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What would Jesus do?

National | The Jesus bracelet fad: Is it merchandising or ministry?

Issue: "Day scare," Jan. 10, 1998

WWJD?

That's a good idea to ponder as America struggles into Week Two of 1998 New Year's resolutions especially for those who pulled from their Christmas stockings one of those ubiquitous WWJD bracelets. The bracelets, some woven, some silk-screened, come in a variety of colors from dozens of places, and all have the initials "WWJD," short for "What would Jesus do?"

The fad began in 1989 when youth leader Janie Tinklenberg designed a bracelet after the then-popular homemade friendship bracelets made of yarn. Ms. Tinklenberg wanted to motivate students to ask themselves the question writer Charles Sheldon posed in his best-selling novel, In His Steps. In that 1896 work of fiction, a clergyman challenged his congregation to live for one year asking the question, "What would Jesus do?" when making decisions.

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Now that the bracelets have moved into the murky realm of popular culture with companies, small and large, mass producing and selling them, usually for $1.50 each, it's time to ask: "What would Jesus do?"

In its first seven years of selling the bracelets, Lesco Corp. of Holland, Mich., sold 300,000, according to Mike Freestone, director of Christian marketing. Now the company is selling one million per month through outlets such as the 197-store Family Christian Store national chain.

"WWJD can't be copyrighted," said Mr. Freestone, but his company has copyrighted the fish-shaped border logo that surrounds the WWJD phrase in a line of products that includes T-shirts, hats, and bracelets.

When Mr. Freestone goes looking for entertainment at the Holland, Mich., Blockbuster Video, the WWJD bracelet he wears gives him pause. "I couldn't walk up to the counter with an R-rated movie," he said. "The bracelet sets you apart. It's like Stop, Look, and Listen, the rule you learn as a child for crossing a street. You stop, look at the bracelet, and listen to what you think Jesus would do."

In March, Rick Pierson of Greenville, Ind., launched his WWJD Web site to sell bracelets and now moves 300,000 per month. "It will work as some kind of a fad," Mr. Pierson admits. "But it's a great statement in public."

Yet both men have received criticism that they are merchandising Christianity. "If this is being crass, I'll be crass all day long," Mr. Freestone retorts. "I've heard from people all around the country who are saying that they are walking closer to God."

Mr. Freestone also noted the impact the bracelets are having in evangelism. "When an athlete died, WWJD bracelets were used in his funeral and more than 200 people responded to a salvation message," he said.

Championship wrestler Michael Adamson, 18, died April 8 from meningitis, and his trademark WWJD bracelet figured prominently in his eulogy. Ginger Adamson, his mother, said her family has been wearing the bracelets since fall 1996. "We gave an old-fashioned altar call," Mrs. Adamson said of the funeral. ÒApproximately 250 people responded and it was overwhelming."

Among the number were Michael's teammates, a high-school administrator, and an Episcopal priest. Each received a WWJD bracelet; the Adamsons had only brought 50 with them, so they made a point of getting a bracelet later to everyone who wanted one.

It's that kind of testimonial that encourages founder Tinklenberg. "I'm uneasy when Beanie Babies are talked about with WWJD bracelets," she said, adding that she originated the idea to help youth. "I wanted them to be a personal reminder that they had made a conscious decision to live life by a new standard and to be prepared to share that decision with anyone who asked about the bracelet," she said.

Last month she applied for trademark protection so she can continue to provide the bracelets. "We want to bring it back to its roots," Ms. Tinklenberg says. A youth leader at New Hope Reformed Church near Ohio State University, Ms. Tinklenberg is a consultant to churches on youth and program issues.

"God can use these bracelets to help kids think," she said. "I feel badly that some are using them to make a quick buck."

Ms. Tinklenberg paid 37 cents for each bracelet from an East Coast company until she learned the company was manufacturing the bracelets overseas, where many of the other bracelets originate. Now her company, WWJD Resources in Dublin, Ohio, plans to use a Rhode Island company to produce the bracelets locally at the same 37-cent price.

While Ms. Tinklenberg will continue to provide the bracelets to churches for 50 cents each, she is selling them at 75 cents each to a group of 56 Wal-Mart stores in the South. "These stores have Christian managers, and they contacted us about our bracelets," Ms. Tinklenberg said.

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