Ancient Rome: Two strangers meet along a dusty road. Miles pass in pleasant conversation. Obscure references to religious ideas slip into the dialogue. The men sense a spiritual kinship but are wary of expressing it. After all, Christianity is a criminal offense punishable by death.
They stop to rest. The discussion rambles from the latest war news to the price of bread and the hijinks of the Roman Senate. The younger of the two pushes his walking stick through the dust as he talks, tracing half an oval.
The older man glances at the mark, then into the eyes of his new acquaintance, and quickly around to see who else might be paying attention. Then with his own staff, he draws a mirror image, connecting with the first line at one end but intersecting it at the other. "He is risen!" he exclaims. "He is risen indeed!" comes the reply.
Modern Rome: Two American tourists meet while waiting to clear customs. One wears a $50 pullover knit shirt. The logo replicates what the ancient Christians drew in the dirt--an emblem of a fish. The other sports a baseball cap with a four-letter acronym on the crown: WWJD?
"Nice shirt," says one. "Great hat," says the other.
What a difference a few centuries make.
The cost attached to that original Christian icon was severe.
Display the fish symbol, and the culture could demand you pay with your life. In the 21st century, the cost of Christian symbols is more ambiguous. Christian gear--clothes, jewelry, bumper stickers, and related merchandise--generates an estimated $3 billion in annual revenue. But the real value of those purchases is more difficult to peg.
Some evangelicals say "Christian wear" is an effective witnessing tool. Others say it does more harm than good, particularly when the actions of Christians contradict their T-shirts.
Some things haven't changed over the centuries. Now, as then, Christian symbols remain a means of identifying "friendlies." But what was once a furtive code for a persecuted religious minority is now a spiritual fashion statement. While early Christians contemplated, often in the dank darkness of the underground tombs of Rome, how to live faithfully the example of Jesus, today's believers, especially evangelicals, are apt to broadcast that intention on brightly colored bracelets and T-shirts asking, "What Would Jesus Do?"
The companies that sell such items uniformly say they create witnessing opportunities. "The average shirt is read 10,000 times!" touts Spiritual Wear on its website, spiritualwear.com. "You're just a click away from ordering some of the best Christian apparel available. Make a statement of faith with what you wear!"
"Proclaiming the Good News one tee at a time!" announces Kerusso Activewear. "With the right message and emphasis, a tee-shirt can definitely help bring someone to Christ."
Living Epistles Apparel (livingepistles.com), whose Christian gear includes everything from clothes to mouse pads, describes itself as "a witnessing company dedicated to helping Christians creatively share the truth of the gospel and to create witnessing opportunities for Christians...."
The websites are the latest angle on Christian marketing, but the same products have been available for years through Christian bookstores. The exhibit hall at the annual Christian Booksellers Association is crammed with as much Christian gear as books and Bibles, which account for only 40% of sales at the average Christian bookstore.Do these products deliver what they promise? Are they effective for evangelism?
Opinions cover the spectrum. Many people say such items do a better job of identifying and encouraging Christians than attracting non-believers to Christ. And some people fear a negative shadow may fall on Christianity if those displaying the items act like jerks.
Even the minister who instigated the WWJD explosion looks forward to the time the profitable sheen wears off that particular concept. About a decade ago, Reformed Church minister Janie Tinkleberg came up with the WWJD bracelets for her youth group. She didn't copyright the idea, so anyone is free to produce WWJD items. But she doubts the fad is a good thing.
"I suspect bumper stickers and bracelets have the most effects on two groups: the people who wear or display them, as a manner of self-expression, and those for whom it is a 'hot button' topic, either agreeing or disagreeing fervently," said William Benoit, who teaches rhetoric, persuasive speaking, argument, and advocacy at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "I doubt that the people in the middle are much influenced."