How Should We Think About Selling Jesus?
Looking at the big business of consumer Christianity.
Imagine you’ve just walked into a Christian bookstore for the first time. What do you see? There’s the Bible section—lots of different versions, translations and niche-Bibles for various subcultures, but nothing terribly out of the ordinary. There’s the shelves of theological books, with everyone from Walvoord to NT Wright making their cases. There’s the fiction section with the expected Left Behinds and the Jesus-y romance books, but there are probably even some diamonds in the rough here. And then your eye trails to the apparel section. And you start to recognize logos … but then realize "Starbucks" has been replaced by "Sacrificed for Me" and "Myspace" is written as "Myspace in Heaven is Secure."
Sure you’ve just seen some isolated examples, you keep looking around, and notice some other disturbing things. Is that a copy of Chicken Soup for the Cat-Loving Single Woman with Two Cars and a Condo in Montpelier? Is that a bracelet taking Jeremiah 29:11 out of context? And … is that a painting of Jesus in front of an American flag?
Congratulations! You’ve just discovered "Jesus junk" mixed in with the other stuff.
The lucrative market of religious products is a balancing act. In the close-to-$7 billion dollar market segment, there
is a fine line between exploiting God and using whatever means possible
to preach His Good News. Teeter one way or the other and there is the
risk of either being ineffective or destructive and encouraging cynicism.
“Christian-branded products cannot contribute to the internal work of
Christ in our hearts, and no amount of religious goods make us Christian," says Skye Jethani, author of The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity. "However, being immersed in a culture that’s wired us to focus on externalities means the avalanche of Jesus-junk marketed at Christians does carry a danger."
The responsibility for consumers to not be defined by the products they consume is clear; but what is the responsibility of those producing and selling the products? Two things are essential to consider: the company’s perspective and the company’s impact. Representing God is a holy responsibility that should not be taken lightly.
Mark Bontempo is the founder of Testamints, a company that produces mints
and gum boldly labeled with Scripture verses. Sold in Christian
bookstores and Hobby Lobby, the candy has become synonymous with questionable
Christian products. Popular blog stuffchristianslike.net sarcastically calls it “one of God’s top three favorite candies” and products like it “just more stuff.” But Bontempo contends that it serves a higher purpose than fulfilling our desire to consume.
“I guess you can look at it from the perspective of, is there a need for any product out there, any new candy?” he asks. “The answer is probably not. God can use other methods but He inspired us with creative minds and we see that any opportunity to get the Word of God out there is important.”
Bontempo and others like him, including Aurelio Barreto of popular Christian clothing store C28 and apparel line Not of This World, see the products not as the end-all-be-all in the conversation but simply as a tool, a means to an end.
“Wearing a ‘Christian’ shirt will not make you a Christian, any more than just going to church and pretending you are,” says Barreto. “The right ‘Christian’ clothing can lead people to think about God, and that is a good thing, right?”
“Other companies have phrases on the back too, just a little message, and people read those,” Bontempo adds. “It is up to the person who has that pack to share; it’s not the complete Gospel, it’s an inroad. Every conversation is just one factor in helping them understand Jesus Christ. It is an ongoing process, it isn’t just bang you over the head and say, ‘Get saved right this second,’ but it’s a process.”
Admitting there are companies out there simply to make a profit, Testamint’s makers stress that a high quality product is important. Unlike “Religious Bubble Gum Coins” that are as flavorful as cardboard, Bontempo says the quality in itself is a message.
“If you are going to put out a product with God’s Word on it, you need to give God your best,” he says, citing their high quality ingredients that are comparable with any gum, such as Orbit. “If you make a product that people spit out of their mouth, what is that saying about the message?”
And the impact? What kind of impact are companies like this making? And
does that matter? Bontempo says the simple fact that some who have
never opened a Bible are reading the Word of God is enough of an impact
to justify the dollars and cents dilemma. The fact that the product is commercially viable is simply a necessity.
“We find a lot of embedded Christians in major companies who want to partner with us,” he says. “For
them, they have to account to their bosses that this product works from
a dollars and cents standpoint. Just like anything else, it has to
perform. But it is doing something different because it is getting the
Word out there. How can it hurt putting a Bible verse on a piece of candy to share with somebody?”
C28 has their impact stated more bluntly: despite losing $1.9 million in
the first four years, the company has rebounded and been able to donate
over $500,000 to evangelistic causes (Mercy Ships, Campus Crusade for
Christ and C28 Outreach Ministries). Anyone saying they are simply out to make a buck would have a hard time justifying that position considering that Barreto only just began to take a $50,000 salary in 2007.
In addition, their website says that more than 13,000 people have come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ through their stores and outreaches. It is this statistic they quote as their ultimate bottom line, the motivation for starting the store.
“For 38 years of my life not one so-called ‘Christian’ ever shared the gospel with me,” Barreto laments. “I would observe their good qualities as well as their poor qualities, never realizing that Jesus Christ died for us and those who believe in Jesus are saved. Once I gave my life to Jesus, I realized how many Christians could care less about sharing their faith. Knowing this, the Lord led me to share God’s written scripture on shirts and let God’s word bless
As for the negative impact that God-themed apparel or products can have, neither Barreto nor Bontempo think the products are to blame. Acknowledging there is a consumer culture in America and within Christian culture, they place the impetus of what to do with those products squarely on the shoulders of those who claim to follow Christ.
Which is where this topic eventually lands. No matter from which angle the question of "Christian" products is looked at, it eventually comes full circle, back to the consumer. As easy as it is to shift blame or credit to the producer, if there was no consumer there would be no product.
Jesus said we will be known as His disciples by our love for each other, not the T-shirts we wear. “It is not what someone wears that cheapens the message, but what comes out of their heart and mouth,” Barreto says.