T-Shirt Evangelism

Back in 2006, I spoke to the Western New York Annual Conference about living the “Gifts, Graces, and Fruit of the Spirit.” (Based on my sensational book, Beyond Money — no longer in print, so contact Discipleship Resources at the General Board of Discipleship and raise a stink…)  For the Fruit of the Spirit portion of the presentation, I wore a T-Shirt that simply says, “Got Fruit?” (borrowing/stealing the motif and font of the “Got Milk?” campaign).  I still wear the T-shirt, and I absolutely love it because no matter where I wear it, people always comment on it and I have opportunity to discuss with them what it means.  I was in Nashville, Tennessee a couple of weeks ago and a younger couple commented on my shirt — “Cool, but what does it mean?”  I explained my vision for churches living the fruit of the Spirit — being known for their love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  The young woman paused for a moment, then said, “If churches were really like that, we might actually go!”  I commented that there are some churches like this out there, and she responded, “None I’ve ever found.”

So, this is the challenge.  What would it take to make our churches live up to the vision of fruit-filled faith?  How do we become renowned for our love and joy?  What will it take to establish a reputation of peace and patience?  What kinds of changes do we need to make so that the first word that comes to people’s minds when they think of “church” is kindness or generosity or gentleness?  What kind of training do we need to make faithfulness and self-control synonymous with church?

Last week, I was wearing my Divine Savior UMC T-shirt and a young guy came up to me and asked, “Why do you have a burning cross on your shirt?” (The cross and flame logo of United Methodism).  I explained that we are a people saved by the cross of Christ and empowered by the fire of the holy Spirit.  He smirked at me and said, “More like you self-righteously judge the world and think it will all burn in hell.”  I took a long look at this guy and said, “You don’t know me at all.  Why would you assume that I would want to be part of a hateful, hostile and judgmental organization like that?  That’s a really unfair judgement on your part.”  He turned away, but not before saying, “You’re the one with a burning cross on his shirt…”

Not all encounters work out well.  But it puts it out there — my passive shirts send out signals that open the conversation — whether it goes the way I want it to or not.  But, the medium is NOT the message in this case.  What is required is the human contact — the opportunity to talk to the person on the receiving end.  Both of the encounters cited above hit negative filters — people’s experience of church did not line up with the reason I wear the shirts.  I am proud of my faith and my church.  I see the shirts as outward and visible signs of deep personal realities — the potential for fruit-filled community and connection.  I would love for people to share the vision and hope I feel.  I am always glad people respond to the shirts, but it is always up to me to frame it in the most positive way possible.

I have shared this story before, but forgive me — it illustrates my point.  Year’s ago I was driving in Emerson, New Jersey and I got behind a minivan with a “Honk If You Love Jesus” bumper sticker.  I was in a playful mood, so I pulled up behind the vehicle and tooted my horn.  The guy driving it looked in his rear view mirror and I waved with a smile on my face.  We moved up to the next traffic light, and I did it again.  I honked my horn behind him at each traffic stop for the next four or five blocks.  He kept looking in his mirror and I kept tooting, until he finally slammed on his brakes, jumped out of the car and gestured at me with the middle finger of both hands (must have been his wife’s car…).  This guy was probably a nice guy — I have nothing to judge him on but his bumper sticker and his behavior.  But isn’t that what most people have to judge us on, at least at first?  Whether we like it or not, we are guilty by association.  To the extent that our Christian faith is a consistent witness to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control (not to mention mercy, compassion, grace, civility and respect, etc.) our T-shirts, bumper stickers, window decals, cross necklaces, and WWJD wristbands are a powerful witness.  But they are equally powerful when we fail to live the fruit-filled faithful life.  By our fruit, we will be known.  I long for a day when wearing my “Got Fruit?” T-shirt will make people nod and smile with approval because it will trigger in their hearts and minds wonderful memories of how they came to know love, joy, peace, patience etc., etc., through Christian community.

10 replies

  1. I wore my “Rethink Church” T-shirt to Walmart one day, and a couple in the checkout line wanted to know what it meant so I had an opportunity to tell them.

  2. I do pro-life necklace evangelism. It’s very useful. I’ve had a lot of people ask about it and have gotten to talk about it. It’s really cool. My t-shirt evangelism hasn’t worked as well though. No one ever has asked about my shirts.

  3. I do have to start with one funny bumper sticker story. When I was in college at Appalachian State in Boone, NC, I was walking towards the Bookstore/Student Union one day, and noticed a car parked along the street with a faculty sticker, and a UNC-Chapel Hill bumper sticker. I couldn’t stop myself. I went into the bookstore and bought an ASU bumper sticker and put it over the faculty member’s UNC sticker.

    But on to more serious matters, Dan. Clearly, the studies and surveys are showing that people (young people especially) are no less “spiritual” than in the past. Why would not then seek out a religious group/organization to help me better experience and learn about that spirituality? Maybe because are churches are just not that spiritual…and don’t mean filled with the Holy Ghost, hell fire and brimstone spirituality…but the kind you described above.

    About two years ago I took a resolution to our Administrative Council to pass a non-discrimination statement. It was after the rash of young people committed suicide because of bullying. I’d prepared a handout with a small photo and brief biography of each of them. The Pastor of the Church, a former DS here in Florida (strongly opposed to the statement) got up to speak…held the handout between two fingers by the corner, and shook it like it was a smelly fish, and said, “So, does anyone here know any of these kids, are any of them members here”…as though their lives didn’t matter since they weren’t members of “our church.”

    I will say, thanks to having a large contingent of the older, active, contributing members there to speak in favor of the resolution, it passed, and the Ministers been moved, but that’s too often where we are. And the leadership of this church, the Episcopacy, does nothing to present a different face of Christianity to the larger world. They are, by and large, just as insular as many local churches. Back prior to the Amendment 1 vote in North Carolina there was a Pastor telling his congregants to break the limp wrist of their sons if they appear to be gay, and another saying gay people should be rounded up and put in concentration camps…and yet, from the leadership of the Methodist Church, na da. Sure, they’d argue the ministers weren’t Methodist…no matter…they were the face of Christiantiy and “church” for a week’s worth of the news cycle. Why would anyone consider Christianity if that’s all they know of it?

    Of course, while I know there are a few decent Bishops, this deafening silence doesn’t surprise me. A Bishop allowed a delegate at GC to compare gays to animals without ruling him out of order, but the next day, when another delegate expressed his feelings about the incident, and merely asked those who felt the same to stand…he was immediately ruled out of order. So it is time to stop pretending that it’s someone else making Christianity look bad…We’re doing a fine job ourselves, and not doing much to make the case that we’re not like some of these extremists.

    • I believe Jesus weeps each time a person is cast aside. Jesus’ message is inclusive. Love thy neighbor! How dare the United Methodist Church decide to change the message? The only reason I stay in the denomination is a hope that I live long enough to help enact change from within. Another biased General Conference like the one this summer and my patience is likely to end.

  4. One of my college profs had the same expereince with a “honk if you love Jesus” bumper sticker you had (he only honked once, and the guy flipped him off).

  5. Dan, I am part of the faith community, but have recently left the UMC. I can certainly understand the attitudes of those that are negative about the faith we profess. Those of us that do not share the opinion that the church is there to minister to us, but those outside our walls, welcoming to all, not just those that look like us, are often times the minority. I don’t know how many times I have heard, “THOSE people aren’t able to support the church”, we need young families. My previous church prayed for “people to come through our doors” “more children”. They were blessed with those from our community, often times broken by drugs, alcohol, hunger and poverty. Children that didn’t know they were suppose to be quiet in church, or to make only one modest trip to the buffet table during a after church luncheon. Where are they now?, gone, froze out by a congregation that didn’t really want the blessing they were given. Congregation members left because we were “letting THOSE people” into the church. I too long for the day when we “Got Fruit”

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