’t like it, definitely wouldn’t buy it. We should be the testimony and not our shirts, and there is a way to do it.


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