By Eddie Pipkin

I helped out for a morning at VBS this week – and a shout-out to my pals at College Park UMC for a well-run, fully-throttled, highly enthusiastic railway adventure.  I was just dropping in for a one-off in a ‘featured comic role’ at the drama rotation, so I hadn’t been part of any planning meetings.  I was arriving fresh, not sure where to go exactly, but I immediately felt confident in the leadership when I entered the worship space and saw clearly organized groups of volunteers, easily identified by their nifty, color-coordinated shirts – one of which they immediately draped over me.  What is it about sartorial swag?  Something about a cool t-shirt makes a person feel good and brands an organization as passionate about its mission.

‘Swag’ in its modern, hip usage is a crossover between a jaunty self-confidence (derived from swagger) and a collection of valuable loot (derived from an original underworld connection to nefariously appropriated goods and made relevant in recent history by the swag bags that became common as gifts to entertainers and athletes at public events like awards ceremonies).  Pirates are the ultimate embodiment of swag, considering their reputations for both panache and ill-gotten sacks of booty.  But everybody loves a gift bag, and churches like to get their branding out there where people can see it.

More on the recent history of the term swag from our friends at Merriam-Webster:

The freebie swag, sometimes also spelled schwag, dates back to the 1960s and was used to describe promotional items. According to our files, early swag was everything from promotional records sent to radio stations to free slippers for airline passengers. In short order, this particular meaning of swag broadened and soon referred to anything given to an attendee of an event (such as a conference) as a promotional stunt.

Local churches have been through quite an evolution in “gift bags” (aka “hospitality bags,” aka “welcome packets”) in the past generation.  Pens with church names, bookmarks with church names, customized koozies with church names, coffee mugs with church names – you’ll have noted the common theme of church names.  Such gifts to visitors were very much a thing in the 90s (and in some circles still are, maybe yours), but there was a shift away from this kind of marketing as local churches moved away from actively putting individual visitors on the spot during worship (“Stand up and tell us your name and where you’re from, why you’re here, and what your favorite hymn is!”) to less obtrusive forms of welcome.  Also, somebody on finance pointed out how wasteful and ultimately silly it was to be handing out coffee mugs to visitors from six states away who just happened to have dropped by for a weekend.  (I did once know a quirky fellow who had a whole collection of those church coffee mugs and travel tumblers.)  Without the need to fill up bags or folders with glossy brochures of ministry offerings – since everyone has hopefully digitized all of that info and is working diligently to keep it fresh, timely, and up-to-date – the need for churchy tchotchkes, trinkets, gewgaws, baubles, novelties, and knickknacks has declined.

But I say long live the t-shirt!

Fashion still creates the opportunity for people to take pride in something they love and are excited about.  This has not gone out of style, and it’s not likely to go out of style.  Churches have been making t-shirts and branded polos and hoodies and other fashion accessories for as long as affordable variations of customized clothing have been accessible.  The key here is to have a logo or slogan that is concise, fun, clearly communicates your vision, looks good, and invites conversation (which is the evangelism part).

I began by mentioning my pals at College Park UMC, and I love their slogan, “Love big!”  It does all the things listed above, and it looks great – it’s an inviting message that everybody can get behind, and it’s help established a reputation for this revitalized local church in the community in which it lives.  Everybody loves wearing these shirts – you see them out and about in the community – and they even have a version with yard signs.  It’s really fun to be driving down the street and see one in front of a house.  This slogan doesn’t push the name of the church itself: it clearly communicates the mission the church has embraced as a community partner and beacon of God’s grace.  You can easily grasp the difference in the likelihood of striking up a conversation with a stranger along the lines of “What’s that ‘Love Big’ thing all about?” as opposed to “Oooh, tell me more about that College Park UMC that’s on your shirt.”

A good, pithy slogan lends itself to endless variations and iterations.  Local ministries struggle to get this right, shackled as they often are by cumbersome vision statements cobbled together by committees.  If your slogan is more than a few, attention-catching words, it’s not going to work.  “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” is much less t-shirtable, for instance, than “Open hearts.  Open minds.  Open doors.”  (It also turns out that a well-crafted, distilled theologically-based slogan acts as a great Rorschach test for how we are planning on living out the mission to which we have been called.  As in, “Okay, we have publicly committed to open hearts, minds, and doors, so now we have to keep figuring out exactly what that looks like.”)  So, the visual impact of the logo and the communicative impact of the slogan are doing important work.  Here’s a relevant link from UM Communications on effective logo design.

Once you have that strong slogan and eye-catching logo, people just want to think up fun ways to use it over and over again.  In the opening paragraph of this blog, I noted the good feeling I got when I entered that room full of staff and volunteers wearing cool shirts and how quickly they made me feel like part of the team by immediately suiting me up in my own cool shirt.  They also had the savvy to put regular volunteers in the orange version of the shirt and staff members in the blue version.  This made it very easy to get help from someone in the know.  I have long been a fan of churches that use some version of sartorial identification (or even really prominent nametags) to make it clear who staff and key volunteers are, so visitors and congregation members can get questions answered quickly.

The use of t-shirts and other branded fashion offers these advantages:

  • They create a sense of unified purpose. They are the boldest of mission statements, publicly proclaimed.  They combine aesthetics with articulate language to capture the spirit of what our ministry is and who we are.
  • They can make clear who’s who. As noted in my VBS example above, variations on our cool shirts can help identify key leaders in fun ways.  They can be adjusted to identify individual ministry teams and denote special events.  How nerderifically cool is a tech team that has its own version of the church shirt?  Such teams can, of course, even have their own logos and slogans.
  • They establish internal identity. They build a strong sense of personal connection to the institution.  This is who I am, and this is where I belong.  Just think of all those Star Wars fans out there and how quickly they bridge divides and make connections when they see one another in any crowd.  Church branded fashion can be a path to reinforcing the message that despite our diverse gifts, perspectives, and backgrounds, “we are the body.”
  • They establish external identity. They are a great tool for helping to build a reputation for our local church in the greater community.  People don’t just see our church as a building and a sign confined to a piece of property.  They see our folks who are an actively engaged, organic part of the neighborhood, shopping for groceries, dropping off kids at school, and hitting the gym.  It is also true that wearing our branded shirts can be an encouragement to stay focused on our lives as disciples, since we are less likely to act in selfishness and more likely to be representatives of God’s grace if we know people are looking to us as identifiable brand ambassadors.  As noted earlier, they are also great tools for natural evangelism.
  • They’re just fun. People love swag.  They love to celebrate things they love.  And hopefully you’re part of the kind of ministry that people get excited about.  Just look around at all the commercial brands and for-profit entertainment franchises and characters that people pay to display on their own bodies.  There are a lot of Baby Yodas in circulation among our congregation members.  Seems like they might be equally excited about celebrating a life-changing ministry!  (As long as the options are cool.)

And there’s no need to limit brandable fashion options to t-shirts.  Feel free to monitor trends and get creative.  (It’s interesting to note, since I regularly participate in 5Ks and other similar events, a shift in swag.  Runners have been into big, gaudy medals as a sign of completing a race, and that trend’s not going away anytime soon, but there has also been a movement away from t-shirts to hats.)  Hoodies are fun.  Wristbands are still marginally cool.  Face masks were wildly popular last year (here’s hoping that trend dies out ASAP).  Neck gaiters were similarly and unexpectedly a fashion trend.  Looking forward, I haven’t seen anybody do ministry-branded earrings yet, but why not?

Mini magnetic signs have also been trendy, and I’m a big fan of those, as well.  They are the modern version of the bumper sticker, but less of a commitment to stick on one’s car and delightfully portable.  You can put them on the car or the fridge.  They’re cost effective and fun.

Speaking of cost effective, a final note on that point: keep the cost of swag as accessible as possible.  Give away all the shirts you can, and when you need folks to chip in, keep it affordable.  It’s a great investment in marketing to make these items freely available.

How are you feeling about your church’s swag game?  Do you have a logo and a slogan that lend themselves to fun, creative interpretations?  Do people in the community know your crew by their cool shirts or mini-mag signs?  Share your stories of creative uses of church branded fashion.  Or ask some questions about potential challenges of seizing on these ideas.  We’re all ears (and those ears are covered with our custom, logoed muffs).