consumer evangelism

My roommate’s girlfriend walked into our apartment tonight carrying a bright yellow shopping bag from the store Forever 21. She stood in the living room while we were watching a basketball game and held it proudly until we asked her what was up with the bag? “It’s for Andy,” she said. I was confused. I’ve never been in the store Forever 21 before and every time I’ve walked past it at the mall I’ve assumed it’s just another place where teenage girls shop for clothes that their parents wouldn’t approve of them wearing. Why would she bring the bag for me? Well, it turns out that all Forever 21 bags have “John 3:16” printed in small letters on the bottom, so she thought I might be interested. She was right.

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Seeing that shopping bag got me thinking about how other “Christian companies” (or companies run by Christians) use their influence on consumers to share and spread their faith. Since earlier tonight I’ve spent quite a bit of time “researching” Forever 21’s bags and other stores/businesses that practice similar acts of subtle consumer evangelism. I’ve also been hungry since seeing that bag. You see, Forever 21 isn’t the first business I’ve known about that prints Bible verses on the packaging of their products. The mecca of fast food burgers and fries, In-N-Out Burger (California and surround states), has been printing Bible verses on the bottom of their drink cups and food wrappers since the 1980s. In-N-Out Burger is my absolute favorite fast food restaurant — I once walked from LAX to the closest In-N-Out (probably about a mile away) so I could taste it one more time before returning to Minnesota — and it turns out the former president of In-N-Out was a Christian who wanted to share his faith with customers in a discrete way, and the company has decided to continue the practice today. It seems the president of Forever 21 has decided to do something similar by sneaking a little Gospel message into each customer’s purchase by, as one blog called it, “Bible bagging” their goods.

innoutgospel1.jpgDuring my research on all this I found several sites that were neither helpful nor informative (mostly online forums where teenage girls discussed what they bought at Forever 21 during their last trip to the mall and how “like cool” or “totally dumb” they think it is that the store has a Bible verse on the bag), but I did manage to find a few articles that offered credible insight into what appears to be a growing phenomenon in the industries of retail clothing and fast food. For instance, in August of 2006 The New York Sun ran an article titled “Evangelism in Fashion discussing the Forever 21 bags. Included in the article were responses from Forever 21 customers who were asked if they were aware of the religious message on the bottom of the bags. The two responses shared in the article are priceless for their own unique reasons. The first was from a 22-year old guy who, when told there was a Bible verse on the bottom of the bag he was carrying didn’t seem bothered at all, but he did offer the insightful comment that “Jesus wore clothes.” I’m going to give the dude two benefits of the doubt by assuming that 1) he was shopping at Forever 21 for his girlfriend and 2) he’s not a seminary student. The other customer response was from a young woman who was shopping for a “black sparkly halter-top to go with a pair of red high-heeled shoes.” She was not as understanding as the young man we met a few sentences earlier; when she found out there was a religious message on the bottom of her shopping bag, she responded by saying “That’s so freaky. It kind of annoys me that I’m carrying this around without even knowing it.”

I learned about a few other businesses that make similar faith statements on their products and/or through the practices of their stores in a USA Today article from 2005. The most notable, in my opinion, being that Chick-fil-A (a fast food restaurant mostly in the southern US) is closed on Sundays so that employees can “focus on faith and family.” I thought that was a pretty cool move for a company to make, but I can’t help but wonder how much money they give up making by only being open 6 days a week.

If you know about other examples like these, please share them.

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The Last Semester

Today is my last first day of school EVER…probably. Let me clarify what I mean…today is the first day of spring semester at Luther Seminary, where I have been a student since 2006, and from where I will graduate and receive a master’s degree (in Theology & Pop-Culture) this coming Memorial Day weekend. I added the modifier “probably” at the end of the first sentence because I have made that statement once before in life — on my last first day of college — because I never thought I’d go back to school after getting my bachelor’s degree. But the saying goes, “never say never,” and I’d assume that whoever first said that also meant it to mean “never say ever,” since never and ever are often synonymous. I highly doubt I will go back to school again, either for another M.A. or the life-stealing Ph.D, but who knows. Never say (n)ever.

Looking back on my experiences as a seminary student so far, it’s been an interesting personal and educational adventure. Please don’t misunderstand that to mean it has been anything but a positive experience, but there’s been a lot of “stuff” involved beside just going to class and studying. For instance, it was a major life change going from working full-time at a church (and loving my job, for the most part), making decent money (relatively speaking for someone recently out of college and working at a church) and basically feeling comfortable in life (even being able to put money into savings every month) … to being a full-time student (after a three year break from school, a break I thought would last the rest of my life), making basically no money (except the small amount I made as a barista at Caribou–until I quit after only two months, and then the money I made donating plasma for a year–a job that caused my mom and many others to worry about/for me), yet still feeling relatively comfortable in my life (even though I have been stealing from myself by spending the money I put in savings to buy things like rent, gas, and of course macaroni and peanut butter & jelly).

So here I am, about to start my final semester of seminary. Four classes, an independent study and an optional audited course are all that stands between me and a piece of paper stating that I am more intelligent than I was before…supposedly. I have taken some great courses in my three semesters and two J-terms at seminary thus far, but looking at my schedule (and even reading the syllabuses, or is it syllabi? that’s a weird word, huh?) and the courses I’ll be taking over the next four months or so, I think I’m probably more excited about this semester than any of the others. The courses I’m taking sound really interesting, they’re being taught by excellent professors and if I’m able to learn even 53% of the stuff I’m hoping to, it’s going to be a great semester. I’m sure you can count on reading about some of the things I’m studying as the semester goes on, and I actually think that some of my assignments (papers, projects, videos) might end up on here. In fact, the major writing assignment for one of my classes is to create/write a blog in which I “reflect theologically on popular culture.” Done and done.

In case you’re interested, here’s a list of the courses I’m taking along with the things I’m most excited about each…

  • Singleness, Marriage and Family — the focus of this class is to develop a biblical and theological understanding that will allow me to help individuals, couples and families deal with the realities (struggles, joys and everything in between) of life, with some attention given to scientific approaches of counseling.
  • The Spirit, the Church and the Triune God — the final installment of the three core systematic theology courses, the others being “Creation and the Triune God” and “Jesus the Savior and the Triune God” (both of which I’ve already taken). In this Trilogy, there is a course focused on each part of the Trinity, and each studies what theologians throughout history have written about the Father, Son and Spirit; but then the challenge becomes turning that new knowledge into understanding and then practice for ministry and life, which is my favorite part of the class.
  • Proactive Ministry in a Media Culture — this is the course where my blog will temporarily become “homework.” The class is going to focus on issues like media literacy, social networking, religion and violence in media, the shape of education in a media culture, and the question “what is ‘real’ anymore?” We are also going to create two short videos documenting faith stories/journeys as assignments for class. The only negative thing about this class is that it meets on Monday nights during the games for my basketball league.
  • Ministry for the Sake of the World — this course serves as my senior seminar for my degree program, so much of the work will draw on writings and learning from previous courses as I attempt to bring it all together into an explainable vision/mission strategy for transformational ministry with younger people (the MTV generation) in a world influenced by pop-culture. Reading through the syllabus for this course, I was drawn to a sentence stating that the objective of the course is to “utilize a theology of hope as a compass for moving [young adult] ministry out into the world to witness to the Gospel and care for all of God’s creation.” I really like that objective. I also like the writing assignment from this course to pick either a song or a scene from a movie or TV show that has led me to feel something deeply and then (in two pages) explore why I feel the way I do when listening to (or watching) it, and what questions does this song or scene seem to ask me?
  • The Meaning Project: faith & facebook (independent study) — I mentioned this study in a previous post about social networking (I also included a video of Demetri Martin from The Daily Show). Basically, the study is an examination of how things like social networking sites, reality television, music, movies and other “texts” of pop-culture influence the faith and values of college-aged young people (18-22 year olds). To help with the project, I spent two weeks this past summer at a Bible camp interviewing counselors and conducting surveys. There’s no excuse for why I am just now working to finish the study, I guess I’ve just been lazy, but I’m excited to finally focus some time to work on it and see how it turns out.
  • Ethics I (course audit) — I am probably going to attend this class, but most likely won’t do any of the work (which means I also won’t get credit for it, which pretty much defines what it means to “audit” a class). I don’t actually need this class to graduate, but I’ve wanted to take it for a while, and since I’m already taking four classes and doing an independent study, I thought it would be better/easier to just go to class to learn what I could from lectures (and not have the pressure of doing all the reading or writing the papers). About the course, according to the academic catalog, it’s “an overview of various ways that Christians make moral arguments and decisions. The focus is on methods and models important for moral discourse and the relationship of theological ethics and its biblical, historical, and confessional sources to insights from philosophy and other disciplines.”

Well, I should probably stop writing about my classes and actually drive to campus so I’m not late for class.

Dos Burrito Challenge

A few days ago I wrote a tribute to Chipotle. I mentioned that I once ate two Chipotle burritos in one sitting, but I didn’t explain how or why I did such a stupid (or brilliant?) thing. I was challenged to eat two burritos by a former co-worker (we actually challenged each other). We were both youth directors at the time, so naturally, we decided to turn it into a youth “ministry” event. So, about a dozen people gathered at a local Chipotle the next Friday night to witness the stupidity live…one of the high schoolers from church joined in the eating festivities and another high schooler brought a video camera to document the event. The video was called the “Dos Burrito Challenge” and people loved it when we showed it a few weeks later at our Wednesday night youth service. I had never posted a video on youtube before until today, and I didn’t even know how, but I decided it would be worth figuring it out so I could share these delicious memories with you. I had the video on DVD somewhere, so after digging around my apartment for a while, I found the DVD and ripped it onto my computer. I converted the video file into one of the formats that youtube accepts, uploaded the video, and now it’s online for the whole world to see. Technology is a beautiful thing, huh? So here it is friends, the Dos Burrito Challenge. I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed eating it…I mean, making it.

Chipotle’s Secret Salsa

I recently went to Chipotle for two meals in a row (dinner on Wednesday and lunch on Thursday). It was a wonderful 18 hours, although not quite as good as the night a few years ago when I ate two Chipotle chicken burritos in one sitting (this seriously happened…a few of my friends did it too and someone made a video to document the event). Chipotle is not only one of my current favorite restaurants, I think it’s one of the greatest non-fancy-restaurants in American history; that’s right, I’d put it in the same category as places like In-N-Out Burger, Fuddrucker’s and Bonanza (I purposely left McDonald’s off this list because of the annoying “McDonald’s hangover” that sets in about 30-60 minutes after eating their addictingly good food).

Fact: Chipotle burritos are delicious! If I had the magical power to change anything about them, I wouldn’t — because they’re perfect just the way they are. As it turns out, I’m not the only person in America with a “tummy crush” (kinda like a “man crush”) on Chipotle. In fact, someone loves (or hates, potentially even fears) Chipotle so much that they created a Chipotle Nutrition Facts Calculator that allows you to select each ingredient you get in your Chipotle meal and it will calculate the nutritional information for you. Like I said, the person(s) who created this site must either love, hate or fear Chipotle, because the facts it reveals are not necessarily good news. For instance, after just a few clicks and some quick multiplication I learned that my adventure a few years ago known as the “Dos Burritos Challenge” consisted of 2068 calories (I won’t even tell you how many of those calories were from fat). To be honest, I’m not even mad…that’s impressive!

It seems Steve Ells, Chipotle’s 42-year-old founder and CEO, has found the recipe for success–in both business and burritos…keep things simple, use quality ingredients and treat your employees really well. Groundbreaking stuff, huh? Well apparently it’s working. According to a story from U.S. News & World Report last week titled “Chipotle’s Secret Salsa”, Chipotle Mexican Grill’s stock has more than quintupled since they went public in 2006. The article takes a closer look at “the most successful and perhaps the hippest” of what they call “fast casual” Mexican restaurants. Despite Chipotle’s basic menu (only three items – tacos, burritos and salad) and simple assembly line operation (ala Subway), the burrito artists at Chipotle get paid quite well (around $8.10 an hour as a starting wage) and over the last year they wrapped enough tortillas in tin foil to bring in over $1 billion in sales…and they made all that money without even having cookies (or any other dessert items) on their menu. It’s incredible! On behalf of all the Americans who contributed to that $1 billion total last year, I’d like to say thank you to Steve Ells and all the wonderful Chipotle employees for making my life a little bit better, one burrito at a time…

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(click on the burrito to find a Chipotle near you.)

Farewell to Real World Sydney

In case you missed it, tonight was the season finale for The Real World Sydney. It was a roller-coaster episode of typical Real World drama, complete with roommates saying hurtful things to/about each other (including things like “I don’t care if I never talk to you again after we leave”) and then — less than an hour of TV time later — they were all crying and hugging each other before they left the house for the last time; exchanging I love you‘s and promising to call each other and possibly even hang out when they got home. They only lived together for four months and they had cameras crews following them and taping nearly everything they did the entire time (and let’s not forget they’re wearing microphones with battery packs with the exception of when they’re in bed or in the shower, but even then there are mics built into the house to make sure anything that’s said is picked up, and in case it’s not, it’s sure to be deciphered by someone and translated into subtitles). There’s just nothing about the situation that is Real, yet at the end of each season the housemates act like they’ve become best friends during the experience…what’s wrong with them? and at the end of each season I get kinda sad because I feel like I’m losing seven new friends…what’s wrong with me?

Merry Listmas and Happy “let’s look back on the” Old Year!

Have you ever noticed how many lists there are during this time of year? My family and I send out lists of things we’d be excited to receive as Christmas gifts from each other, music channels have “list shows” for the top songs of the year (click here to watch any/all of VH1’s Top 40 videos of the year), even Santa keeps lists of the “naughty” and the “nice” kids around the world.

We are list crazy in America, especially–it seems–at the end of a calendar year.

Apparently information isn’t interesting to us unless it can be organized in some sort of a list, preferably after first be filtered through a ranking system–starting with a large number (at least 10, but 20 or 40 is even better) and moving down to the #1 (random thing) of the year. And it seems we’re not only interested in the top/best things of the year, but also the lowest/worst things. A few examples…my sister brought the year-end issue of People magazine to my parent’s house over Christmas (the issue is dated January 7, 2008; explain to me how that works since I was reading it in December of 2007…was I time traveling while reading it?). Anyway, in big letters across the top of the cover of the “Special Double Issue” reads “BEST (AND WORST!) OF 2007,” and inside the magazine are all sorts of lists of the best (and worst) dresses, couples, stars, etc. of the year (according to the writers of People). Yesterday on msn.com one of the featured stories highlighted the Top 10 “Best housing markets” (listing the cities where home prices increased the most during the 3rd quarter compared with the same period in 2006) as well the Top 10 “Worst housing markets”).

I enjoy getting things I actually like/want for Christmas; I love music and culture, so I watch the video countdown shows on not just VH1, but also MTV, CMT and BET; and I do my best to stay on Santa’s “nice” list (I got some cash in my stocking this year, so the big jolly guy must still like me!). The lists of best/worst housing markets was somewhat interesting to me and I shamefully like reading People magazine, but there were a few other lists I ran across today that I didn’t expect to see. Like Foxsports.com’s “most hateable people, teams” of 2007“; babycenter.com’s Top 10 baby names of 2007 (girl’s and boy’s names); and–also from babycenter–the Top baby names through history, where you can find the Top 100 baby names for each year going back to 1996, the Top 40 baby names for each decade (1930s through 1990s), and the Top 10 baby names for each decade (1880s through 1920s). This is really incredible data. I never knew that my name (Andrew) was the 19th most popular boy’s name in the decade I was born (1980s), or that Margret was the #9 girl’s name in the 1940s (but #4 in the 1880s) and Mildred was the #7 girl’s name in the 1910s.

Perhaps even more interesting than finding humorous grandma names that were common one hundred years ago is looking at trends of popular names today that can be linked to popular culture (whether it be through character names on TV shows and movies, or even the names celebrities give their children). For instance, on NBC’s wildly popular show Friends, Rachel (and Ross) had a baby girl on the last episode of Season 8 and they named her Emma. The year before that episode aired (2001), Emma was only the 29th most popular girl’s name, but in 2002 it moved up to #11 . Friends was America’s most popular show until its last season (Season 10) in 2004. Baby Emma was a consistent character on the show and, as a result, Emma was the second most popular girls name in 2003 and the most popular for three straight years (2004, 2005 and 2006). It was finally de-throned this year, but it is still the third most popular girl’s name (and the final episode of Friends aired almost four years ago).

We’re now seeing a similar trend in baby naming thanks to the popularity of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and the star of its spinoff show Private Practice, Dr. Addison Montgomery (played by Kate Walsh). The name Addison wasn’t even on the Top 100 girl’s name list of 2005 (the year Grey’s Anatomy came out), but as the show quickly became more popular, so did the name. Addison was the 26th most popular girl’s name in 2006 and this year (the same year Private Practice premiered) it cracked the Top 10, coming in at #6.

Do you think we watch too much TV in America? Maybe, but I love shows like Friends and Grey’s Anatomy, and–although I can’t say whether they would influence the decision of naming my own child (thankfully I’m no where close to facing this decision)–I don’t plan to stop watching them anytime soon (and I don’t think it’s such a terrible thing that 15 years from now, there are going to be a lot of college girls telling the story that they were named after a baby on their parent’s favorite TV show).

I’m sure there are plenty of other fascinating lists that I have yet to learn about, not to mention other trends between the popularity of baby names and the world of popular culture, but I’m going to let you discover them on your own. Let me know if you find anything interesting.

Kindergartener kin of Davey Crocket kills bear

This is absolutely fantastic and to be honest, I’m still not sure what to think about it; according to an article on espn.com, a descendant of Davey Crocket killed a 445-pound black bear while hunting. That’s a very large animal, but it’s not the size of the bear that makes the story so incredible, it’s the size of the boy who killed the bear, and who he is related to, that makes this story so unbelievable. Tre Merrit is only 5 years old and he is descendant of Davey Crocket, the legendary American mountain man (aka “King of the Wild Frontier”). Tre’s grandfather witnessed the instantly-legendary hunting story; here’s how they told it to a reporter from KATV/Little Rock,

“His 10th great-grandfather was Davy Crockett,” Mike Merritt said. “And Davy supposedly killed him a bear when he was three. And Tre is five and really killed a bear. I really doubt if Davy killed one when he was three.”

Mike Merritt was in the stand at the time but said Tre did it all by himself.

“He came in about 40 to 50 yards,” Mike Merritt said of the black bear, “and when he got in the open, I whistled at him and he stopped and I said, ‘Shoot Tre.'”

Tre confirmed his grandfather’s account.

“I was up in the stand and I seen the bear,” Tre Merritt said. “It came from the thicket and it was beside the road and I shot it.”

At first, Mike Merritt didn’t think Tre had hit the bear with his youth rifle.

“I said, ‘Tre, you missed the bear,’ ” Mike Merritt said. “He said, ‘Paw-paw I squeezed the trigger and I didn’t close my eyes. I killed him.”‘

The bear turned out to be 445 pounds — 12 times the weight of Tre. Mike Merritt said tears rolled down his cheeks when he found out his grandson killed the enormous bear.

The entire article – including a video of Tre, Mike and the bear – can be found on espn.com (or by clicking here).