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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Where did the train go?

Written by: on February 9, 2018

This week I met with a student and former intern of mine for coffee. As we chatted, I asked her about whether she had found another church home since participating in the ministry at her internship last summer. Although she has looked into a few locations nothing seems to be a great fit yet. Some churches are too charismatic in their worship, others have liturgy but no life to them, hardly any have much in the way of diversity, and beyond it all is a need for community. We agreed there is no perfect church and yet as I read Miller’s Consuming Religion I couldn’t help but think she, and we as the church have been duped. From the buffet of church gatherings and the felt need for a therapeutic “fit,” we have reduced the church to a place of meeting our immediate and temporal needs.

“Consumer culture is a profound problem for contemporary religious belief and practice.”[1] The opening line of the conclusion of Vincent Miller’s Consuming Religion, he believes the structures and practices of the culture have so influenced religion that those seeking noble religious practice are co-opted by the consumerism of their culture without even fully realizing it. “Miller provides a richly detailed and precise examination of two central interactions between religion and consumerism: religion as consumer product and religious people as consumers of religious ideas, images, and everyday products.”[2] Thus, the title of Miller’s work is a symbiotic enmeshed perspective of both consumers and religion.

In review of Miller’s work, Daryl McKee notes, “Miller attributes the consumer culture to several influences, including a capitalist-induced acquisitiveness, advertising, a self-centered therapeutic culture, alienation from work, and isolation of single-family housing. Aggregated supply requires corresponding aggregate demand. Sales and advertising that was initially developed to provide reliable demand and to reduce risk to capital has become institutionalized and accentuated, fostering a cultural trait of acquisitiveness.”[3] Relating to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation and Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, these changes have all occurred after the Industrial Revolution and are made possible by the dawn of print media. The market economy has become a societal foundation, driving the supply and demand of both fictitious and real commodities.

Although recognizing the practical solutions offered by the text, one of Miller’s limitations as noted by Courtney Wilder is the lack of depth of engagement “for religious communities to make moral decisions about their consumption.”[4] She goes on to site the popularity of fair trade coffee in churches as a source of ethical engagement, moral agency and connection to the needs of the poor. Beyond this, Wilder advocates further pragmatic suggestions for churches and Christian individuals would illuminate further his hope “for academic theology to engage ordinary religious practitioners.”[5]

In Miller’s chapter on “Desire and the Kingdom of God,” he speaks of consumer desire as “a system of formation that structures desire in a manner similar enough to Christianity to sidetrack it in subtle but profound ways.” He then illustrates his meaning through the use of a railroad metaphor stating, “The conflict between Christianity and consumer culture lacks the definitiveness of a head-on collision; rather it was about as much drama as a train switching tracks and going in a slightly different direction.”[6] Two aspects are striking in this quote. First is the idea of consumer desire as formation. Formation is a term used synonymously with discipleship in the church. Formation is the shaping of one’s beliefs and practice. The reality Miller speaks of is the influence of marketing to confuse between Christian desire and consumer desire.

The second remarkable point is the metaphor of the railroad and the drama-less yet epic transition that happens but is unnoticed until the train is so far down the track it is finally recognized on a divergent path. The subtleties and quietness with which consumer culture effect belief and practice in the church are such that an entire generation can slip away from previously held theology while the remaining church members have no understanding as to what happened or how.

As Miller later recognizes, the desire of Christianity is often initially good, including “the desire for holiness, the desire to share in the sufferings of Christ, and the desire to help souls.”[7] He believes discipleship and desire are interlaced yet the challenge is the ever-present need to find immediate personal fulfillment, often to the detriment of any commitment to the disciplines needed over time to truly form the soul into a Christ follower over a self-driven consumer. Sadly, discipleship devolves into consumption, with commitment becoming “a momentary action of self-disposition, not a long-term process of self-transformation.”[8]

I do not disagree with Miller. The loud and steady drum of consumer culture beats its patrons into submission while the church organ plays softly in the distant background, unnoticed and unenticing. It’s not that Christianity is not enticing, it is just not meeting immediate felt needs in a way that Amazon Prime, Postmates, and YouTube have. Christian consumers as well as non-Christian consumers have little felt need for the church. Yet, not one of these services provide lasting fulfillment over time. They are all merely coping mechanisms keeping consumers from facing the realities in their life. And, as much as they may satisfy in the short term, they leave people wanting. The desire for more can only be satiated by the One for which the soul longs. This is the constant tension between the flesh and the Spirit. The Spirit has the power to give life in ways consumerism can never touch. But the soul must bow to the Lordship of Christ and release self from the throne, even when one believes they have the right idea about religion, church service and personal fulfillment. It seems that the most effective (yet most challenging) way to keep Christian belief and practice on the railroad toward true transformation and fulfillment is to find Shalom with God in the midst of community.

 

[1] Miller, Vincent. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. Continuum: New York. 2005, 255.

[2] Wilder, Courtney. “Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture.” Journal of Religion (2005) 681-2.

[3] McKee, Daryl. “Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture.” Journal of Marketing (2005) 264.

[4] Wilder, 682.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Miller, 107-8.

[7] Ibid., 138.

[8] Ibid., 144.

 

 

About the Author

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Trisha Welstad

Trisha is passionate about investing in leaders to see them become all God has created them to be. As an ordained Free Methodist elder, Trisha has served with churches in LA and Oregon, leading as a pastor of youth and spiritual formation, a church planter, and as a co-pastor of a church restart. Trisha currently serves as leadership development pastor at Northside Community Church in Newberg, OR. Over the last five years Trisha has directed the Leadership Center, partnering with George Fox and the Free Methodist and Wesleyan Holiness churches. The Leadership Center is a network facilitating the development of new and current Wesleyan leaders, churches and disciples through internships, equipping, mentoring and scholarship. In collaboration with the Leadership Center, Trisha serves as the director of the Institute for Pastoral Thriving at Portland Seminary and with Theologia: George Fox Summer Theology Institute. She is also adjunct faculty at George Fox University. Trisha enjoys throwing parties, growing food, listening to the latest musical creations by Troy Welstad and laughing with her two children.

15 responses to “Where did the train go?”

  1. mm M Webb says:

    Trisha,
    Nice introduction and critical analysis to deduce the symbiotic relationship, negative as it is, which has evolved in the church. I like your Miller quote where you describe the structures that “sidetrack” Christianity. Miller is very soft on naming who sidetracked Christianity and leaves it to the reader to discern and deduce that Satan is the “structure” that caused the train to jump the tracks!
    While Miller’s assessment may be true that many religious people are losing their eternal shares in a diversified spiritual portfolio, this is only a temporary market set-back that can easily be corrected by investing 100% of their holdings into the G-C & H 300 index (God, Christ, Holy Spirit 300).
    I think when we can think and talk about such serious theological concerns in ways that help people feel less threatened and help them connect to their lived religion gives us more access to shine Christ’s light and love to a hurting world.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Mike, thanks for your analogy. What ways do you think people can reinvest well into God’s economy? What changes do you see as necessary?

  2. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Trish,

    Powerful statement! “From the buffet of church gatherings and the felt need for a therapeutic “fit,” we have reduced the church to a place of meeting our immediate and temporal needs.”

    And, “It seems that the most effective (yet most challenging) way to keep Christian belief and practice on the railroad toward true transformation and fulfillment is to find Shalom with God in the midst of community.”

    I think you nailed these! Won’t find any criticism from me in your writings. I think these were spot on…

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Are you finding my statements as true in your context Jay? I wonder if I am overgeneralizing or if there’s a reality across the US regardless of culture that we are speaking to. Do you have churches under your leadership that are not consumer driven?

  3. Greg says:

    Trisha,
    Good beginning. I had me thinking about about worshipping abroad where you are not able to choose who you work with or who you worship with. There have been many time that I have said the this church was not something I might have chosen in the states but I has taught me to recognize the value of diversity and unity.

    You wrote, “The desire for more can only be satiated by the One for which the soul longs. This is the constant tension between the flesh and the Spirit.” I am in Thailand and this country always reminds me of this tension. The desire to satisfy our flesh (not just in the sexual perversity of this country) but the amount of money that is spent at resorts and fun activities that are so temporal. When that creeps into our daily lives and ministry, it taints our view of God and is His work. Thanks for your insight.

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Thanks for your perspective from Thailand, Greg. I think your cross-cultural view is helpful. Sometimes I wish my students could just go somewhere really uncomfortable for a while so they would appreciate worshiping God for who He is/and what it is rather than all the American nuances that tend to taint worship. It’s a comfortability and privilege thing much of the time and every time I come back from a cross-cultural experience I am thankful for the place where I worshiped and appreciative of my community back home.

  4. mm Jennifer Williamson says:

    After reading your post and a few others, I’m wondering how much of this is related to the fact that much of the Christian experience in the the US is related to a one-two hour weekly service that tends to aims to “draw people in.” What would happen, for example, if all chruches suddenly stopped having a weekly service. WHat would Christianity look like then?

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      What a great question Jenn. I think the church in the US would freak out on the whole. That “is church”. We would have to begin again which would be very good for us in many ways. We would have to find Jesus in other space and worship through more than music and learn through more than someone else talking at us. We are just so used to consuming in mass quantities and we don’t even know it on the whole. I am mostly speaking out of my first year living in Portland when we were planting a church and didn’t go to church at the same time. That was a really hard season because it was lonely and we had to find other Jesus followers in other ways and find God in different space – we didn’t do well for a while.

  5. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Trisha,
    I really appreciate your critical analysis of Miller. You succinctly identify the problem as the church meeting our own needs. While church is intended to “feed us” spiritually to go out to the world and disciple, many churches are so inward focused and on only outward focused on the surface. I’ve read lots of articles about millennials which challenge communities of faith to recognize this generation wants meaningful community, and meaningful action – which many churches aren’t doing. You are also working with
    young people – what are your thoughts? (going back to the story of your intern, what specifically did he/she want/need?)

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Jean, you are right on with the focus on community. I met with a friend the same day I wrote my post who said every week she questions the church she’s at because her family doesn’t feel they have community there (they are millennials and they are regular participants in the church). I think community is a core piece and most people can let a lot of flaws go for the sake of something deep connection with others. But when the focus is on being really good at something and not modeling depth of community (which I am finding hard to do- you really have to want it and have a team who does so well), the community is secondary and millennials and many others seem to have x-ray vision for that.

  6. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Trisha,
    In your closing you said ” Christian consumers as well as non-Christian consumers have little felt need for the church. Yet, not one of these services provide lasting fulfillment over time.” That is a seriously profound statement, yet it begs the question. How do we as pastors work to help our congregations to understand this one thing, it is not about me?

    Jason

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Jason, thanks for your thoughts. I think we have to consider the long-game of being with people and loving them by primarily modeling the behavior we want to see in them while being with them and not separate for all of the hours of the week besides church services and small groups when we are ‘on’. It seems to take being the community of the church and not being on the throne of our own lives with time and consumerism, and it starts with the core leadership team. This is a slow burn but produces results over time even if not a large congregation. These are my thoughts as I am living in this tension on a team at a church here in Oregon.

  7. Dave Watermulder says:

    Trisha,
    Thanks for this post. I was taken by the example you used at the outset of your post, in that conversation with a former student intern. It’s such a clear example of what we’re talking about (i.e.: people as religious consumers), but also with the thorniness of the issue, since, somehow we have also allowed our own faith communities to be seen as “religious goods and services”– looking for the right brand, or fit or experience… this sounds like a familiar conversation to me 🙂

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Thanks Dave. I wonder if you have people who think your congregation is too something or another. We get that all the time at our church yet some people love it and stay – often if they connect with the service or the community of people. I am happiest when they connect with the people because it’s less performance oriented although I feel like consumerism and the therapeutic felt needs we have drive most of the decisions about churches, mostly because we can go to just about anything we want simple because it’s all available.

  8. Shawn Hart says:

    Great post Trisha. So here is the question though; how does the modern day church appeal to the people the way God wants us to, and yet present themselves appealing to a world that searches for happiness on Amazon and Youtube? For me, this presents the greatest error in the churches today, and also the greatest struggle. Too many churches have decided to compromise and change in order to get people in the door, and then once they have them sitting in the pews…or cafe chairs…tell them that they can not live the type of lives that drew them into church in the first place. We present as a double standard. It seems the churches do not have faith in the gospels ability to win souls today, so they feel they have to give it a little help with worldliness.

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