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

Tiny House Phenomenon

Written by: on February 8, 2018

Have you seen the HGTV show Tiny House Hunters?  Individuals/couples/families seek to purchase or build small homes, typically 400 square feet or less (and preferably on wheels).  The Tiny House phenomenon is sweeping the nation and I’m feeling the tiny house fever myself.  I’ve convinced myself that I could live comfortably in a compact space – less space to clean, smaller mortgage (or no mortgage), and an excellent excuse to embrace the outdoors more.  Oh yes, and there’s the added benefit of living more efficiently and “green” (less space to fill with “stuff”, built with sustainable building materials, can be used for off the grid living, consume less energy).

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit, though, that in all these years I’ve never caught mobile home fever.  Mobile homes come in a variety of sizes (typically starting at 400 square feet) and offer the same option of downsizing at an even cheaper cost than tiny homes.  Why aren’t mobile homes on my list?  It’s simple – culture and consumerism.

One of the well-known cultural challenges that the mobile home industry faces is a “mobile home” image.  Mobile homes and trailer parks are a legitimate form of housing, but many Americans have uncritically embraced the negative cultural image of trailer parks—except, perhaps, those who live in them. Americans can use the trailer park as a way to distance themselves from the economic failures of society. “The stigma of trailer trash privileges “us” over “them” and allows Americans to self-identify as “middle class” even when objective measures make that class status dubious. But these sorts of cultural stigmas also prevent people from identifying shared economic interests.”[1]  Historically, trailers came in to existence in the 1920’s – when urban, middle-class families in America escaped to nature pulling trailers with their cars.  Just ten short years after the trailer’s development, the Great Depression era began and trailers became homes for displaced families who experienced financial ruin.  “Americans and their tawdry trailers represented the threat that loomed in every citizen’s life—the loss of job, social status, and a permanent home.”[2]

The tiny house vs. trailer analogy is symbolic of our consumer culture – manipulation of psychological perceptual processes involved in buying and consuming products and services. Perception influences how we make sense of the external world in which we conduct our daily life.[3]  Vincent Miller’s writings in Consuming Religion; Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture emerge out of what he perceives as a “disconnect” between religious and consumer practices in US society. He questions how believers can enthusiastically embrace religious beliefs, symbols, and practices that advocate simplicity of life, and, at the same time, engage in excessive conspicuous consumption[4]  Miller successfully incorporates social theories into his writings and connects consumerism to capitalism – even noting capitalism, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.

“What needs to be eradicated, or at least greatly tempered, is consumerism: the obsession with acquisition that has become the organizing principle of American life. This is not the same thing as capitalism, nor is it the same thing as consumption. To explain the difference, it is useful to draw on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. At the bottom of this hierarchy are basic creature comforts; once these are sated, more satisfaction is drawn from affection, self-esteem and, finally, self-actualization. As long as consumption is focused on satisfying basic human needs — safety, shelter, food, clothing, health care, education — it is not consumerism. But when, on attempts to satisfy these higher needs through the simple acquisition of goods and services, consumption turns into consumerism — and consumerism becomes a social disease.”[5]

Elizabeth Dreyer provides a brilliant review of Miller’s work citing “I agree with Miller that setting up an ideological war between religion and consumer culture is, for the most part, a dead end.”[6]  She acknowledges that Miller’s use of so many disciplines – use of theoretical constructs and methods: history, postmodern philosophy, theology, and cultural anthropology are both his greatest strength and weakness.[7]  In light of Dreyer and Miller’s assertion that an ideological war is useless, how do we, as Christian leaders, engage our tribe into recognizing and understanding the effects of consumer culture?  Maybe we need to look only as far as millennials.  Let’s be honest, millennials get a bad rap – in particular for not filling our church pews.  I’m challenging you to seek to understand the culture of this generation.  According to the power of positivity, the following six signs “prove that the world is experiencing a spiritual awakening”:  Organic food sales are on the rise, while non-organic and GMO foods are being rejected; meditation and mindfulness practices have skyrocketed in western nations; off-grid living and minimalism are the new trends, leaving rampant consumerism and overconsumption in the dust; people have grown exhausted with the slavery of employment, and seek a better life; we have an ever-growing need to protect this planet and connect with each other; we have grown absolutely sick of hatred, violence, oppression, and war.[8]

You may read this list and think – those are “new age” ways of looking at spirituality – but isn’t that the myth of consumerism? [9] “Sociologists Heelas et al. take an empiricist approach, gathering qualitative and quantitative data from a single town in England (with the addition of broader studies and comparisons to the US) to test the hypothesis that we are in the midst of a spiritual revolution. Tracing a distinguished American pedigree from Emerson and Thoreau to William James and Aldous Huxley, Schmidt and Fuller expose the deep roots of nontraditional spiritual movements in American religious history—challenging the “new” in New Age.”[10]

Miller claims that the Christian desires for justice, for hope, for the coming of the Kingdom of God, are also threatened. Indeed, many act as if whatever issue cannot be solved by living in the here and now and doing some therapeutic shopping some can be solved by some financial gesture which symbolically shows one’s support for an ethnic group, an environmental cause or other political issue. How much more commitment, sacrifice or effort actually goes into doing something! Yet, consumerism is on a campaign to remove such responses from people’s minds.[11]

Miller has shown that there are tangible ways in which we can work within the culture, to create a church which offers meaning and life – in a spiritual, political, economic and generally holistic sense.[12]  If the “church” is going to survive, they are going to have to offer a better way of “being”.  Because Miller’s book hasn’t been published since 2005, I looked for his biography to see where he is now.  He is in my own state of Ohio at the University of Dayton.  I wonder if he is excited by the pendulum swing of millennial values like I am?

[1] https://mobilehomeliving.org/amp/immobile-dreams-how-did-the-trailer-come-to-be-a-symbol-of-failure/

[2] https://mobilehomeliving.org/amp/immobile-dreams-how-did-the-trailer-come-to-be-a-symbol-of-failure/


[4] Dreyer, Elizabeth A. “How to Remain Faithful in a Consuming Culture and Is New Age Spirituality All That New?.” Religious Studies Review 34, no. 1 (January 2008): 1-8.

[5] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/amitai-etzioni/the-crisis-of-american-co_b_1855390.html

[6] Dreyer, Elizabeth A. “How to Remain Faithful in a Consuming Culture and Is New Age Spirituality All That New?.” Religious Studies Review 34, no. 1 (January 2008): 1-8.

[7] Dreyer, Elizabeth A. “How to Remain Faithful in a Consuming Culture and Is New Age Spirituality All That New?.” Religious Studies Review 34, no. 1 (January 2008): 1-8.

[8] https://www.powerofpositivity.com/6-signs-prove-world-experiencing-spiritual-awakening/

[9] Beaudoin, Tom. “CONSUMING RELIGION: CHRISTIAN FAITH AND PRACTICE IN A CONSUMER CULTURE.” Theological Studies 66, no. 1 (March 2005): 236-237.

[10] Dreyer, Elizabeth A. “How to Remain Faithful in a Consuming Culture and Is New Age Spirituality All That New?.” Religious Studies Review 34, no. 1 (January 2008): 1-8.

[11] https://cra.org.au/consuming-religion/

[12] https://cra.org.au/consuming-religion/

About the Author

Jean Ollis

13 responses to “Tiny House Phenomenon”

  1. You and Jay were on the same wavelength with the tiny house theme. I thought your analogy of the tiny trailers vs. the trailer parks was very insightful and interesting. I would have to agree that although the trailer parks house people who have much less than the average homeowner, people who are minimalists would not want to endure the stigma of the trailer park. Not sure if this will ever change, which can be verified by mortgage and insurance companies for these mobile/manufactured homes. Great post as always Jean!

  2. M Webb says:

    I can just see you in a “Tiny House”! NOT!

    Last fall, when I started this class from the Middle East, I lived in a 40-person tent with 20 double-bunk canvas cots. That experience was “cozy” or the British “cosy” or the Danish “hygge”. My perception was that God has a sense of humor for sure! While it was uncomfortable, noisy, smelly, and cramped it was where God put me for this season of marketplace ministry.

    Too bad Miller did not use Christ’s solution to consumerism when being tempted by Satan in the desert; “No one can serve two masters” (Mat. 6:24).

    I am going to pull a “Jay” and quote scripture, this is a Christian interdenominational Dmin program, right? Here is a “But God” verse fit for the consumer-commodity problem that Miller presents:

    “And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).

    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Jean Ollis says:

      Thank you for your scripture! Satan certainly has his way with consumerism – you witness this first hand with the volume of packages your company delivers…Without having experienced your canvas tent in the middle east would you truly be able to appreciate the space, convenience, and creature comforts of your home?

  3. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jean,

    Great minds must think alike! I think it is fun we both zeroed in on the same thing without ever talking with each other. However, let there be no doubt, your’s was way better than mine, much deeper and more academic!

    Well done on your research to find that our Author lives in your home state at the U of Dayton.

  4. Jean,

    The line in your post that grabbed me was your statement about millennials leading a spiritual revolution. Since we became part of the local university scene, we are connecting a lot with millennial students (and of course, our own kids). We really sense this spiritual awakening as well – but this is the first time I’ve embraced the idea that it is a move of God akin to the spiritual renewal moments in history.

    It will be fascinating to see ongoing developments.

    Thanks for your insights.

    • Jean Ollis says:

      Our biggest challenge will be to convince non-millennials that the millennials may be on to something! As leaders, we need to spiritually support this group. Thanks for your thoughts!

  5. Jennifer Williamson says:

    I could totally live in a tiny house, as long as the walls could be lined with books.

    And I agree with your assessment of millenials. This is a great moment in history, they have the potential of turning this consmer world around. But then how does digital connectivity fit in? IS this a form of consumerism that is less “stuff” related, but has some of the same pitfalls?

    • Jean Ollis says:

      Hi Jenn,
      Well yes, then there’s that – the digital world. Millennials can be distracted and compulsive digitally but I want to believe that it is turning the corner – young people recognizing the harm and danger in being too connected…and then using the digital world for good – to educate, inspire, and learn. I know my 21yo son is choosing to disconnect as much as possible. He won’t check his phone if he’s in the presence of someone else. Sometimes I’m even frustrated by his disconnect because I’m trying to reach him lol.

  6. Jason Turbeville says:

    Great analogy with the tiny house and reducing our selves to just what we need. I agree that millennials get a bad wrap, partially because they challenge all things and those in charge don’t like to be challenged, they expect us to fall in line. The biggest challenge they will face is when they are no longer the trend setters, I wonder how they will react to that. It happens to every generation and can be a defining moment in a life.

  7. Dave Watermulder says:

    Hi Jean,
    Thanks for this well written and laid out post. Like others, I was drawn in by the tiny-house vs. mobile home example that you gave. But you also brought in a lot of outside writing to help understand this book. In ending with Millennials (who do get a bad rap, as younger generations always do), you offer a ray of hope. Maybe, it will be this generation that sticks with the “consume less” ethos that we are seeking. For me, I want to have that hope, but I also know myself. It’s hard work to stick with the less-consumerist approach to life– it’s like actually living in a 400 square foot tiny house. Sounds cool and good in theory, but I wonder how to do it in practice. Maybe the advantage that the young have, is that they haven’t accumulated as much stuff so far. But they’ll need role-models, and that is something that may be hard to find among regular folks…

  8. Chris Pritchett says:

    I’m so with you on the tiny homes craze! Sounds so great in so many ways but I won’t actually do it either. I actually have a tiny house. Well, truth be told, it’s a shed that I converted to a study in my back yard. So it’s in addition to our house! Also I’m sensing a potential calling for you to get rid of the mobile home stigma in America. 🙂 Do you think it’s a classist issue that needs to be addressed? I would totally move to a mobile home in Santa Barbara 😉 On a more serious note, Dreyer’s critique sounds both interesting and disappointing yet hopeful? I don’t know what to make of all this. I’m curious about the spiritual awakening you wrote about, and it seems to me that whether or not that is true, the call for the church is to show the way through praxis rather than ideology as you said is upon us.

  9. Shawn Hart says:

    “Miller has shown that there are tangible ways in which we can work within the culture, to create a church which offers meaning and life – in a spiritual, political, economic and generally holistic sense.[12] If the “church” is going to survive, they are going to have to offer a better way of “being”. I think my biggest concern with this modern day form of “spiritual”, is that spiritual does not necessarily mean “Christian”. The fact that one of the latest statistics is that 40% of high school students in the U.S. now classify themselves as atheists. Loving the earth, eating more healthy, hating to work, and living in smaller houses does not mean that the world is a more godly place; in fact, I believe the evidence is to the contrary. My second fear is that there is a mentality that it is up to us to “save” the church and help it “survive”. God has always managed to do that through the lives of people that cling to His Word rather than be distracted by worldly teachings and concepts. I am not saying that there is not going to have to be some understanding along the way to the changes in the world, but how do you suggest we maintain the integrity of God’s Word while still connecting to a modern day world-viewing people?

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