Imitation is the Sincerest Flattery

September 27, 2010

Today, I want to talk about church, pancakes and Katy Perry.  They all have something in common.

How hard can the church try to be relevant to our culture?  Seriously, how much relevance can we squeeze out of ourselves?  It seems like your church is nothing if it’s not being “relevant.” 

I guess a “relevant” church is one that can walk the walk and talk the talk of people today, one that can relate to people.  This week, I was reminded of a couple of ironies in our quest for relevance, and realized we might just have it all backwards. 

IHOP is Suing IHOP

Recently, the news broke that International House of Pancakes, otherwise knowns as IHOP is suing the International House of Prayer, also known as IHOP.  One serves delicious carb cakes which render you unconcious, although their pancakes are covered with so many dozens of other foods, it really stretches the legal definition of the word “pancake.”  The latter offers hours on end of trance-inducing prayer and music that feels kind of like a worship rave, and may also render you unconscious.  The prayer house happens to be based in my hometown, but they have locations all over.

The prayer house has been around for ten years, going by the moniker “IHOP,” but for some reason, the pancake house is just now getting around to suing them for breach of copyright, which they’ve had on the acronym “IHOP” for something like forty years.

Don’t the pancake people know that Christians have no original ideas?  We have to be relevant and cool by riffing on already popular things.  If the prayer house is not allowed to call themselves “IHOP,” how will they ever be relevant through the subliminal association of maple syrup and Jesus?

 I’m Too Sexy for This Church

I’m a big fan of The Sunday Morning Show.  Something about Charles Osgood’s bowtie keeps me hypnotized and feeling like I’m a senior citizen, but in a good way…never mind.

Anyway, on Sunday they featured a story on Katy Perry for some reason, as if anyone in the AARP is even aware of her.  She was talking about her childhood and then it was revealed that…wait for it…her parents are “born again evangelical pastors.”  They actually said “born again.”  Yea!  You saw that one coming.  Of course, Katy wanted to be Amy Grant II after her church purchased a guitar for her.  But her record label went under, because it couldn’t sell any records.  Of course, as with anyone raised by “born again evangelical pastors,” eventually the shackles of sheltered Christian life had to come off, so she could learn about real music, write an anthem about casual bisexual exploration, and appear on Sesame Street in a sketch with Elmo and her breasts.  Her parents showed their approval of their daughter’s career by making a cameo appearance in her latest music video.

The sketch was cut, but it was a magical day for Elmo. Elmo asks, "Can you help me count to two?"

Well of course they approve of her career.  She’s made millions of dollars.

I don’t even know how to approach this.  There are dozens of musicians and actors who were raised in Christian homes.  Whenever I look someone up on Wikipedia, there’s probably a 50% chance that they were raised in a Christian home.  Then there’s the familiar story of how they discovered the outside world, and hit it big once they left the safe confines of church life.

I think what irritates me is how seperated Christian culture is from everything else.  We’re a sub-genre.  And unless you’re filming The Passion of the Christ, you don’t make nearly as much money playing to that crowd as you would if you would just not mention Jesus at all and show a bit more cleavage.  It grinds me that Christians aren’t just a sub-genre, but a sub-par sub-genre.  We’re just fine with mediocrity in our Christian culture.  We’re okay with imitation.  Hardly anyone makes Christian art anymore, but we don’t care that much.  We’re surprised when someone makes a quality Christian film, since hardly anyone bothers to spend more than a week’s allowance to make a Christian movie.  But in the meantime, we’ll gladly recommend a pretty laughable movie to our church friends because it’s Christian, and it plays to us.  It annoys me that Christians are obsessed with sheltering our kids, but it only seems to result in them falling in love with the culture we’ve tried so hard to tell them is evil.  Katy Perry’s story is absurdly typical, except there’s a few million bucks that her parents can sell out for.

A Sub-Par Sub-Genre

Suddenly it hit me, thinking about Katy and pancakes.  Christians used to create culture.  Christianity used to be the force behind the biggest buildings in town, the most beautiful art, the most moving music.  We were the center of the world.

Now, Christian “culture” means wearing a T-shirt with what appears to be the Starbucks logo, except it’s got Jesus in it instead of  the mermaid.  Christian culture means only seeing, hearing and wearing things that have a little fish on them, so we can say we’re “in the culture, not of the culture.”

Meanwhile, we’re trying to be “relevant,” still while not getting our hands dirty with all that non-Christian culture.  And we’re trying to be relevant by imitating the culture, riffing on culture, making a parody of culture, naming our churches after places that sell pancakes and whatnot.  Finally, our lack of creativity has a cost.  I guarantee, some little group will try to be good Christians and stand up for the cause by boycotting pancakes, but I have to honestly say the prayer house deserves what they are getting, and the rest of us should learn a lesson.

And that’s why we’re still behind.  We don’t try to come up with original thoughts that much.  We’re happy to wait until someone else comes up with an original thought, and then copy it in the name of Jesus.  Meanwhile, we’re content to let our real talent get outsourced to the pop music industry, because apparently Christians are too cheap for a talent like Katy Perry to succeed among us.  There could literally be dozens of Katy Perrys who didn’t have to lose their faith (or at least deny it in public) if Christians were as serious about creating culture as everyone else is.  But for now, Christian culture is just too small to handle more than a handful of people with a lot of talent.

That’s my feelings anyway.  How do you feel about today’s Christian culture and our penchant for imitation (even though we’re not supposed to be imitating the world)?  Do you think it’s hurting our efforts to be relevant?

42 responses to Imitation is the Sincerest Flattery

  1. You raise an interesting point Matt. Not just with Katy but also with that other singer whose parents “sold her” to the highest bidder for a bowl of porridge (or is that a piece of the money pie?) The sad part is exactly as you have stated: we have offered second rate stuff and try to pass it off as “new and improved from the world” stuff. In many cases we are nothing but hacks trying to gain a buck with as impure motives as our “secular” counterparts. The other sad side of the coin is if someone does come up with something that is good, or at least pretty good, we shoot them down with our Bible bullets. I have to admit that I am saddened by those who can have an influence (like Katy and others) but allow themselves to be seduced into what I consider “shady territory.” But that is another topic for another time. One more thing: you mean Thomas Kincaide is not good art? Okay…I have said enough. :)

  2. Would have been great to be in the production meeting where they decided putting katy perry on Sesame street was a good idea.

    I agree it is hurting our efforts to be relevant. I very much doubt any non Christians are impressed by a lot of what we produce.

    Then there is the question of whether being relevant should be our aim to start with. I think relevance is often overrated. Some of the people I know who are very effective in their outreach aren’t greatly relevant or cool.

    • I was surprised when the Sesame Street sketch was cut in the first place, because, yeah, who approved her outfit to begin with?

      • Even if she had been totally covered up, still a very odd choice for a childrens show

      • I think it was cut because the parents who were able to preview it pretty unanimously rejected it because of the northern exposure (forgive my trite, worldly reference). And maybe because they don’t want to expose their three year olds to any of Katy Perry’s songs. My kids only watched old Sesame Street tapes when they were young, mainly because I was appalled at the format changes that seemed designed to encourage short attention spans. I also despise Elmo.

  3. (The following rant is a generalization — I am aware that good are is created in the Christian community.)

    You have hit on one of my biggest pet peeves. Not simply that Christians don’t make good art, but that we are totally okay with mediocre art. I hear how we have the greatest inspiration (and don’t disagree), but we seem to be terrified of offending one of our own, so we dial it back a notch and pretty it up and make it palatable and we end up with something that is nice. Not good, not important, not thought-provoking, not world-changing…just nice.

    I don’t know if it hurts our ability to be relevant, but it certainly hurts our credibility. Don’t talk to me about a God that creates the whole world and then deny any truly creative ability in our midst. It just doesn’t fly.

  4. Imitating culture isn’t what I think of when I think of the church being relevant. I know that’s how too many churches look at it, but I think that’s just silly.

    Yesterday, someone told me about a local pastor from my own denomination who had to resign from his church a few years ago. He had lost his wife and daughter in a car accident awhile back, and eventually married a woman who had been divorced. That’s why he had to resign from his church. The widowed pastor committed what the church saw as the sin of marrying a woman who had been divorced years earlier.

    Meanwhile, there’s another denomination that allows its pastors to be divorced themselves and continue ministry. They can even remarry.

    Which church is more relevant to hurting people in our culture?

    • Yip, there’s totally a difference between being relevant, and condoning what the bible clearly teaches to be wrong.
      At that point, it seems the church has become more interested in what people think, and less interested in what God thinks.

      • I should add that the pastor who was forced to resign from his church has started a new church, one that is reaching out to people his former church is not reaching – the kind of flawed people that Jesus reached out to. It’s a small church by design, and in reaching out to people who feel rejected by too many of our churches, they are truly changing lives.

        “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9

  5. So true. What I find ironic is that in trying to be ‘relevant’ to society, the church just excludes itself even more, and really only ends up being relevant to itself.
    It’s not a question of whether or not church is relevant. Church is relevant because we, as people are relevant. It’s about time we realised that. And I’m preaching to myself!
    Great post, Matt!

  6. “Now, Christian “culture” means wearing a T-shirt with what appears to be the Starbucks logo, except it’s got Jesus in it instead of the mermaid.”

    BWAH HA HA HA! This blog is awesome. But seriously, you brought out a lot of great points here. How is it that Christianity went from inspiring the most awe-inspiring pieces of art- from paintings to sculpture to music- a couple of hundred years ago to now we have to rip off a pancake house name for a transcendental prayer center? Where is the creativity? The originality?

    And you’re right about Katy- she has the same story as I believe over half the artists out there. Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, Brandy and Ray-J- heck like every R&B/soul singer ever- went from singing on the choir and Sunday school to secular music. And name dropping Jesus tearfullyly as they accept an award.

    Great read! This is Facebooked and Retweeted!

  7. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years… especially as a Film Major coming out of a Christian University. My current jumbled thoughts (subject to change, I’m sure):

    When the Church was the patron of the arts, the Church was also not altogether beautiful on the inside. The money, the politics, the culture was askew. In fact, while the stated goals of much Church art was converting sinners and visually sharing the Gospel, I do wonder how effective those stain-glass windows were. I’m mean, sure, “David” is impressive–but not one of all the people I saw admiring him when I was there were exhibiting signs of spiritual renewal and a greater love for Scripture. I certainly felt neither of those things.

    That’s not to say that art made by Christians for the glory of God isn’t a wonderful thing, but just that as a “Christian/Church Culture” our art has never been effective in the way we want it to be.

    But that brings up Katy. How does the art of individual Christian compare? And why can’t we give ’em fame, fortune and all that jazz? Perhaps because there’s something that’s wrong with that kind of “cultural impact”… perhaps? I got thinking about it after watching the trailer for Picture Me.

    On the other hand, Jesus was a huge celebrity in His day. Of course, that’s because people were expecting a Messiah who would overthrow Rome. And they were sick of lame teaching. And they liked free food. …but even in all that, the Bible hints that Christ wasn’t really all that interested in His mass “media” exposure. He focused on speaking to those who would listen and building up his small group of people who would then go out and multiply in small ways like that.

    …I need to stop there for now. But you’ve got my wheels turning…


  8. I have said this for years: Either our old worldly favorites get saved and come to Christian Genre (Rick Derringer, Mark Farner, MC Hammer) or we have sub-par talent. As a guitarist and artist, I am not terribly impressed with the Christian version of either. The whole idea of excellence seems to be lost. I was very disappointed with the links on your Christian art blog – nothing of great intrigue.

    The real issue (IMHO) is in defining what Christianity really is. I am most of tired of the Christian-Haters, hating Christians.

    I am not convinced that being raised in a restrictive or liberal Christian home makes one decide to swing one way or the other. There are a lot of factors in what kids decide to do once they are “free.” I do know that kids that who are listened to, loved, affirmed, encouraged, and disciplined in love; not out of anger, and whose parents serve together, do much better at making adult choices.

    Do we have to say “crap” in a sermon to be relevant? Do woman need to wear the “Elmo cut” tops to fit in? How “Christian” does a song have to be, to be Christian?

    I do know that IHOP used to be the “House of Prayer.” I personally love some of the things that Mike Bickle has done for Christianity. His ministry over the decades has brought thousands to a deeper place with Jesus – but you are right, they could have easily picked a better name. I will be interested to see how much resource they put into fighting the Coronary Cowboys at IHOP. And I am going to light myself on fire in front of the government building in KC if they say God told them to use that name.

  9. I was just thinking about something similar, these last couple of days. My cell group was reading in Exodus 36 & 37, where it talks about skilled craftsmen constructing the tabernacle– oh, and that part about all the Israelites bringing more gold and materials than they could use to build the tabernacle. I was struck by two things: 1. It would be quite the day when Christians today would bring so much together that there was more than necessary to do the work of the Kingdom. Can you imagine that?
    2. Why is it that people who are truly skilled and talented decide not to use it in the Church? This is with exception, sure, but I know so many skilled musicians, skilled artists, and geniuses who end up prostituting their musical, artistic, or intellectually gifts in the world. Now to be sure– there is one thing about being in the world and not of it; you can use your gifts in the world to Glorify God and be a testimony to those around you. But…well…that isn’t usually what is going on when that happens.

    Is this why God uses the weak to confound the strong? Because the strong just end up going out and using it for their own glory?

    • To be fair, the Exodus people weren’t using their skills for God until this event happened and God told them to. They had all refined their skills in Egypt working toward secular goals. Maybe there’s simply no market for this in the church or God hasn’t told them to.

  10. Just because I am committed to keeping my title of Cynic in Residence, let me throw out one more perspective.

    Yes, Christians (or those who were classified that way for one reason or another) used to do much more to create beautiful buildings and cities and artworks. But there are two little nuggets in that that make me pump the brakes on nostalgia. One, people were often classified as Christians if they weren’t something else or just didn’t want to die today. If they were creating today, we would have 57 of the 73 denominations closest to them denouncing their Christianity on the basis of violation of one doctrine or another. By the old definition, Katy Perry would be a Christian who was producing relevant art. By our definition, she is a generation, and outfit, and a transgression too late for that label so we wonder what she has that we don’t. In the old days, she could have purchased an indulgence or perhaps slept with the bishop (same thing?) and all would have been forgiven.

    Second, a lot of those magnificent buildings were built with money that didn’t go to feed the poor, even though the poor lived in the shadow of the creative genius. Often the labor was provided by people who would have benefited much more from experiencing tangible evidence of God’s goodness. Now we would decry the poor decision that was – as long as it wasn’t our denomination or local congregation building it.

    There are a lot of groups and individuals out there doing some innovative and wonderful work, it just may not be artistic and it sure won’t gain the accolades of secular culture. I’m just not sure that’s the standard by which we measure. And I’m not sure that there aren’t even works of art being created by believers, but when we make them stop following their muse to make Hallmark quality songs so we will accept them as Christian enough, we sabotage them anyway.

    • Good point, and I’m no one to say that the church of centuries past was all sunshine and lollipops. Oh, and your mention of Hallmark is also somewhat ironic to me just because it’s also based in my hometown. Just about every third person here works for them.

  11. And the IHOP thing: I was only surprised this hadn’t happened earlier. I mean, really? It’s just like the “GodSquad” guy who ripped off Geek Squad. Ugh.

  12. Wow…this could get me on a rant of Biblical proportions. :) I’ll try to restrain myself.

    I’ve often felt like Christians settle way too much for their “art.” I worked at a radio station years ago when a movie was coming out based on a best-selling Christian book. (I’m being vague on purpose because it’s not my place to out any co-workers who share my view here.) We were told about how the movie was top quality, how it wasn’t the typical low budget, low quality Christian fare and that we needed to rent a theatre and promote it. So we did.

    The movie S U C K E D.

    It was bad. It was typical Christian movie bad. We were so embarrassed that we actually apologized to people for telling them to come see it. When the filmmakers came to us about a year later to ask us to promote another of their films, we flat out told them we weren’t interested and then sat back and heard the complaints from fellow radio programmers when they were burned again.

    On the other hand, I’ve worked at secular stations where Christian songs came in that were great which the guy in charge of programming wouldn’t touch because it was the “Christian” stuff. So sometimes it doesn’t matter how good the material is from a Christian artist.

  13. Personally I don’t see why people had a problem with Katy Perry’s outfit on Sesame Street. I mean Elmo is NAKED and no one seems to have a problem with that!

    Seriously though, good points here Matt. The church is trying too hard to mimic pop culture when we have something that they don’t…the Holy Spirit. He is the ultimate source of inspiration. I pray that we can get Exodus 31:1-11 into our hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to inspire creativity in us from the Spirit of God.

  14. Great post man. Summed up a lot of my own thoughts. We need to each work within our talent set and be committed to creating the art that is missing. Expecting someone else to do it won’t work.

  15. Matt, you finally inspired me to write a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for a long, long time. Thanks.

    Here’s the shamefully-plugged link:

    My question is, why is it so hard for churches to foster art and creativity? The secular culture doesn’t foster creativity at all! It could be our thing!

  16. Cannot believe that no one has mentioned Apologetix. I’m just sayin’.

  17. this vaguely reminds me of that video on youtube, “What if Starbucks marketed like the church?”

    which I suppose is sort of implying that we should be copying our marketing from Starbucks?

  18. I think it comes down to what our ultimate goal is: evangelism/spreading our religion or love. As long as it’s evangelism then we’ll be constantly scheming on how to stay relevant. Love has no use of gimmicks.

    I also think the church is far more effective when its subversive and underground, and it gets ridiculous when it tries to compete in culture. Something goes amiss very quickly.

  19. That’s it, you’ve offended me – I’m taking off my Rick Warren flowered shirt, trashing my message Bible, cutting my Shane Clairborne dreadlocks and combing my hair into a Mark Driscoll pointy head, getting rid of the pyrotechnics, shutting down my 12 video campuses and getting on disability.

  20. Heck to the yes! When I was in middle school I thought those “Christian pun on a corporate logo” shirts were cool and funny. Now I realize they can be pathetic and out of date. I’ve heard some of Katy Perry’s early Christian pop, and it’s pretty derivative and bland.

    @Luke, It’s true that Medieval and Renaissance Church patronage of the arts was not all squeaky clean and upstanding. The Body of Christ is made up of weak, sinful people. Still, even a corrupt Pope who patronized the arts was helping make the point that beauty comes from God, and that God can be glorified by our art. (Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists sums this up pretty well.
    Those great artists were not exactly saints either. Caravaggio is one of my favorites. He died on the run from the law, but also created some incredibly powerful, effective images of St. Paul, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary.
    I agree that Michelangelo’s David is more a statement about Italian politics than scripture, and Renaissance culture mixed religion and politics too much, but that’s a whole separate history discussion.

    Lastly, a Christian tradition of art helps strengthen our identity. Eastern Rite churches do this really well. You walk in the door, see the icons they’ve been painting for centuries, and know who they are. If contemporary Christian identity is based on imitation of pop culture, how different are we from the culture we are trying to evangelize?

  21. I had to let this one percolate overnight.
    It seems to me that in the attempt to be “relevant” the church too often skates really close to the world, if we don’t in fact jump right into the rink with them.

    “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.” –2Cor:6:17

  22. Dang! And I’ve been planning my blog rant on “Christian” literature. Now it will just look like I’ve copied off of you. 😛

    Seriously, I was thinking about this yesterday: anybody who can put three words together with a liberal sprinkling of “God”, “Jesus”, “pray” and “church” can sell a book on the Christian market. I think I have passable writing and critical reading skills; many of today’s “Christian” writers do not. And yet, Christians keep buying them, and reading them, and recommending them to their book-loving friends (me) so that they can unfriend me on FB when I tell them that book they love so much has a crappy plot and senseless dialog. WHY do we do this to ourselves??

    Okay, taking a deep breath… rant finished. :) I know there are good writers who do write for a Christian audience, and I would love for those people to get the attention/reviews/sales they deserve.

  23. Jesus is always relevant. The Church doesn’t have to create any gimmicks or light shows. I strongly believe that God and only God can save someone.

    Sure, we can attract crowds, but so what? Numbers don’t always equate to believers.

    Now, about the whole Christians imitating culture. Yeah, it is sad that our creativity usually resorts to parodies of secular forms entertainment. God created art. Why don’t we use it for His glory? Why must we feel the need to be “relevant” with each other? Be relevant with God and that will translate well with everyone else. Love God and love people.

  24. And sorry about my rant if it wasn’t always right on topic. It was more of a general comment.

  25. Jessica Simpson claimed that her Christian record label was afraid her breasts were too large, that it would send the wrong message…I guess that’s why she decided to show them off more and become a pop star?

  26. As a guy trying to get a book writing career going, I find this topic interesting. I went the Christian market route at first, but felt it hard to confine my faith to their statement of faith that needed to be signed just to get a deal. I also do not like how the Christian market refers to their stuff as the Christian alternative to X:

    Example: Mac Powell is the Christian version of Neil Young

    I made that up, but it is pretty close to how they do it. Why cannot the lead singer of Third Day just be the lead singer of Third Day? Why do they insist of making him almost a nonperson but making him an alternative to another artist?
    Jason recently posted..Under Construction

  27. Hello Matty,
    Reminds me of the whole Willow Creek thing. Do we all have to be like them. Aren’t we creative enough to come up with our own stuff?
    Oh, Katy, you need to be kissin’ the Son. He is far sweeter and infinitely more satisfying.
    Anything Good is God’s,
    Lazy Silly Girl

  28. Yup, been saying that for years.

  29. This was genuinely valuable, numerous thanks for putting up

  30. Thanks for the information. Most successful

  31. “How do you feel about today’s Christian culture and our penchant for imitation (even though we’re not supposed to be imitating the world)? Do you think it’s hurting our efforts to be relevant?”

    -It’s shallow and lame. In the world and not of it.. this stuff is a weak attempt to do this but all it says to me is how we use Jesus sorta like Kitty Litter. He is often used to justify and cover up our real motives and feelings: Ra-Ra American Consumers. Not disciples of another kingdom.

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