What the Church can Learn from Cosplay


One of my favorite days each year in Boston was the big Anime Convention. My spouse and I would make sure to be at the Prudential Center during that time to check out the “cosplay” or the amazing costumes and characters that the participants became. Whether they were in groups or alone buying food at the food court, it was a fascinating time looking in on a culture that I’m not a part of but I really respect for their craftsmanship and their ability to geek out with reckless abandon.

But not everyone has the same concept of what cosplay is, and the difference is a helpful lesson to the Church as well.

Cosplay: For Elites or Amateurs?

Cosplay is short for “costume play” where nerds and geeks dress up like their favorite series characters, usually from sci-fi, fantasy, gaming or manga genres.

A shirt recently for sale at Hot Topic (pictured above – it has since been removed) depicts cosplay as “do it right or don’t do it at all.” The shirt got some flak from Amy Radcliffebut not because no one pronounces it like a ‘z’:

Anyone who wears a costume in public is brave. It’s not easy to put yourself out there in the world. Some people are 100% comfortable and don’t care what others think or say, but many are not. This horrible t-shirt goes to the heart of cosplay fears, and it’s not okay…

There is no “right” way to cosplay. If you can’t sew and instead make a cardboard version of a costume, that’s fine. If you apply Rule 63, that’s good too. Not the right shape, height, color of the character you’re cosplaying as? Doesn’t matter. Cosplay the characters you love, have fun, and don’t pay attention to what anyone says about it….dress up like whomever you want, it’s all right…do it, have fun, everyone wins

It’s bad enough for those of us in the community, but what kind of elitist signal is this sending to non-geeks or people who want to cosplay and have been too shy to do so? It’s bullying captured in a t-shirt. Ugh.

In short, the tension is between outsiders–plus some elite cosplayers who value craftsmanship and authenticity–and those who love their characters and come in a box with a glitter-glued t-shirt. As I know intimately, nerds can be bullies to other nerds, especially in areas where we think we know more or better than other. The best solution often comes from other nerds who remind everyone that passion is the currency that cosplayers value, not perfection.

Church: Polished Programs or Responsive Rough Drafts?

I think the Church can take a pointer from this discussion. Sadly, I think many of our church programs and outreach initiatives take this mantra to heart: Do it right, or don’t do it at all. The sentiment is that if you are going to start something new, you have to have figured it all out. It has to pass the Ministry Committee and get the pastor’s stamp of approval. If it costs money, it needs to find the money before it starts. There’s a ton of hoops to jump through and by the time you do it, the opportunity may have passed you by.

In previous blog posts, we’ve examined a hope that the Church in the 21st century would not idolize perfection in this way and would structure their ministries and missions to value passion over perfection:

  1. In 2008, we examined “What the Church can Learn from Wikipedia” and asked how the Church is often outdated like an Encyclopedia Brittanica.  Our church structure ‘professionalizes’ ministry, and along the chain of authorization, the impetus behind the topic loses steam. If it works, and if the people pushing it are thorough, then yes, a lot of people can get behind it and it has a polished look. But the timing is off and out-of-sync with culture, and often ministry ideas can lose out to the church calendar.
  2. In 2009, we examined software beta culture where products were being shipped out unfinished and needing constant updates. We considered if allowing beta-culture to take root in the Church could lead to innovation and new groups that find themselves newly empowered because they don’t have to be as polished as the Disciple bible study.
  3. Finally in 2010, we extended the beta culture question to “embracing a beta faith” by listening to a podcast by Phillip Clayton.

The common theme of the above posts is that while  holistic forms of ministry crafted from the top down will always be excellent in quality, they are often slow-moving and unable to adapt to the shifting sails of ministry.

Like the cosplayers who just want to come and participate in ComicCon as Deadpool (the proselytizer or otherwise), whether their costume looks great or not, the point is that they are participating, gathering information, getting tips or offering suggestions to other cosplayers, and being in the community. The church would also do well to–once in a while–stop with the head games and master plans and instead just do it: participate, seek to live like the community around them, and participate in the give-and-take nature of a place that doesn’t require a committee-approved act of intentionality.

Is there a place for master plans and head games? Of course. Are there lines you shouldn’t cross? Of course.

But the reality is that you may get further inroads into a community by being involved already in just little ways, the aggregate of which may lead to something amazing, if your timing and involvement is just right. It’s all about not letting our processes and relentless pursuit of perfection get in the way of participating in a community until we’ve got it “just right.” No, just go, and error-correct along the way, and you might even find people who will help with that direction who otherwise wouldn’t “fit into” a masterfully planned program…and that may be exactly what you were meant to do.


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  1. Kirk VanGilder says

    Sure, why not. Some of us put a lot of effort into clothing that would be viewed as very strange in other contexts already! The line up of clergy for ordination services in my conference can be a bit like a drag show of who has the snappiest vestments.

    But yeah, this is something woth delving into with a bit more rigor from other vantage points as well. Your musings caused me to recall when I was trying a new church start in the Deaf community in DC years ago. I’d share my vision of what it could be with people and get a general, “that’s a really neat idea, let me know when it’s up and running,”. When what I needed was people who were willing to get messy and make an imperfect community that would strive to live toward a vision something like that.

    You also caused me to recall people who have left churches I’ve pastored or attended saying they were leavening because the church ‘just like I wanted them to be.’ Which was often phrased in some form of, ‘you’re not doing it right!’ And sometimes, ‘you’re not living up to what you talk well enough for me.’

    While I’m all for people finding a worshipping community where they can fit enough to thrive and grow in their faith and practice, I often see these people bounce from place to place never feeling satisfied.

    The search for perfection rarely succeeds, particularly when the human element is involved! It seems a good number of people today get turned off quickly when they feel they’ve been told one thing and discover another…so maybe we churches and Christians need to start articulating a theology of imperfect ecclesiology as an invitation to others to join and help us figure it out.

  2. Zzyzx says

    The attitude of that shirt seems to be the attitude of one of my current churches. For them, I think it’s a fear thing. If they don’t do it perfectly, then they fear that things will be worse off than ever. Of course this means they often don’t do anything at all and so they REALLY end up worse off than ever. But they seem to be always waiting for the “sure thing,” the silver bullet that will fix everything. To the point where they are either negative about any action put forth by someone in the congregation, or that they even try and oppose such actions.

  3. says

    You know I’m pretty sure the Episcopalians and Roman Catholics tried this, with disastrous results. Google ‘Seusscharist” and “African Puppet Mass” and prepare to cringe.

    Really, worship should be solemn and deadly serious. I am hugely opposed to the Methodist tradition of “Holy Humor Sunday.” Do we not understand the imperative of fearing God? God is love, but He also Has divine wrath; he also created us. Let us honor Him in the same manner that we honor the most important things in existence; with the utmost dignity and reverence, for He is our heavenly father.

    That said, Jeremy, this article is an improvement; here you are not calling for any kind of heresy, and I can’t even call this blasphemy. Worshipping in costumes is just silly. By the way, if you do crave flashier vestments, check out the Syriac Orthodox Church, or better yet the Assyrian Church of the East; the latter has priests who are dressed like Commander Adama in the original 1970s Battelstar Galactica, complete with a spectacular cape, which is used dramatically during the consecration of the Eucharist.

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