Rectangles of colorful fabric saturated with images and prayers adorned the walls of the lobby which appeared to be strategically designed to resemble an elitist country club. Unlimited Fair-Trade coffee, complete with images and stories of coffee farmers and their families, was free for the drinking. Popular music playing at just the right volume set the soundtrack for dozens of conversations as hundreds of people arrived.
Images of popular cartoon characters invited parents and their children to the Children’s Center where the kids were free to access virtual reality devices, a table filled with organic, gluten and dairy free snacks, and the mini trampoline park. After dropping off their kids, the parents were free to pursue the Fair-Trade market where handmade goods from throughout the globe were marketed and sold with the promise that 100% of the proceeds would return to the artisans.
Rather than an expensive morning at an ethical theme park, these were my initial observations during a recent visit to an Evangelical megachurch. It was a Christian Disneyland.
The worship service was hosted within a technologically sophisticated auditorium and was inaugurated with the sounds of cathedral bells. The church itself didn’t have a bell tower, so the sound was a part of a video that showed the rolling of ancient bells from the Old City of Jerusalem. The lights faded with the sound of the bells, except for a single spotlight that illuminated a flickering candle. A poetic explanation of the light symbolizing the presence of Christ emerged on the screens with the sound of billowing wind behind it. This was immediately followed by the spoken assurance that, just as in Acts 2, the Spirit of Jesus was among us.
The service itself was a mixture of monastic contemplation, rock concert, stage theater, and an extended Ted Talk. Toward the conclusion, the pastor invited us into the sacrament of Eucharist, referencing the table experience where the family could partake of the symbolic body and blood of Jesus. An ancient-looking table complete with loaves of bread and bottles of wine adorned a portion of the stage that had remained in the dark until the time was right. Rather than sharing an actual table with real bread, real wine, and real human proximity, we were invited to receive the elements of communion that were contained in a two-for-one plastic-wrapped package that was conveniently located in the back of the seat in front of us.
After one final set of rock music that went from somber to celebratory, the congregation was inundated with a visual presentation of community announcements and invitations. Each opportunity appeared to be intentionally targeted toward key demographics within the congregation as they marketed a plethora of therapeutic programs at a significant cost that promised to increase your happiness, refine your focus, strengthen your marriage, help you raise Godly kids, and empower you to change the world.
After nearly ninety minutes of riveting entertainment, the church concluded with our commissioning to re-enter a broken world as active participants of restoration.
This experience is a manifestation of what Vincent J. Miller, in his book Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, identifies as the commodification of traditionally religious experiences for consumption. Written from a Catholic social location Consuming Religion “explores how consumer culture changes our relationship with religious beliefs, narratives, and symbols.” With his opening line Miller identifies consumer culture as a “profound problem for contemporary religious belief and practice” yet points to “commodification-culture” as the core issue. He argues that commodification demands the abstraction and fragmentation of religious experiences from the roots of their traditions such that they become disembodied, convenient consumables for narcissistic spiritual seekers.
According to his review of Miller’s work, Daryl McKee agrees with Miller that consumer culture did not emerge out of thin air. Rather, consumer culture was the inevitable outcome of various influences, including “a capitalist-induced acquisitiveness, advertising, a self-centered therapeutic culture, alienation from work, and isolation of single-family housing.” The emergence of consumer culture and the practice of commodification, mixed with what Miller refers to as the virtue of “Christian desire,” the perpetual longing for God, permeate the contemporary religious experience and replace the “long term process of self-transformation” with the “momentary action of self-disposition.”
There are four images in the aforementioned illustration that especially affirm Miller’s caution with regard to the danger of commodification-culture. First, while the prayer flags are both a creative approach to prayer and a compelling decorative installation, their presence in an Evangelical mega-church is a co-opting of the sacred ritual of the Tibetan prayer flag. It was a commodification of an unfamiliar prayer technique that was likely disconnected from the traditions and beliefs of Buddhism, ignorant of the unique origins of this tradition, and intended to satisfy the experiential preference of the congregation.
Second, the architecture of the building itself seemed to cater to elitist consumer culture through its well-designed interior which was void of any religious artifacts or imagery. Aaron B. James, in his analysis of megachurches in conversation with Miller and Michel De Certeau, argues that, while megachurch architecture appears to cater to the consumer, it is, rather, an intentional tactic that is rooted in the memory (tradition) of the Puritan movement. It’s a creative argument that is reasonable, yet I would suggest that the congregation would have to be as well versed in Puritanism’s caution with regard to the presence of religious imagery in order to make the connection.
Third, the tolling of the ancient bells of Jerusalem, while a compelling way to gain the attention of the congregation, flirted with a co-opting of an ancient Hebrew practice in which the sounding of the bells indicated the presence of God in the Holy of Holies. The sound was a reminder to them of the nearness yet inaccessibility of God. The irony is found in the marriage of the sound of the bells with the sound of the wind and the presence of the flame. This additional element mimicked the arrival of the Holy Spirit during Pentecost which represented the radical accessibility of God’s power and presence. The marriage of these two sets of images was stirring yet disassociated from their traditions and commodified for contemporary consumption. The two elements are in direct contrast with one another.
Fourth, the image of Eucharist was the most egregious in its commodification. First, the ancient term, Eucharist, rich in meaning, is usually associated with Catholicism which is a tradition that many Evangelicals misunderstand and are suspicious of. Second, the sacrament was initiated with a retelling of the Last Supper but was void of any theological commentary on neither what it meant nor why we partake of it. Third, the image of the shared table on the stage gave the impression that this is a meal to be taken together, yet the pre-packaged elements indicated that individualism and convenience were more valuable than the inconvenience of re-membering as the Body of Christ.
The morning was visually stunning. It was inspiring. We were encouraged to take it in like an intravenous infusion and made to believe that what we had just experienced was all we needed in order to re-enter the broken world on restorative mission. It was a marriage of Buddhism, Evangelicalism, Moral Therapeutic Deism, and Catholicism but no one seemed to mind, much less notice. The obvious value was less about “re-entering the world on restorative mission” but was, instead, “Come back in a week because that is what we’ve trained you to do.”
 Miller, Vincent. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. Continuum: New York. 2005, 62.
 Ibid. 225.
 Ibid. 3.
 Ibid. 1.
 Ibid. 10.
 Ibid. 10.
 Ibid. 89.
 Ibid. 90.
 McKee, Daryl. “Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture.” Journal of Marketing (2005) 264.
 Miller, Vincent. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. 7.
 Ibid. 144.
 James, Aaron B. “Rehabilitating willow creek: megachurches, De Certeau, and the tactics of navigating consumer culture.” Christian Scholar’s Review, vol. 43, no. 1, 2013, p. 21+. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A349114568/AONE?u=minit_train&sid=AONE&xid=8cc0aea5. Accessed 4 Feb. 2020.