T-Shirt Soapbox

Originally published December 1999.

What's up with Christian t-shirts lately?

We have our own GAP t-shirt--God Answers Prayer. Yes God does answer prayer but does it have to look like a GAP t-shirt. We have an Old Navy ripoff, Tommy Hellfighter (what?) and Christ looking like Crest toothpaste. True that it is pretty bold to wear a t-shirt that says Christ but it becomes cheesy when it looks like Crest. I have yet to see an Abercrombie & Fitch ripoff (it's got to be out there somewhere). Let me think--Abrahambie & Lot Surf team with just the right fade. Maybe.

This begs the questions. Do Christians not have any originality or creativity? Can we not start our own trends in t-shirt wear? Is the best we can do is to copy and alter what is currently hot? Isn't the God who created all things able to give His children more than enough creativity to create something fabulously new?


Then there are messages on some Christian t-shirts. What do they mean? The Old Navy ripoff says something like 12 men, 1 Savior and a boat. What is meant in that message? There are countless too many t-shirts that have messages that Christians get but nonChristians don't. It's like a bad inside joke. And I don't wear a Christian t-shirt that is an inside joke. What's the purpose? It's like saying I'm in this Christian clique and you don't get it so you can't belong.

I recently talked to the actual creator of a line of t-shirts that I don't get. I mean, I am on the inside. I am a Christian. This creator said he got one of the t-shirt ideas from something his pastor said in a staff meeting and it clicked in his head. Honorable motives but does anyone get it?

The funny thing is the person wearing any of these t-shirts may feel bold for being a witness but no one is getting the inside joke.

That is if there is even a Christian message and/or symbol on the t-shirt. I know of this group of Christian Bible clubs at public high schools who made their own t- shirts to promote their clubs. Great idea. Nice t-shirt too with a funky design and some cleverly placed words. But nothing on the t-shirt promotes Christ or the clubs. Yet the youth who are buying these feel like they are promoting and witnessing. In a crowd in public school these t-shirts look like any other nice t-shirt only the brand is not well known.

Another question. Why do Christian t-shirts have to be a discounted price before anyone will buy one? Youth or adult purchaser. Premium (and overly high) prices are paid for GAP, Old Navy and Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts and those companies have never done anything to help you out. Yet much effort and precious little money is put into getting that right t-shirt.

Christian groups expect to pay the discounted price for a Christian t-shirt. They will pay a premium price for a concert t-shirt from their favorite Christian band but again, what is that t-shirt saying? Another inside message? But when it comes to t-shirt witnessing gear, I'll just pay $7, thank you.

The thought may be right now that I'm on this because Wild Frontier has a new t-shirt line. Yes and no. I find it very interesting that "my kids" who are far from normal church youth and basically have no church background designed these t-shirts and it was their idea to put straight scripture on the t-shirts. It was not my idea. It was some juveniles with police records. These are something that they wear. Interesting.

Which brings me to a story of how I met Frank, one of the newest to God's Family. I was subbing at my school and had a much larger than a regular freshmen boy in my PE class. A large, threatening-looking guy complete with cornrolls. But he was fine in class and the next couple of times I had him.

One day I was doing lunch duty and there was Frank wearing a black t-shirt with 4-inch white letters which said "God's Grace" across the front. That was it. Nothing clever. No artwork. I squealed out to Frank, "what is that?" To which he gave me his brief testimony of how a year ago he was locked up in juvenile detention after gangbanging for the last couple of years. His grandmother died and spoke some life words into him and he and his mother decided to move to northern Virginia to get a new start. Which he has with God's help. He quickly became a part of God's Family and has been a huge blessing to the group ever since. All from him wearing a Christian t-shirt.

The story doesn’t end there though.  Frank Brinson IV died March 9, 2000.  He was 18 years old.

No one at the school knew what Frank left behind in Pittsburgh.  They knew him as a good football player (his passion which he put extra effort into), a good student, someone who constantly talked about his bright future (he was always forward-thinking), and someone who always smiled.

When news of his death spread that next morning at the school, a pall hit.  Nearly the entire school.  The halls were full of weeping and walking wounded.  “Not Frank,” were their cries.  The football players put on their football jerseys from storage.  Football players broke down in sobs.  Students used ink to make makeshift tattoos with Frank’s football number (21) on their bodies.  And everyone talked about his smile.  Even students who didn’t know Frank were visibly upset because he had once smiled at them.   It was a dark day.

What started happening next is what is amazing.  Only a God-thing.

The next day the front page of the local paper had a picture of Frank’s sisters wearing the “God’s Grace” t-shirts he had made for them.  Teenagers had their own “God’s Grace” t-shirts made.  And in the chain-linked fence in front of Gar-Field High School, two seniors took styrofoam cups and spelled out “God’s Grace RIP 21.”  Not “Frank RIP.”  Frank has become known as “God’s Grace.”  This made the front page of the local paper, again.  Gar-Field High School has been marked by “God’s Grace.”

Hundreds of teenagers were devastated by Frank’s untimely death.  Hundreds of teenagers had to face their own mortality.  Hundreds of teenagers faced death in such a personal way for the first time.  Hundreds of teenagers are wearing “God’s Grace” t-shirts.

At the funeral, the challenge was sent out clearly and directly, “If Frank could come down from heaven and talk to you all one last time, he would tell you all to get saved...God’s Grace.  What a better legacy to leave behind...You all need to pick up your lives and win like Frank did.  You need to carry on and live your life with God’s Grace.”

A very specific and clear altar call was given and before the pastor was even done, James stood up.  James was one of Frank’s friends.  Others stood up following James.  In less than a minute, over 1200 people stood up to commit their lives to Christ.  The spirit of death lifted and joy came rushing in.

Frank’s short life of 18-years, his shorter life as a Christian and his 13-month life as a Gar-Field student influenced 1200--for starters.  What is most interesting is how he did it.  He didn’t preach.  He didn’t hand out tracts.  He didn’t start a Bible club.  He didn’t use a high-tech audio visual production.

He was a good student.  He was polite in class and didn’t push his limits, even if it was a substitute.  He worked and got good grades.  He played with that little extra on the football field.  He smiled at everyone.  He talked to everyone.  And he wore a simple t-shirt that gave witness to his life.

A definition of grace is being accepted before you are acceptable.  Frank received that and never forgot it.  Now hopefully 1200 others (at a minimum) will never forget about it.