A rusty nail on a leather necklace. “Ketchup with Jesus” printed on a red T-shirt in the Heinz font. “I’m a F*R*I*E*N*D of God” in the distinctive logo of a well-known TV show that wrapped up nearly 20 years ago. These are some of the typical offerings available at a Christian merchandise table.
I would like to join in with making fun of what is, on the face of it, a ludicrous industry, but the problem is I’m part of it. I hope my T-shirts are slightly less embarrassing, nevertheless I paddle in the murky waters of selling Christian adjacent products.
I’m still not entirely comfortable with the commercial side of what I do as a Christian entertainer. I’m not even that comfortable with the label – although at least it’s honest and doesn’t overspiritualise singing and playing the guitar.
The only merch tables we encounter in the Gospels were promptly flipped by an enraged Jesus, so on first glance, it may seem difficult to defend Rend Collective’s selling of Christian trinkets. Scratch the surface of that Bible story, though, and we see that Jesus’ problem is not so much the practice of trading in the temple – it’s the price-gouging. His critique is about business being conducted in a way that amounts to thievery – they have turned the “house of prayer” into a “den of thieves” (Luke 19:46, NLT).
The buying and selling of animals for sacrifice and the facility for foreigners to change their money were actually helpful and expected services which, at their best, would have made it easier for worshippers to bring their offering to the temple. The problem seems to have been the profiteering, not the presence of trading.
Think about your own experience. Have you ever found a Christian book useful in your relationship with God? Have you ever learned something from a study Bible? Have you ever been inspired or moved by a worship album?
I’m guessing the answer is yes. And I’m also guessing that you didn’t create havoc in the Christian bookstore. Why would you? It was a fair exchange: they had a resource that was beneficial to you, available for purchase at a sensible price point. You probably thanked them.
It’s interesting that Matthew’s account notes the specific detail that Jesus “overturned the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves” (Matthew 21:12). Doves were the offering of the poor – if you couldn’t afford any other sacrifice, this was your last resort. I think there’s a clue in this. Maybe Jesus’ particular criticism was using spiritual leverage to extort low-income families.
I always think it’s sad when I hear of those desperate people who give their last pennies to manipulative prosperity preachers who are essentially selling special access to God and his blessings. Perhaps these are the “thieves” that Jesus is attacking.
We all need to fund our ministries somehow. Jesus relied on his rich friends. Paul made tents. Rend Collective sells clothing. And I don’t need to feel ashamed of that, as long as the price is fair and it’s clear that there is no sense of spiritual pressure. These are T-shirts, not pre-Reformation era indulgences.
One thing is for sure though – there should never be a paywall around the gospel. Our music and message is widely available for free, and I think that’s an important boundary. If you ever see us giving up on that conviction, you have my permission to drive us out of the venue. But until then, please leave our merch table in the condition you found it. We don’t want our branded doves escaping!