I was ten years old when I first caught sight of a graphic tee. Shopping at the local mall with my mother, I saw a teenage punk wearing a shirt imprinted with the phrase, “I Am the Kid Your Parents Warned You About” across his chest. Soon after, the graphic tee fad exploded. Whether this trend was just another recycled fashion statement that the latest generation embraced, or an actual original style, I do not know. Either which way, the effects of the graphic tee fad were significant. As the trend progressed, more peculiar sayings were printed on t-shirts. Naturally, as more t-shirts were printed, the more tribe-oriented they became. Eventually, the graphic tee fashion statement bled into the evangelical Christian subculture. Today, shirts donning statements such as, “Jesus is My Homeboy,” and “Mary is My Homegirl,” beg the question of the merchandise’s effect on the perception of Christianity. It is easy to mock and ridicule Christian merchandise, such as these tees, without fully exploring the repercussions of their existence. However, considering the prevalence and popularity of Christian merchandise, it is necessary to delve deeper into the ramifications and influence that it has on spreading the gospel.
The graphic tee is just a snippet of the Christian merchandise available today. Christian-themed products such as The Life of Faith dolls, What Would Jesus Do? bracelets, and the Left Behind video game, have all caused controversy within the evangelical tribe. The debate revolves around the messages that Christian merchandise, namely wardrobe, toys, and paraphernalia, send to non-Christians when it is utilized to spread the gospel. It is necessary to acknowledge that some Christian merchandise is not designed to function as a miniature package of the gospel. Some congregational members wear t-shirts and place bumper stickers on their cars to foster a sense of community within their church. By representing their church, they are promoting togetherness. These very specific areas of Christian merchandise are exempt from this critique. The issue of the mass amounts of Christian merchandise serves as the primary ongoing dispute between believers. This merchandise attempts to package the entire message of redemption that is found through Christ into a polished product in hopes of reaching nonbelievers. Supporters of Christian merchandise often proclaim that it is a form of evangelism. In “Merchandising Jesus Products,” Diane M. Badzinski explains further:
“Many evangelicals enthusiastically support the production and consumption of Christian-related merchandise…Fans argue that Christian products are messages that can communicate the gospel, thereby helping fulfill the Great Commission. In other words, Christian products are communication tools to persuade as well as teach and delight consumers” (175).
The viewpoint that mass amounts of Christian merchandise can be used to spread the gospel is a noble one. It is a philosophy that adheres to the belief that the more the message is out there, the better the chance it has to be received. However, the consequences of mass amounts of Christian merchandise do not correspond with these honorable intentions. Christian merchandise hinders the gospel more so than it advances it.
Intentions, although noble and inspiring, are not a valid reason to carry out actions. Especially when the result of your actions do not reflect your intentions. Despite Christian merchandise’s potential to be a valuable medium for evangelism, it is ultimately counterproductive. The graphic tee mentioned earlier is evidence of this assertion. In “Pop Culture Gets Religion,” TheWallStreetJournal.com describes the fad:
Madonna, who is devoted to a form of Jewish mysticism, has been spotted wearing a ‘Mary Is My Homegirl’ T-shirt. So has Pamela Anderson…The merchandise works on two levels: fun fashion for the faithful, irreverent commentary for others. Either way, Christian apparel is enjoying a moment of hip legitimacy” (1).
Christianity is not meant to serve as a source of trendy mockery for the secular worldview. This does not imply that Christians should refrain from sharing their faith in fear of being ridiculed. Rather, the medium in which we display our beliefs is just as significant as the message itself. Essentially, the medium is the message. Christian merchandise cheapens the gospel by slapping it on a poorly designed t-shirt, making it into a cartoon band-aid, and integrating it into a shoddy video game. When Christians produce and consume a medium such as these merchandise items, the message inevitably becomes attached to the means in which it is delivered. Consequently, the message is tainted by the tacky “Jesus Loves You” flip-flops, “Jesus Went All In For You” poker chips, and “Fruit of the Spirit” lip gloss.
Tawdry Christian merchandise often falls into the category of kitsch. Kitsch is a form of art that is particularly trite and void of creativity. In Art & Soul, author Hilary Brand describes kitsch, writing, “Kitsch trivializes human experience, never enlarges it. It deals in cliché, never new ways of saying something…It is high on nostalgia and glitter and low on realism” (107). By placing the gospel on kitsch, Christians communicate that the message can be equated to the quality of the merchandise on which it is proclaimed. The hope found in the gospel is worth more than the merchandise that is declaring it. This does not mean, however, that no form of medium should ever be used to aid in spreading the gospel. This philosophy and logic would have to entail that because the gospel is the ultimate message, no medium would ever be worthy to convey the message. The issue revolves around the mass amounts of Christian merchandise and how it affects evangelism. The prevalence of kitsch in its entirety is what has detrimental ramifications. Brand tackles this issue by comparing the attachment that an individual may have to kitsch-like merchandise and the large-scale consequences that it has as a medium:
The attachment [of kitsch] is often based not on the aesthetic qualities of the object but the associations and memories it evokes…There is, of course, nothing wrong with that…However, if Christian artists produce art which is shallow, sentimental and low on realism, they not only produce bad art, they also misinterpret the full Christian experience of living in a broken, albeit redeemed, world. (107)
Producing Christian merchandise in order to serve as an evangelistic tool is an honest task. However, the mass amounts and quality of the medium taints the message.
The futility of Christian merchandise is due in large part to the lapdog nature it seems to convey. Most Christian merchandise is a recycled version of what the rest of the world has already created, such as “Dance Praise,” banner backpacks, and “Armor of God Pajamas.” In addition to being recycled, Christian merchandise is usually just a “cleaner” version of a product that is void of the realities of sin. These two elements of Christian merchandise create a system: take a medium that will appeal to nonbelievers, gloss it over with the gospel message, sell it to Christians, watch the conversions begin. This transparent attempt to persuade nonbelievers into faith by producing relevant yet righteous merchandise is not only ineffective, but also deceiving. While Christianity does offer a hope that no other system of beliefs can replicate, it is not a cure-all pill.
A filtered version of the rest of the world’s merchandise, which lacks the reality of the sin and trials that people endure, will not attract people to the gospel. Attempting to get through to a nonbeliever by way of “pure” merchandise is a futile effort. Russell D. Moore, author of “Can a Glamorous New Bible Reach the Cosmo Teen?,” comments on the failed attempts of Christian merchandising:
Evangelicals have long believed that the way to get attention is to reincarnate the gospel into a vanilla-flavored version of whatever worldly fad is the going thing…but these things just don’t seem to penetrate a secular youth culture…because they already have glamour magazines and boy bands and karaoke clubs—and they are done better than we can do them. (1)
It is impossible for the gospel to be embraced by the mainstream media and pop culture because of the sheer fact that mainstream is of the world. The Bible warned Christians that the world would reject them long before MTV and People Magazine ever existed. The world, which consists of the “mainstream,” will never embrace Christianity or its mass-produced merchandise. Knowing this fact does not give us the freedom to stop spreading the gospel. However, it does shed light on the fact that we do have a responsibility to deliver the gospel in the most practical way possible. Christian merchandise may be made with the intentions of fulfilling the Great Commission. But it causes nonbelievers to believe that Christianity has nothing of quality to offer—only a poorly delivered, sterilized message void of reality and brokenness.
Despite its shortcomings, Christian merchandise has managed to prosper into a fully functioning industry. Although there is nothing inherently evil about commerce, it is ironic that a business created for the purpose to integrate Christianity into society has managed to further isolate believers from the rest of the world. By creating mass amounts of ripped-off and sterilized merchandise, Christian consumers have succeeded in cementing a subculture. As Christian merchandise becomes more accessible, the divide between secular and Christian culture continues to grow. In the “The Jesus Market,” Stephen Bates recalls his first experience with Christian-themed products stating, “The new godly merchandise, I figured, represented the quarantine at work…Instead of trying to transfigure the mass culture, they were building a cloistered subculture” (34). Christian merchandise is not viewed as a tool for communicating a message by most nonbelievers—it is special badge bought and championed by members of the club only. Christian merchandise is produced with the intention of serving as a tool for evangelism. However, it is made by Christians and for Christians. So as the more merchandise that only Christians buy is produced, the more the subculture is defined and separated from the rest of the world.
This concept cannot be better exemplified by mainstream Christian bookstores. One may be tempted to argue that Christian merchandise’s regressing effect on the gospel is merely a widespread notion rather than a reality. However, Christian bookstores, which are the reflection of Christian subculture, are a haven for merchandise. Christianity is morphing into a brand of lifestyle identified by physical possessions rather than evident godly qualities. Bates elaborates on this idea writing, “Christian pop culture is expanding to fill a vacuum. Fewer evangelicals these days are absolutists on elaborate matters of doctrine. Seminaries and other evangelical institutions have lost some measure of authority” (“Market” 35). In other words, believers are filling the void of solid biblical ideology in modern day Christianity with subculture and the “spiritual” connotations that come with being a part of it. This subculture, which is partly made up of Christian bookstores and the merchandise in them, isolates Christians from the very world they aspire to reach. Although the segregation is not solely caused by Christian merchandise, it is one of the many factors that create an inaccessible subculture.
Some evangelicals believe that Christian merchandise serves as a bridge for connecting to the rest of society. However, personal interaction is more attractive than garish wardrobe and poor quality video games. Moore describes his observations in youth ministry writing, “The revivals that we are seeing among teenagers come through a remarkably ancient plan: Christians who love teenagers enough not to seek to ape their pop culture, but instead to dwell among them and point them to something completely different” (“Glamorous” 1). Losing sight of the importance in which the gospel is delivered is the greatest danger that Christian merchandise poses to the church. Relationships, rather than things, are more likely to draw people to faith and preserve the dignity of Christianity. The inaccessible subculture that Christian merchandise has helped create is a symptom of the lack of relational evangelism within the church. It is foolish to believe that Christian merchandise alone has caused the church to stray from interpersonal communication with nonbelievers. However, it is necessary to recognize that Christian merchandise is not only the result of a skewed attitude toward the importance of personal relationships, but also a catalyst. By continuing to create and consume Christian merchandise, we further perpetuate a filtered and inaccessible subculture that lacks strong, relational evangelistic efforts in the church. Christian merchandise in its attempt to model an “arrows-out” mentality, has sacrificed the element of personal relationships. Although its intentions are in good conscience, they are not a license to create merchandise that is counterproductive for the gospel. Again, Christian merchandise is not the sole problem for the decline of interpersonal communication in evangelism. However, the connection between the rise of Christian merchandise and the fall in relational evangelism cannot go unnoticed. The church should address this problem, which partly manifests itself in the form of Christian merchandise.
Attaching the gospel to the latest fashion or toy endows the same future to the message it depicts. Christianity runs the risk of becoming nothing more than the trends it so desperately attempts to associate itself with when it is packaged and sold. David White, author of the article “Selling Faith,” observes, “In attempting to copy every element of contemporary culture and rework it into a Christianized context, we run the risk of becoming so relevant that we are irrelevant. It is important to keep in mind that…Christianity is not about having a cleaner version of what the world has” (1). Fads are continually evolving, but the message of hope found in Jesus Christ is applicable to all people everywhere. Christians should not attempt to appeal to the world through a medium that is manufactured and glossed over with a hint of God. By producing mass amounts of this Christian merchandise, believers have created a filtered and inaccessible subculture that does not reflect the reality of sin or mission of the church. We should proclaim the gospel in confidence, knowing it is more desirable than any piece of merchandise man can create.
Badzinski, Diane M. “Merchandising Jesus Products.” Understanding Evangelical Media. Ed. Quentin J. Schultze and Robert H. Woods Jr. Illinois: IVP, 2008. 173-185.
Brand, Hilary and Adrienne Chaplin. Art & Soul. Illinois: IVP, 2007. 107.
Bates, Stephen. “The Jesus Market.” The Weekly Standard. 12 Dec. 2002: 34-36.
Moore, Russell D. “Can a Glamorous New Bible Reach the Cosmo Teen?” Merchandise. 2003. BibleResearch.com. 25 Mar. 2009. < http://www.bible-researcher.com/merchandise.html>.
“Pop Culture Gets Religion.” Media and Marketing. 2004. TheWallStreetJournal.com. 25 Mar. 2009. <http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB13714671-IBjfINilaJ3mpuuaX6GbaqDm4.html>.
White, David. “Selling Faith.” Merchandising the Gospel. InPlainSite.org. 25 Mar. 2009. < http://www.inplainsite.org/html/merchandising_the_gospel.html#SF>.