Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Just One More Consumer Product

Written by: on November 6, 2023

I had an amazing opportunity on Friday as part of my work with the I to We organization[1]. We assembled a group of Christian local leaders from various denominations and educational organizations to discuss team building. It was a timely conversation and I got to share with them some of the readings from this course and how the issues they were noticing are part of the trends we have been studying. In the beginning of our time, we simply asked each person to share a struggle that they have in their current leadership context and then we distilled their ideas to high level themes. Here are 5 problematic postures that we came up with and my initial attempts to describe them:

  • Post Christian Reality- we no longer can expect non-Christian institutions in our society to endorse/support Christian values
  • Relationships- people are increasingly isolated
  • Prioritization- while there is a voiced interest in spiritual issues, that is not being borne out by how people opt to spend their time
  • Fractured, Ego-Centric Culture- there is a high level of self-orientation and protectionism
  • Low Willingness- society is growing less willing to participate in religion, unless it is on their terms

The weight of these observations is heavy. Indeed, as I think about my research and my intent to create spaces for authentic, safe discourse, the postures these leaders uncovered are antithetical to my goals. It is also remarkable that the course of our reading of Vincent Miller[2] and Jason Clark[3] this week covered similar territory. In her review of Miller’s Consuming Religion, Phyllis Zagano summarizes Miller’s claims that Churches have become places to cater to consumer desires:

“consumerism has so conditioned individuals in contemporary Western culture that they approach religion as just one more consumer product. As a result, tradition becomes out-of-date, a formless and meaningless reminder of last year’s fad; and religion becomes something that must be personalized to suit the individual consumer.”[4]

Religion as a Consumer Product

The catering of Christianity to our Consumerist tendencies is not new. Growing up in Portland, there was a franchise called Christian Supply. My mom was the Sunday School Superintendent at our church, and I pretty much went wherever she went, so, when it came time to find curriculum, we would head there to pick up the bright colorful boxes full of shiny materials that I then would see integrated into my Sunday School learnings. Going to that store was fun. They had walls full of Christian self-help books and shiny new Bibles, aisles of Christian greeting cards and gifts, a wide selection of Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith cassette tapes (yes, I have dated myself) as well as an impressive collection of Precious Moments plush toys. Don’t even get me started on the mesmerizing selection of tchotchkes and framed spiritual poems. I was probably a cheeky teenager when I began to question the name of the place. After all, how would the concept of “solo scriptura” match up with “Christian Supply?” Was there a list of supplies I needed other than God’s word and his Spirit?

I am sure that the people running this chain of stores were not trying to infer that I needed to buy their stuff to be a better Christian. However, the merchandising of Christian paraphernalia reinforces ideas that don’t line up with our stated values. In the midst of this discord, the merchandizing of Christian activities does connect with the dysfunctions my friends in ministry leadership observed in our time on Friday.

Reviewing the Map: Where We Have Been

Last week, Dr Clark summed up Miller’s work as a study of the impact of consumerism on religion as well as the effects on human nature, desires and habits.[5] He takes this idea further in chapters 5 & 6 of his dissertation by drawing attention to our longing for a victory over desire.[6] Going back over our reading so far this year, I see not only echoes in Clark and Miller’s writing but in that of several of the authors we have read so far:

  • Bebbington[7] works to actually define the Evangelical waters we are in that have infused our Christian subconscious with a loaded set of values
  • Weber[8] draws the lines between Evangelicalism and Capitalism and the moral implications of that relationship
  • Polanyi[9] creates awareness of the Market fictions that we have designed our lives around (Money, Labor, Land Ownership)
  • Fukuyama[10] helps us wrestle with properly weighing out our identity and the impact our obsession with reality has had on our culture
  • And, finally, this week, Miller[11] asks the question of how all of these forces has created consumer expectations as we approach Christianity.

As evidenced in the discussion I had on Friday, these trends in society have shaped our interactions with religion and institutions and are posing challenges with which leaders continue to struggle.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A few questions to spark dialogue:

  1. How can we support each other in grappling with the insidious draw of our consumer culture?
  2. How should leaders respond to these themes that are creating barriers to maintaining Religious Institutions?
  3. Since leaders are also subject to the same cultural influences as everyone else, how do we help them see where they are also being unduly swayed by the world?


[1] https://www.itowe.org/

[2] Vincent J. Miller and Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, 1st ed. (New York: Bloomsbury Academic & Professional, 2005).

[3] Jason Paul Clark, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship,” n.d.

[4] Zagano, Phyllis. 2005. “Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture.” _Spiritus_ 5, no. 1: 119-122, https://georgefox.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/consuming-religion-christian-faith-practice/docview/217411359/se-2.

[5] Jason Clark, lecture to DLPG students, Zoom, October 30, 2023.

[6] Clark, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship,” 171.

[7] David Bebbington, “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s” (London: Routledge, 1993).

[8] Max Weber, “The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism and Other Writings,” Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).

[9] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation the Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, 2nd Beacon Paperback ed. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001).

[10] Francis Fukuyama, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).

[11] Miller and Miller, Consuming Religion.

About the Author

Jennifer Vernam

10 responses to “Just One More Consumer Product”

  1. mm Tim Clark says:

    Hey Jen,

    First of all, I just read John’s blog post and you guys should definitely connect. You’d have lots of “Christian Book Store” stories to share. 🙂

    Second let me tackle your second question: “How should leaders respond to these themes that are creating barriers to maintaining Religious Institutions?”

    In my post I wrote about one of my favorite books by Eugene Peterson, “Working the Angles”. In it he suggests a pastor can resist the siren song of consumer-driven Christianity by paying close attention to prayer, scripture and spiritual direction. These are counter-cultural to a marketing-focused-faith and return people (and pastors) to a tradition that is not stuck in traditionalism, but is based in a foundation as old as ministry.

    Personally, I am growing in the first (prayer), major in the second (scripture), and am very deficient in the third (spiritual directon).

    Thanks for the questions.. and the post.

  2. mm Jonita Fair-Payton says:


    I really enjoyed reading your post and especially your review of the books that we have tackled this semester. It was refreshing to get a glimpse of them through your lens as I struggled with a couple of them.

    Let me attempt to answer question #3:

    3. Since leaders are also subject to the same cultural influences as everyone else, how do we help them see where they are also being unduly swayed by the world?
    I think that leaders have to start at a place of honesty. What I often see in the leaders that I work with is a fear of showing the human side of themselves. There is often this false coat of armor that they wear. As leaders, it is so important speak about the challenges that they face, the temptations of the world, the weakness of the flesh…all of the real issues. If you don’t name them then they cannot be addressed. Additionally, creating safe spaces is crucial, preferably with peers.

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      Jonita- I love the idea of leaders being honest with themselves. As a member of the congregation, I think I can help this by extending some grace to my leaders. In other words: are we allowing leaders to focus on keeping “the main thing the main thing?” or are we demanding that they keep up with the church down the street?

  3. Jenny Dooley says:

    Hi Jen,
    Thank you for your post and for distilling our reading these past few weeks. I can’t help but notice that in your Friday meeting it seems you were approaching your topics in much the way Jules Glanzer described in his book and in class on Monday! I will offer my simple response to question #1. Actually, Tim and Jonita touched on my thoughts. Whether you call it spiritual direction or giving space in safe relationships to talk about challenges in general, specifically within our culture or around money, there is a lot of power in being honest and open with our struggles and spending habits. Normalizing the tensions and temptations is supportive. I wonder what it would look like to be honest with others and brainstorm alternative approaches.

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      I wonder that, too! If we could figure out the safe space part-especially when things get ugly- what a testimony that would be to those outside the church walls.

  4. mm Kim Sanford says:

    Throughout all of our recent reading about capitalism and consumerism, and now again while reading your post, I’ve been reminded about a 30-day devotional program that I participated in when I was in college. It was called Enough (if memory serves) and it was meant to be a reflective journey into our use of resources as Christians. I don’t remember many of the details, but I do know that the concept of “enough” has stuck with me as a bit of a watchword ever since. I’ve also noticed in all of those many years since, I’ve never encountered another church or denomination offering such a program or training. I’d be curious to know if you (or anyone else who happens to read my comment) knows or has seen any church-based training specifically addressing consumerism/consumption habits of Christians?

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      I saw this post when you made it earlier today, and its been on my mind. I have not seen anything like it- it sounds like it could be transformative… not just the material itself, but a congregation prioritizing this as a topic of discussion. I wonder if we have never heard of it because they didn’t market the content? It would be awfully ironic if they did!

      It seems like creating something like what you described would be a great doctoral project!

  5. Esther Edwards says:

    Hi, Jen,
    I so resonated regarding your many trips to the local Christian bookstores. They were often highlights for me, especially with the onslaught of Christian music and all the offerings in that genre. To your point, even with all the creative ways that have been used to lure people into being more interested in spiritual things, Bible illiteracy is on the rise more than ever before. “A recent LifeWay study found that only 32 percent of Americans who “attend a Protestant church regularly say they read the Bible personally every day.” (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/bible-literacy-crisis/) We have a long way to go, but I am encouraged by the churches that are asking the hard questions and changing their processes to simplify as to what is most important.
    Thanks you for your post, Jen. As always, you cause us all to ask the tougher questions.

  6. mm Pam Lau says:

    Jen, It’s your last question here that I find intriguing:

    Since leaders are also subject to the same cultural influences as everyone else, how do we help them see where they are also being unduly swayed by the world?

    In my work, this would take leaders collaborating together and spending time in face to face spaces where self-reflections and self awareness are the priority. Being honest with self and with others is one way for us to see where we (and others) are being swayed by the world. How do you see that happening?

  7. mm Russell Chun says:

    “Danger Will Robertson” was one of my favorite robots making the family in LOST IN SPACE ready for something bad to happen.

    Thanks for the synopsis of reading journey, some learned hand is guiding us.

    I also LOVED the list of realities.
    Post Christian Reality, Relationships, Prioritization, Ego-Centric Culture, Low Willingness.

    The pool I swim in is not composed of 1st World issues. Yet the problems also exist to a certain extent in 2nd/3rd world countries. It is a caution that the wise will head.

    Danger Will Robertson….

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