Why is there so much low quality Christian stuff?

Sometimes I talk with people who are serious Christ-followers and they share with me their disappointment and frustration about how Christians produce work of average (or worse) quality. The work could be in the arts (movie, media, music, song, painting, drawing, t-shirt design, posters, signs); the work could be a non-profit initiative (community service, social cause, service project, building maintenance, after-school tutoring); the work could be a ministry initiative (church worship service, evangelistic event, Christmas program).

And, yet because these works are done out of a sincere Christian faith, or for the Christian cause, somehow that makes it okay and beyond critique? Somehow, Christian zeal for doing something gets that person an immunity card. It’s as if because you’re in the Christian family-of-God that you have have to stay loyal to the home team, even if they’re never going to win the World Cup (a timely reference to the current event in sports). The Bible does say, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” Where is the hunger to win, to produce the best quality goods to the glory of God?

Why can’t more Christians do better than mediocre? This frustration over low-quality Christian work is most often noticed and noted in the arts; perhaps it’s little safer to critique art. I searched for an answer using the popular search engine, and came up with a few insights and exhortations:

The credibility of our message comes into question when we do mediocre work.” — Kyle Cooper @ Christians Making Movies – Up The Ante (Jay Caruso, ChurchMag, October 10, 2011)

“Does Lewis or Tolkien mention Christ in any of their fictional series? Are Bach’s sonata’s Christian? What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds. The view that a pastor is more ‘Christian’ than a girls volleyball coach is flawed and heretical. The stance that a worship leader is more spiritual than a janitor is condescending and flawed. These different callings and purposes further demonstrate God’s sovereignty. — quoting Jon Foreman @ Why Switchfoot won’t sing Christian songs (Dave Browning, December 5, 2013)

The term Christian film has become synonymous with substandard production values, stilted dialogue and childish plots.” @ Why Are Christian Movies So Bad? A call for Christians to get serious about being artists. (Scott Nehring, Relevant Magazine, October 26, 2010)

And here are some other finds::

A couple of my personal thoughts, as I ruminate and wrestle with this topic (not that I have arrived at an answer; these are a snapshot of my tentative thinking at the moment of this blog post):

First, all of humanity, both Christian and non-Christian, are created in the image of God, the Creator of the Universe, and I believe God the Creator is the source of all the great creative human accomplishments of recent history, seen in Pixar movies, Steve Jobs’ vision for the Apple iPod and iPhone, Tesla smart cars, Peter Drucker‘s wisdom on managing social capital, and of history past with the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo’s art, Handel’s Messiah, and there are many many more. Greatness and excellence is self-evident. I’d like to think that Christians who have a “personal relationship” with the Creator God would have more creativity flowing through them, but it hasn’t been my overwhelming experience thus far.

Second, maybe a bell-curve distribution shows how any group of humanity has its share of talents and skills. A majority of people are just plain ol’ average, in competency and creativity and intelligence. And that’s okay, they’re still worthy of dignity and have intrinsic value. There’s a minority that are below average, and they too have just as much intrinsic value and dignity. There’s a percentage that are above average, and they have more giftedness and developed their skills better, but with no more intrinsic value for their humanity than the less gifted. I’d say these 3 groups (average, below average, and above average) account for 99% of the population.

And then there is that (less than) 1%, that are exemplarily gifted with smarts and skills and talents far beyond the norm, a la Steve Jobs, Michael Phelps, Pele, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and I already mentioned Michelangelo and Da Vinci. Yes, these “elite” have had to work hard and overcome adversities; yet I do believe they have something innate by nature took their lives beyond what nurture could.

Third, who are the Christians enabling these mediocre expressions of creativity in the name of God? For big movie productions and other costly endeavors, it takes some high net-worth donors to fund those projects. While wealthy people may have a certain high quality standard in their business life, it doesn’t seem to apply in the Christian world, the ones that are okay funding mediocrity. This ought not be. Integrity would be better lived with consistency in both the secular and sacred, as it is all one world, all under God.

Fourth, I think I’m realistic enough to realize that perhaps a majority of people do not understand the enduring value of quality. Granted, part of that is most of us can’t afford high quality stuff that’s typically expensive. Nevertheless, as a Christian family, it bothers me that we too often appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Fifth, (and I do have more thoughts on this, but wanted to get this published sooner than later,) for good Christian people that get flustered with mediocrity, I’d say, don’t waste your time and energy frustrated by those who don’t value quality like you do. Invest your time and energy with those who do care about and strive for quality. I think of the principles of stronger vs. weaker brethren is informative, cf. Romans 14-15. While a majority of people don’t have the training or talent to know how to create great quality stuff, even the untrained eye or palate instinctively and intuitively knows when something is beautiful and awesome and high quality.

What do you think? What can be done?

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37 Responses

  1. I’ve often wondered this myself, especially about Christian programming for kids. Much of the available content seems better suited to the 80’s. I think there’s is validity in each of the points you raise but specifically being explicitly Christian. On the one hand, it helps define your target audience. On the other hand, there are a lot of things that receive support for being Christian despite the quality.

    Maybe it is similar to how people view the behavior of Christians. There is a prevailing notion that they should be better and held to a higher standard, often without the understanding that they are simply human.

    On the other hand, the Bible does call us to excel in our behavior towards others, being loving and forgiving without exception.

    It’s definitely not black and white. I think the bell curve is probably the strongest reason. I did not mean for this comment became a post 🙂

    • djchuang says:

      Shay, thanks for this thoughtful comment. What you’ve said about the notion of Christians being held to a higher standard seems to me to be very much in play, when someone or something is called Christian, it does draw more scrutiny and evaluating. Other religions don’t draw so much scrutiny by comparison.

  2. scott says:

    Good thoughts. I’d add that most “issue based” media sucks. Its not just religious stuff. Anytime art, creativity and story gets subjugated “to the cause” they both ultimately suffer.

  3. Scott says:

    Not sure I have the answer but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that many Christians don’t understand/live into their purpose/calling.

  4. Rachelle W. Chuang says:

    The entire Chapter 5 – The Elegance of Craftsmanship from The Artisan Soul by Erwin McManus is very helpful….

    “Find the people who have a passion for their work and who have paid the price of honing their skills of their particular craft.”

    “…build patterns of excellence in your life. A life well lived is the sum total of a vast number of moments lived well.”

    “We are to work at our craft as our expression of worship, never settling for anything less than mastery.”

    • djchuang says:

      Thanks hon, Erwin is quite the exhorter and creative soul. Exhortation is a good call to action, but the low quality stuff still persists 🙁

  5. Kenny Jahng says:

    DJ – how about looking at it from a different angle. What about identifying all the high quality stuff that Christians make? Perhaps recognize and model the good stuff going on?

  6. Theo Wu says:

    it’s not the scriptwriter-artist who ultimately dictates the work but the producers (the ones with the money). we’ve had several generations of culturally infused (i.e. get rich) thinking that determines how to (rightly) sell a product. so art is not about the joy of creating than it is about consumerism. artists are replaced with entrepreneurs and financial speak. where is the lost joy of believing that God provides everything for us, not our bosses? Comfort over cause? I don’t deceive myself; I lust after comfort too much too. I think specifically about Left Behind movies. I don’t begin to understand the process of turning the book into a movie. But I consider this: 1. Christians and non-Christians alike read the book series and the producers already had a “larger than normal for a Christian themed film” captive audience and 2. it’s not the Christians who need to hear the good news. in the end, Christians would only watch a movie as long as it has a limited amount of swear words, violence, and no nudity or sexually suggestive scenes. which left us with non-Christians who stayed away because they could smell fake.

    • djchuang says:

      Hi Theo, thanks for chiming in. Yes, consumerism and the creating of art to appeal to the masses aka the market, is another contributing factor. I haven’t seen the research about Christian films vs. secular blockbusters, but this year in particular we’ve seen more religious/Christian themed movies on both sides of the aisle. And if money were the driving motive, secular ones tend to be more profitable, and I think I recall reading that Christians watch more movies of all kinds anyways. There’s more than money at play. #Confounding

  7. Debbie Hogan says:

    I think often what Christians produce is deemed “low quality” because of the lack of funds to hire people who can produce what others would consider “high quality”.

    • djchuang says:

      Hi Deb, yes sometimes that’s true.. There are wealthy Christians who do have funds, just having a challenge of connecting them with the gifted artisans who can produce high quality goods.

  8. Deef says:

    Thinking a bit outside the box.

    What if genuinely gifted artistic/creative/pioneering type of people are less prone to become Christians? Or what if commonly practiced Christian belief structures might limit creativity and the relentless pursuit towards innovation or improvement?

    Or maybe having the peace of mind that can come from Christian beliefs, can indirectly limit personal drive and motivation, that comes from identifying with individually expressed creative endeavors?

    Or maybe the evangelical and community nature of Christian faith, limits the separate and individualistic aspect of exploring the depths of imagination and the unknown which can fuel great ideas. Depression and depth can often go hand in hand with creativity and originality.

    … there might also be societal issues that could be limiting creativity and appreciation of art and beauty:

    — Political correctness has created a ‘niceness’ & ignorance culture which can directly limit authentic expression.

    — Technology & communication advances has created more opportunities for distraction, which can lead to emotional numbing and avoidance.

    — Post 9/11 is an atmosphere of living in terror, where all our creative energies are focused on fear and anxiety, which is more shut down and closed, instead of curious, open and exploring.

    — Global financial bubble seems to be channeling the brightest minds towards corporate and finance industries, with profit as a major motivation.

    • djchuang says:

      Hey brother Deef, thanks for the big list of other contributing factors. There are so many things in play, and I can see how sociological dynamics are more influential than theological/ religious ones. Religious motivation in past generations have inspired great quality art throughout history.. I would say that evangelical zeal has devalued quality of work because of oversimplifying proselytizing as the only worthy goal and that’s short sighted..

  9. Deef says:

    “Oversimplifying proselytizing” might be worth exploring deeper.

    Maybe there’s too many people focusing on evangelism? Sure there is a small percentage who have natural talent and drive towards more traditional forms of ministry or mission work. But what if there’s a large percentage of people who are wasting their creative energy with the focus on trying to develop un-natural evangelical skills and knowledge.

    Those same people might be better served in discovering, exploring, and developing their own natural creative talents, finding their passion, and developing meaning through creative expression?

    This might be an alternative form of evangelism, developing one’s own unique creative genius, and giving it back to the world through various ways of creation, art, production, sharing, teaching, innovation, etc. Then those creations can be seen as a form of evangelism by engaged living example?

    Maybe that might be a bit ‘outside of the box’ or even seen as heretical. And maybe fear of heresy might be another big contributor towards lack of creativity.

  10. Vince says:

    I believe its the N+1 paradox

    Somewhere along the lines, maybe the Darbiest movement, the average Christian was saddled with an extra bag; the institutional church and with it the propositional Gospel. Rather than working toward “your Kingdom come” and making the world a better place, which included really good art, we had to make sure the ‘ask’ was built into everything. So N+1; wherein the ask = N and anything we do toward ‘Your Kingdom come’ becomes secondary.

  11. Turk says:

    My wife and I have both lamented this fact looking through the local Christian media store and thinking of our children: children’s books full of low-quality, easily produced art (cf. Rembrandt’s paintings), music that does not reflect the full spectrum of the book of Psalms, let alone the tenor of the Bible which is one of hope but what about the distance or depths of our humility in the face of God, and threepenny merchandise aimed primarily at the “simple-minded Christian sheeple” of my demographic area. This sounds high-minded, and I don’t denigrate the people who love Christ in the same breath as Nascar, but Christianity used to have depth and quality and now it has neither. It is neither new nor improved; not the message, but the inspiration. Where are the artists who seek God’s face in their depths not out of their comfort. I do think as you pointed out that it’s a matter of recognizing and agreeing upon quality. *Perhaps* as new blood enters the market as writers, producers, etc. they will bring with them the same desire to see quality infused into the marketplace. We Christians have the Big Story, the one that Tolkein made the basis of Middle Earth and Lewis did more implicitly in Narnia. Those Big Themes are very familiar to us as children of the Father. And my last thought is in regards to PG-13 and above movies: I don’t know what Bible most Christians are reading, but mine is full of life, death, betrayal, violence, beauty, despair and hope. I’m not talking about gratuitous usage, but if “thematic elements” and death tell the story, then it should be in there. Not a watered down milquetoast of a “plot” and “dialogue” (I use those terms very loosely – you know who you are ‘Fireproof’).

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