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

Working 9-5 and Keeping Faith Alive

Written by: on March 31, 2022


I do not think I will ever view a cut of chicken at the grocery store the same way again. Beyond the price, the process of that product’s journey to the shelf did not occur to me. As someone born and raised in a consumer culture, consumption comes as naturally as breathing. Vincent Miller seeks to help all those immersed in consumerism to understand how that culture affects all aspects of life, including our faith.

Miller, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, articulates a comprehensive and challenging study of the commodification of religion in Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. This book about economics, faith, and sociology diagnoses a current cultural reality, its challenges to faith, and a path toward spiritual vitality. Miller’s thesis asserts that consumerism conditions people to approach religion as one more product to consume. The commodification of religion leads to disengagement from tradition and the hyper-individualization of faith. Economic and cultural theory give density to Miller’s argument that spirituality now means “the personal experiential dimensions of the religion in opposition to institutional forms.”[1] In that context, engaging one’s faith amounts to “insights and practices that they appropriate for their own personal synthesis.”[2]

Miller pinpoints the primary challenge of consumerism not with beliefs but with behaviors and practices. The implications of this premise prove vital to any communicator in a spiritual setting. A pastor can present a compelling case for resisting consumerism. However, decades of formation and routine in a consumeristic culture make it challenging to comprehend or apply the challenge without daily, individual and communal practices to make the challenge real. “When consumerism becomes the dominant cultural practice, belief is systematically misdirected from traditional religious practices into consumption.”[3] The result: “Traditional practices of self-transformation are subordinated to consumer choice.”[4] The commodification of religion produces abstraction and fragmentation, meaning religious traditions (beliefs, symbols, and practices) get “lifted from their traditional contexts and thrown into a cultural marketplace where they can be embraced enthusiastically but not put into practice.”[5] For example, someone dons a T-shirt with Mother Teresa’s image out of respect for her commitment to the poor. Her context, sacrifice, and life become a symbol of faith, not a personal engagement to the one wearing the shirt.

Miller incorporates sociological examples to support his case of the impact of consumerism. He notes how Karl Marx showed the separation of laborers from the production of their effort in capitalism. As people received a wage for their labor, a cultural shift ensued, changing the human experience from “being” to “having.” In a single-family home, a wage supported most of life. Families shifted from managing production to managing consumption. Increased isolation from extended family, neighbors, and community occurred because they were no longer deemed necessary. Income replaced “extended family and community relationships as the source of security.”[6] Dr. Clark notes, “Whereas community and religious groups previously met psychological needs, consuming has taken the pace of producing well-being.”[7] He adds, “This commitment to the agency of the self makes the sustaining of religious communities almost impossible.”[8]

Miller issues a warning about the influences of media within present culture. “As was the case with Christianity’s much earlier appropriation of Roman imperial spectacle, modern media spectacle both benefits and deforms Christianity.”[9] Media removes the participant from the active, personal engagement of faith. A service watched is real and unreal at the same time. This insight carries significant implications for the online opportunities of this day. Media is here to stay. How will the church respond? A present challenge looms over the need to engage those online beyond simple viewership.

A personal takeaway from this book comes from Miller’s optimistic tone. He avoids dystopian prophecy, sounding a realistic and hopeful note instead. “This is not a book about religion against consumer culture; it is a book about the fate of religion in consumer culture.” Rather than a call to abandon the culture, Miller believes one can live “a more authentically Christian life in a culture that is neither entirely Christian in its logic nor entirely alien.”[10] In his conclusion, Miller offers three strategies for the church to thrive in a consumeristic culture: 1) “theology must attend to the structure and practices that connect belief to daily life;” 2) “attend to the lived, everyday theology of believing communities; and 3) “adopt the task of helping communities preserve and sustain their traditions in the face of the erosions of globalizing capitalism.”[11]

Criticizing is easy. Casting a realistic vision for a preferred future is hard. Miller ends his detailed analysis of the growth of capitalism and its results within a culture with help and hope. The New Testament epistles call followers of Jesus to full life in Him. It would have been to point out the negative aspects of first-century Roman culture. Every cultural manifestation is broken because broken people created it. To believe in a sovereign God should include the helpful and hopeful tone of life found in Him, no matter the culture. Vincent Miller gives us a way forward in ours.

[1] Vincent Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2003), 90.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 225.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 28.

[6] Ibidl, 48.

[7] Jason Paul Clark, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (2018) Faculty Publications – Portland Seminary, 182. https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/gfes/182

[8] Ibid.

[9] Miller, Consuming Religion, 95.

[10] Ibid., 15.

[11] Ibid., 226.

About the Author


Roy Gruber

Husband, father, pastor, student, and sojourner in Babylon

13 responses to “Working 9-5 and Keeping Faith Alive”

  1. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Roy: I also appreciated Miller’s optimistic tone. It is so easy to criticize. But he goes several steps further and gives the reader real insight and possible solutions. Every generation since Pentecost has had to wrestle with these ideas. At some point in time there is a leap of faith where we do all we can and trust God that our efforts will bear fruit. As a long-time minister, what one piece of advice found in this book would you give someone who is just entering ministry?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Troy, thanks for your question. What I took from the book is not an explicit statement but a takeaway for me nonetheless. The mission of the church must remain front and center. We need a clear understanding of why Jesus created it. At the highest level, we say: helping people meet and follow Jesus. We try to make all that we do tie to that statement.

  2. mm Eric Basye says:

    Roy, excellent post. I always love your optimism in your posts, and for that, highlighting Miller’s optimism. The three strategies he provides are good ones, indeed. All the more pertinent this day in age, especially after 2+ years of COVID and people moving away from meeting with one another, at least in person.

    For your Kingdom-Optimistic view, in what ways are you hopeful for such restoration for the Church today?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Eric, we have always been big on small groups. For some time, they had to meet virtually, and it showed. People are meeting in person again for the last year and folks are hungry for community. Beyond that, we’ve also seen relationship fostered in the context of serving. I think especially for men, it helps when there is something to do while being with others. We’ve seen small groups result from teams that served together. As we see people return to church en mass, the hunger for connection, meaningful relationships, presents in obvious ways. Our challenge has been getting enough group leaders in place to handle the demand. The troubles of this cultural moment present opportunities for the church to meet the deep needs people experience.

  3. mm Jonathan Lee says:

    Thank you Roy for your insightful post,

    I am also a big proponent of being the light and the salt living in the world, not disconnected nor separated from the current world. Loved your summary and connection in how the media and consuming culture has replaced many needs as a community.

    Other than your summary of Miller’s three strategies for the church to thrive in a consumeristic culture, can you suggest couple more key strategies in how a church can thrive in building up a community that will shine in a consumeristic culture?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Jonathan, we have see what we call compassion projects help to create resistance to consumerism. These projects invite people to serve in all kinds of ways – helping people’s yard needs, donating supplies for various groups, donate cars that are given away to single moms, etc. People now often ask, “what is the next opportunity to serve?” I believe that is a sign of growth in the “downward mobility” that takes us away from consumerism.

  4. mm Andy Hale says:

    Roy, I love the nuance you picked up in the text. Realistically, there is no changing this culture. How we, our role as faith leaders, is to help people reconsider how they exist within it.

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      So right, Andy. It is what it is. How can we help people navigate the reality versus taking a “burn it all down” approach to culture!

  5. Elmarie Parker says:

    Hey Roy…thank you for your very insightful engagement with Miller and Clark’s writing this week. I really appreciated the theme you highlighted around cultural shifts as industrialization and capitalism developed. The issue of isolation and shifting ‘security’ or ‘stability’ from relationships to stuff seems as relevant today as it has been for several decades now. You also highlight the need for communal practices in order to live into what we believe, and the challenges of doing so now that we have two and more years of ‘viewing’ worship under our belts…one more step removed from relationship/community. What are you and your team exploring (in terms of communal practices) for engaging this challenge (isolation) as we move further into 2022?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Elmarie, in our context we have long been advocates of small groups – really, it’s about the relationships developed within them. For a year now, most groups have been meeting again. Honestly, if someone asked if they only had one commitment to give to the church, what should they do? I would tell them to join a small group. We also encourage all our small groups to serve together as a group in some way regularly. We’ve also planned a number of serving opportunities that we call compassion projects. We’ve discovered that as people serve together, they also form relationships that last. We didn’t plan it that way, but that is the result. The serving opportunities are very humble actions. People love it and look forward to them now. It’s become a part of our corporate identity.

  6. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Roy, I appreciate that you grabbed a hold of the optimism of the book. You noted, “Miller pinpoints the primary challenge of consumerism not with beliefs but with behaviors and practices.” How has your experience as a pastor led you to confirm or deny his claim?

    As you begin your blog I thought about a review I read…”One way to unveil the (layers of) the commodity fetish that Miller proposes is through the craft ideal. He describes this as “the practice of handcrafts, not the consumption of handmade goods.” (p. 186). The idea is basically that when you try to make something yourself, you will realise the amount of work that goes into it. Personally I think this is a bit naive. I don’t think I will wise up to the ways of industrial food production by spending some time in a vegetable garden. Moreover, I don’t really think that the worth of anything is ultimately the hours of labor that go into it. Let’s say I learn to fully appreciate the effort it takes to make a music record. I really dive into it and find out about the smallest details of production that are required to get that product on the shelves. Will it change the way I experience that record? Unlikely. Generally I’d say that the direct experience of something determines it’s worth far more than it’s origin. ”

    I found this person’s reflection very interesting and in many ways spot on. How might this person’s critique impact your mindset on food choices? Here is the link to the review…..http://hediedformygrins.blogspot.com/2011/08/book-review-consuming-religion-by.html

    What important Biblical stories come to mind as you processed this book? Do these stories help you shape the narrative to speak prophetically in this context of consumer culture?

  7. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Nicole, my pastoral experience has confirmed Miller’s point – we can agree all day long about the evils of consumerism…and then go out and continue to consume. As I’ve mentioned in a couple of other responses, we’ve found that giving people opportunities to serve in humble, simple ways communicates the honor and fulfillment that can never be found in “stuff.” People do light yard work, painting, donating, etc. and folks now frequently ask when the next opportunity will come. About my food choices, I’m not sure why this book hit me in ways that the others about capitalism did not. Miller made it so clear to me that before capitalism as we know it, people produced what was consumed. As someone raised only in a consumeristic society, I never gave any thought about the process for my food to make the trip to my table. I think I will do some research on the origins of foods (especially meats) after the semester is over. The one Bible story that came to my mind is when the sorcerer approaches Peter and wants the “gift” of healing so that he can make some coin. Honestly, I thought a lot about the phenomenon of Christian celebrity and wondered if that, and some of the high-profile falls, are the result of consumerism within the church. It’s a challenging day for ministry but challenge also brings opportunity!

  8. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Roy, thank you for this concise summary of Miller. You highlighted Dr. Clark’s statement, “Whereas community and religious groups previously met psychological needs, consuming has taken the pace of producing well-being.” I have been curious about this in regard to the church community meeting those “psychological needs.” I remember a counseling course I took in the 80’s and my professor said most people will never need a professional therapist because those needs are being met within their social networks and specifically the church. With to rise of “professional” Christian counselors, spiritual directors, life coaches, etc. are we creating a greater reliance on the “professional”? Is there a need to empower individuals with the skills to meet those needs? I would be interested in your thoughts.

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