While I was driving up to Michigan from Ohio a few weeks ago, I noticed a giant billboard that read, “Jesus is Real.” Now, as a Christ-follower, I already know that Jesus is real, but seeing it written against a 40- foot high silver backdrop, it actually made Jesus seem less real to me in that moment. I thought, “If the immeasurably transcendent and all powerful God of the universe is real, then why would He need some tacky billboard to declare what He could not declare, Himself?” That well-intentioned billboard somehow managed to make the reality of Jesus quite artificial.
In that same vein, I’ve been noticing what is actually written on Christian t-shirts donned by fellow followers of Jesus. Here are a few I saw just this past week: “Get Right or Get Left” and “This Blood’s for You” and “Jesus: Tougher Than Nails.”
While I was at it, I observed a few bumper stickers out on the road: “Jesus Is The Answer” and “Know Jesus, Know Peace. No Jesus, No Peace” and, one of my favorites: “Jesus Loves the Hell Out of You.”
We evangelicals really don’t get that there is a lot of truth to the saying that ”the medium is the message.” God knows this; that’s why He orchestrated the Incarnation of Jesus instead of merely sending us a book that informed us about grace, love and salvation. Instead of dropping tablets from the sky declaring the truth of redemption and information about promise of the Spirit and the coming Kingdom, He sent His Son in flesh and blood—the fragile child clothed in humanity who was also the full manifestation of the Father, not to mention the personification of grace, love and redemption. Jesus didn’t just bring the message of God. He was the message of God.
So what does this have to do with Christian t-shirts and bumpers stickers?
Because we, as evangelical Christians, have such a beautiful and weighty message to share, we somehow forget that we often truncate and belittle this beautiful and weighty message whenever we take God’s truth and then stick on a t-shirt, bumper sticker, hat or billboard. Here’s the deal: if you come up to me in the midst of my pain and depression and, through your tears of compassion, remind me how much God loves me, that might mean a lot and make a world of difference. But if you take those same words, “God loves you,” and silkscreen them onto a tank top, stick them across the back of your Jeep or pay for a vanity license plate that reads “GD LVZ U,” then the beauty and weight of this amazing truth begins to evaporate. It somehow becomes flat and hollow and even a bit…cheesy.
The gospel is communicated best where there is some level of relationship present. God’s truth, grace, love and beauty are best expressed incarnationally—in community—where the Spirit of God is dynamically at work in the lives of people. To the degree that God’s beautiful and weighty message is disconnected from this relational context (not to mention a theological or biblical one), the weaker and cheesier it comes across. That’s why t-shirts and bumper stickers are the worst culprits. There is no relationship between a pastor’s kid wearing a “This Blood’s for You” shirt and the strangers who read it. There’s no relationship between your “Jesus is the Answer” caboose sticker and all of the tailgaters who follow behind it.
For that matter, these same kinds of messages often come across in the same empty, trivial way to passersby of a church sign in front of Goodwill United Church that reads, “Free Coffee. Everlasting Life. Yes, membership has its privileges.” Talk about taking a heavy-duty theological doctrine with profound implications and packaging it in a Happy Meal box. Now I’m sure that God in His sovereignty has actually used a church sign to draw someone into the pews or even bring them to conversion. I have never met such a person, but I’m sure he or she exists. But the small number of such people would never hold a candle to the number of people who came to church and came to faith because of the Spirit at work through the transformed lives of God’s loving people who simply love their neighbors and are willing to “do life” with them.
That’s why sending such Christian messages via email or Facebook is a little bit better. While it’s still not in person (lacking the physical, emotional and interpersonal dynamics), there is usually at least some level of relationship that already exists between two people or a group of people. The thing is that we are embodied beings, designed by God to interact and best express His love to each other on a deeply human level—through the sound of our voice, through our facial expressions, through physical touch, through eye contact and sharing the presence of the Spirit with others. And, for as wonderful as technological advancements in communication and social media have become, I feel that we are losing something…losing part of our community soul on this journey of faith that seems to feel more and more fragmented, isolated and inanimate.
What’s more, I think I am bothered by why many evangelicals wear t-shirts and showcase bumper stickers. Of course we do know a large reason why these things are produced–for profit. (You know that, as I write this, that WWJD? inventor is sitting poolside right now overlooking his private beach from his mansion on the Greek Isles.) Anyhoo, many of us consumers have sported these Christian sayings and bible verses because it makes us feel good about ourselves and where we are in our spiritual walk. We feel good that we can prove our love for Jesus by letting the worldly people know where we stand.
Do we really expect pagans and PoMos to read these trite Christian catch phrases across our chest and repent? Do we think they will be compelled to begin a discussion on faith with us because we are wearing an “I logon to Faithbook ” t-shirt? We hope this happens, but odds are it never will. In fact, it may very well do the opposite and scare off any pre-Christian from having any conversations with us at all. Why? Because we have already drawn a line in the sand. We have already labeled ourselves as “insiders” and therefore have dubbed them, “outsiders.” And, armed with years’ worth of bad experiences with type-casted bible thumpers, they already have us pegged and figured out—and they’re going in the other direction. And that’s the price we often pay when we want to feel good about our evangelistic “witness wear” instead of being recognized by and sought after for our love, generosity, grace, courage, wisdom and [dare I say?] ability to converse and interact like a normal person.