Early on in my faith journey, I decided to step through the doors of a Christian bookstore for the first time. It was like walking into a time warp. Everything I might need for ‘daily living’ was in there–even food (well, if you call TestaMints ‘food’). The books on the shelves seemed to be custom-designed for me. I never knew so many Bibles existed outside of a church building. There were chrome-plated fish I could put on my car. The music was ridiculously horrible, but I really didn’t seem to mind. In the back, there was even a small selection of t-shirts emblazoned with verses, sayings, and designs guaranteed to stop people in their tracks and make them ask questions. I grabbed one that struck me as being cool yet attention-grabbing and plunked down cash earned by mowing lawns in the sweltering South Carolina sun.
I acquired a few more t-shirts over the years and wore them whenever the opportunity arose (read: they were actually clean). But it was one morning in Chemistry class that changed my feelings about Christian t-shirts in general.
The shirt I had on that day had a traffic sign on the front with the line “Get right or get left.” A friend of mine had attended a concert with me at the church earlier in the year and raised their hand when ‘the question’ was asked. I saw some changes in his life over the next few months, but was asked on this fateful morning a question about the t-shirt. This was odd, I thought, as I had prepared for over a year to say the right thing–and yet nobody had ever asked me about it.
What I said came out completely wrong. In a spoonerism I haven’t duplicated since, I told him that he was supposed to get left, not get right. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself, but I don’t remember seeing the same changes in his life after that. I did apologize and corrected myself after the fact, but the damage may have already been done.
Is this the main reason why I consider Christian t-shirts to be a black eye–a mistake on my part? Not at all. Since that time, however, I’ve become leery of them and their effectiveness (implied or not). To this day, I’m not sure if anyone has ever seen a Christian t-shirt and came to faith on the spot (if you know of someone who has, I’d love to hear the story). Can they be useful? Absolutely. However, they can be better–much better–than they currently are.
Here are three thoughts you should consider when making a t-shirt selection at your local Christian bookstore:
1) If you’re going to choose something, please be original.
For decades, corporations have created brands that are easily recognizable to the general public. These logos and slogans are used on everything from television advertising to packaging to online media. Yet, almost without fail, a person can find a t-shirt in a Christian bookstore that has co-opted a trademarked logo to something Jesus-related (a prime example of what blogger Jon Acuff calls the ‘Jesus Juke‘). Reese’s peanut butter cups become Jesus-themed. Coca-Cola becomes an ad for the Savior. The release of The Hunger Games in theaters provided an opportunity to showcase ‘Hunger for God’ shirts using similar fonts and styles. I personally get a sick feeling in my stomach every time I see a modified corporate logo being worn in public. How the companies that consistently do this haven’t been sued is completely beyond me.
Cannibalism is *not* creativity. Stop it and be truly original!
2) If you have difficulty in reading and understanding what’s on the shirt, others will too.
I’m surprised more people don’t say anything about this point. In theory, at least, a t-shirt is supposed to catch the eye, make a point, and impress it on the viewer in about 2-3 seconds. Sure, there are going to be occasions where a person has time to stop, read, and think about what a shirt says. But that’s not the norm. So why do Christian t-shirts feature verses written in 14-18 point font (or a little larger than the text you’re currently reading) that are more than ten words long? It just gets lost on the shirt itself. If the font is script or difficult to read, it just makes things worse.
In addition to this, a number of shirts feature verse references from the Bible. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing to do, provided people either a) know the verse by heart or b) take the time to pull out a Bible or grab their phone (or iPad) and look it up on the spot. It just rarely happens in that 2-3 second window. Some shirts I’ve seen also make it a point to link a reference to everything, offering 7-8 verses (or even passages) to consider. Besides, if the shirt is to be used as a witnessing ‘tool,’ a non-Christian isn’t thinking about finding a Bible. Their next appointment, a situation they’re dealing with, or beating their high score on Temple Run is of significantly more concern. Why do we forget this?
Keep it simple, clear, and to the point!
3) Do consider the underlying message you’ll be giving off by wearing the shirt.
Wearing a Christian t-shirt tells people (if they can understand its meaning in that 2-3 second timeframe) that you’re a Christian who follows Jesus. This is a good thing, but can also immediately stereotype a person as well whether they believe certain things or not: “Oh, they’re for this or they’re against that.” “We know how they’re going to vote in November.” “They’re part of that crazy group I read about in the news that…” Those reactions may not be necessarily true, but why not allow one’s words and actions do the talking instead? Why not tell the truth without letting a potentially obnoxious shirt muddy the waters instead for you–as well as those Christians that person might come into contact with in the future?
If something becomes a hindrance or wall that keeps people away from Jesus, my first task is not to rationalize or defend the wall. Instead, I get rid of the wall and keep the communication lines open.
Think before you choose!
What are people going to to know Christians for? Hopefully, it’s not by giving Jesus a black eye in the form of the things we wear to ‘promote’ him. Be an example to others in life, in love, in faith, in speech, and in purity instead. That will speak more eloquently than a t-shirt ever could.