A young couple decided to take a trip together. It was a journey they had been talking about for a long time. Arrangements were carefully made. The couple were thorough in their search, making sure that the carrier they selected could get them to their destination as comfortably and conveniently as possible. They studied several options and considered the investment each would require. They solicited the input of others, people they knew as well as strangers on the internet via online reviews. When they finally made their selection, they looked forward to embarking on their journey.
The trip was a success. Everything fell into place just exactly as they had hoped. They were pleased with their decision as the experience drew to a close. They considered making a similar trip again at a future time. Their discerning tastes were affirmed, even celebrated, as the organization’s representative spoke words before sending them on their way. She said, “We appreciate your attendance in worship today and want to thank you for choosing our church. We know you have a choice when it comes to where you get your spiritual needs met. We look forward to serving you again very soon.”
I have spent my career in professional ministry wrestling with why the Church puzzles me so. As the son of a pastor, my whole life has been spent in and around churches. Church buildings were my second homes. Church functions were my primary social activities. Church people were my dominant community. I had thought perhaps it was this familiarity that was the source of my frustration. I think maybe it is something more profound and problematic. Vincent Miller’s Consuming Religion may have finally helped name it for me. The anecdote above describes some of the challenges of “Church” today.
Church programming is more market-driven. Marketing budgets are increasing. Churches are learning to navigate the cyberworld. Pastors are engaging congregants via social media to determine sermon topics. Ministry is being tailored for a consumer society. Churches are operating with a mindset similar to what a flight attendant might say to passengers on an airplane at the end of a flight.
Miller’s central thesis is that “consumerism has so conditioned individuals in contemporary Western culture that they approach religion as just one more consumer product.” In many ways, church life today feels like a never-ending cycle of identifying needs, creating means by which those needs are met, and evaluating effective in meeting the needs. Miller writes, “as people were being trained to find fulfillment in consumption, they were also, in effect, being trained to bring the habits and dispositions of the realm of consumption to more traditional sources of meaning, including religion.”
Jason Clark writes “consuming has taken the place of producing well-being.” The primary motivations for people are less about personal salvation or the community’s quest for justice, but instead church members have developed an insatiable appetite for experiences that provide a vague and individualized good feeling.
Still, a primary function of religion in society comes back to making meaning- of this life, of this world. Math and science help us understand aspects of how the world functions. Humanities and the arts can help deepen our awareness and perspective of the world. Theology and religion still help us piece it all together- answering the bigger question of “what is this all about?” As leaders, how do we help people in today’s culture move beyond a mindset of consumption and a personalized gospel in order to find the deeper meaning of life?
Thankfully, Miller does not just define the problem, but he also offers some possibilities. His book ends with the idea that theology, liturgy, and organizational structure of religious institutions might still reverse the trend of commodification of the Church. While Miller was writing in the early part of the 21st century, indications today are that many Christians, especially younger and newer Christians, are rejecting the commercialized and modern expressions of church in favor of ones that look and feel older. In his review of Winfield Bevin’s book, Ever Ancient, Ever New, Michael Milton writes, “There is an increasing hunger for the beauty, simplicity, transcendence, and confessional unity of historic liturgical Christianity.”
For years, churches have tried to adapt to the culture under the auspices of “relevance.” Becoming, being, or staying relevant, or the fear of irrelevance, inspired church leaders to adopt branding, programming, worship styles, music, refreshment options, and clothing choices that look like what is trending in popular culture. Instead of being “in the world, but not of the world,” and not “conformed to the patterns of this world,” the modern Church went all in. And yet, many today are looking for an experience of Church that looks different than this world.
It might be fair to argue that by trying to attract and reaching millennials by returning to an emphasis on sacrament, theology, and liturgy, churches are just following the latest trend and still operating from a consumer-driven mindset. On the other hand, it may be possible that an authentic expression of faith is exactly what resonates with people today. In a world where facts are subjective and personal preferences are catered to, perhaps is it refreshing to encounter a church community that is unashamedly true to its identity.
Ultimately, the way of Jesus is not something one chooses to do because it is fun, or cool, or trending. When Christians stop asking what the Church can do for them and begin living authentically in Christ, they will discover a new meaning in life. They will discover that in God’s economy, one is fed by feeding others and one’s needs are met in meeting the needs of another. This idea runs counter to every consumeristic ideal and seems to run counter to how to grow a church. Growing an authentic community of faith is both countercultural and counterintuitive. But it is the way we will find meaning in this life and the way we will get to where we really need to go.
 Phyllis Zagano, review of “Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture,” by Vincent Miller, Spiritus, Spring 2005, 119, ProQuest Central.
 Vincent Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2003,) 88.
 Jason Paul Clark, “Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (PhD diss, Middlesex University, 2018,) 182.
 Michael Milton, “Why Are So Many Turning to the Liturgical Worship,” Crosswalk.com, July 19, 2019. https://www.crosswalk.com/church/pastors-or-leadership/why-so-many-are-turning-to-the-liturgical-worship.html.