South Carolina is facing a lawsuit over the proposed production of specialty Christian license plates with the imprint, "I Believe." While opponents are asking whether or not this law constitutes state endorsement of religion, I have another important question: Why do people want these license plates, anyway?
I've often wondered why some Christians wear "Jesus" T-shirts and cross necklaces. I'm not sure what people hope to convey with bumper stickers reading, "In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned."
I suspect many believers think their T-shirts and the like will attract non-believers to Jesus. I've heard Christians refer to their inspirational paraphernalia as "conversation starters" for the purpose of evangelism. But do these things actually serve as icebreakers for real conversation? Or do they just make us feel we've witnessed, without ever saying a word?
This "secondhand evangelism" doesn't seem very effective. A couple years ago, my husband and I were enjoying lunch at a café when another couple plunked down at the table next to us. The man began speaking to his female companion at a level audible to every diner in the quiet café:
Him (almost shouting): What a beautiful day the good lord has given us!
Her (nearly whispering): Yes, it's beautiful today.
Him: We certainly are blessed! yes, our god is good!
Her: Uh … yup.
Each time the man would make a comment about his faith, he'd give us a sideways glance to estimate our reaction. And each time, his companion also would sneak a peek, her eyes full of apologies to us. Before they'd received their beverages, we knew which church the man attended, how long he'd been a Christian, and what he prayed for every day. All without his speaking one direct word to us. Their food arrived, and, suddenly, the man broke out like a preacher on Easter Sunday: "Oh, What would I do without my savior? My life would be in utter shambles, yes, it would. Glory to god for the difference he's made in my life! There's power in the blood. I can't imagine how anyone can live one day without Christ!"
I then noticed other nearby diners beginning to roll their eyes. My attention shifted to my husband, who isn't a Christian. His hands were clenched around his sandwich, and his green eyes had narrowed into black death rays. My next words were, "Check, please."
On the way home, my husband told me the loud man had tremendously annoyed him. I apologized, explaining that some Christians consider this approach a good way to share their beliefs. My husband had a direct, simple response: "Acting that way, did he actually think that I'd be interested in what he said? That I'd want to be like him?"
I've often wondered if the man in the café has ever had success with secondhand witnessing. And I wonder what he hopes to accomplish. Does he blare out his faith so he doesn't have to engage in a real conversation? Or does he truly believe someone might approach him and want to talk about Jesus? If so, his technique isn't working.
T-shirts and other Christian paraphernalia may have a similar effect: repelling rather than inviting. We've all probably seen the "Darwin" version of the Christian ichthus (the fish symbol), or the bumper sticker reading, "In case of rapture, can I have your car?" The existence of antisymbols and slogans proves many people find Christian paraphernalia offensive. Certainly, we're not wrong to represent faith through our possessions. But we too often let symbols serve as the sole representation of our faith. When our next-door neighbors think about us, they should see us as the ones who say "Hello" every day. The ones who bring a plate of cookies at Christmas. The ones who volunteer to babysit or pick up their mail when they're on vacation. We shouldn't simply be the adjacent house's inhabitants who have a fish sticker on our minivan.
Our desire to display Christian paraphernalia may come from a good place. We want people to see what God's done in our lives. We want others to experience the difference Jesus can make in theirs. But we need to do more than just wear our faith on our sleeves, around our necks, or on our bumpers. We need to make ourselves available for real conversations, and pray God uses our lives and words to speak to others.
Think of someone you'd like to tell about your faith. How personally do you know her? How much time do you spend with him?
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