You know the shirts I’m about to speak of. You’ve seen them worn in the airport, the local In-n-Out or walking around Six Flags. You may have worn one in your youth or you may have worn one of these shirts recently. Heck, I’ve both been in many of these as a student and helped create a few as the “guy in charge.”
The shirts I’m referring to are the youth-group-mission-trip-back-from-the-mountain-top-shirt. The trendy design on the front with your group’s name on front with a topical Scripture verse on the back, preferably in a calligraphy-like font. Shirts like these:
Was that snarky? I’m actually not trying to be snarky and I’m not even necessarily against Mission Trip T-shirts. I do, however, believe them to be something that would not be helpful for the context I find our youth group in.
This past April I stood in line at the San Diego airport waiting to check in, surrounded by our group of sweaty, dirty and quite frankly, smelly kids wearing whatever they felt comfortable in. Just ahead of us in line was an incredible group from the other side of Washington State. They’d also been doing important work in the Tijuana area and had on matching blue shirts created specifically for their trip. This scene was not at all abnormal and had been experienced personally many times over the years. But this year, with this group (speaking of ours), it hit me- we shouldn’t, and probably couldn’t, ask our group to wear matching t-shirts in public.
You see, our students love serving and absolutely thirst for a chance to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They desire to get outside of their comfort zones and love on orphans while providing shelter for a family in need. What they don’t want to experience is the feeling they’re just part of a ‘machine,’ or that their experience was tied to something meant for show or promotion.
- Our group, in particular, tries to be a community that is open to those with little or no faith and we’ve been lucky enough that a fairly large number of these students have chosen to join us the past few years. The last thing we want to ask them to do is put something on the outside of their body that they don’t necessarily buy into inside their head & heart.
- One of our student leaders actually compared a large group of students wearing matching mission trip shirts to being “showy and self-righteous like the Pharisees in the Bible.” While I never felt that way myself when part of a shirt wearing group- I do sense an ethos in today’s teens that don’t want to draw attention to themselves as part of a clique, even if it’s a good thing.
- Honestly, we save quite a bit of money. Money that can be better used toward supplies, travel, relationship building, etc. Raising, and then spending, tens of thousands of dollars to serve in another country raises all sorts of ethical questions. Being good stewards with that money is an important step of living within our ethic.
- But don’t kids love having shirts to help create bonds and serve as mementos for an important and formative time in their life? Actually, yes! Each of our housing group teams (smaller groups of 8-10) have taken to designing their own team shirts. Designed by them, ordered by them, paid for by them. These shirts have served to create community within both the smaller and larger teams as each group compares and admires each other’s designs. A key is that these shirts are 100% optional and there is no expectation of when or where they should wear them. It’s student owned from start to finish and that is something they have no problem buying into. If you get lucky a group of students just may make a jersey tank top emblazoned with a bear and the words “Tricky Tricky Tricky Tijuana Picnic.”
T-shirts can be awesome, I get it. They can help build community, create identity and be a whole lot of fun. If that works for you and your group- awesome! I have just realized, in our context, a publicly worn group shirt just wouldn’t be helpful and would actually work against the community we’re trying to build.