DMINLGP

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

Pablum for sale

Written by: on February 7, 2018

While the Christian ethic toward frugality, generosity and simplistic living has been inherent in the faith tradition from inception, the adoption of consumeristic ideology has been an incredibly powerful counterforce. Thus, for most in the US church God’s ‘blessing’ is viewed solely through economic terms and depicted in living a comfortable existence while making sure to take some care for those ‘less fortunate’. Vincent Miller’s text, ‘Consuming Religion’, does not seek to provide a critique of this newly adopted perspective, but rather, to ascertain how the surrounding consumerism has both infiltrated and effected the faith expression of people living in the contemporary age. In the words of the author; “how the habits of consumption transform our relationship to the religious beliefs we profess.”[1]

The power of consumerism is its ability to turn almost anything into a product that can then be sold back to the culture. Even dissenting voices are co-opted and rolled into something to be commodified. “The most disturbing message is the imperviousness of consumerism to dissent…..all forms of culture, including ideologies of resistance, become commodified and repackages as innocuous objects of desire.”[2] Thus, as Miller states; “Consumer culture seems endlessly capable of turning critique into a marketing hook.”[3] And further, “This system greets subversion and denunciation with mercantile enthusiasm.”[4] If this is true then it is little wonder that it has managed to commodify a religious system like Christianity, with which it shares a great deal of historical connection. “Consumer culture poses a particularly vexing problem for Christianity because the shape and texture of the desires that it cultivates are profoundly similar to Christian forms of desire.”[5]

Criticism of the softening of religious life is not new. The pursuit of a therapeutic faith experience has been recognized since the mid-1960s where Philip Rieff suggested that; “human existence is reduced to an intensely private sense of well-being.”[6] In a much more recent critique of US faith culture, Kenda Creasy Dean decries the development of what she terms ‘MTD’ or ‘Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism’ defined as a faith that helps me be a good person, feel good about myself and have God largely let me do what I want.[7] Miller understands the power of this motivation and suggests that the reason for it is because; “It supplies the veneer of meaning and conviction of which modern existence so often deprives us, without disrupting the underlying form of our lives – our obligation to consume.[8]

There is little doubt that much of the church has gleefully adopted the ideology and vocabulary of consumerism, utilizing tools from that realm to promote attendance and participation through slick promotional campaigns, marketing to a specific demographic or felt need, efforts to remain ‘relevant’ and ‘engaging’. In Miller’s own words; “Religions that lend themselves to visual intensity and symbolism have greater appeal in consumer culture.”[9]

A significant question for the Church is how might it be possible to arrest this incessant commodification and return to a more orthodox and pre-consumeristic form of Christianity. Many would wonder if this is even a possibility. “One wonders, however, to what extent the mysterious God of Augustine or Bernard is still able to capture the imaginations of postmodern people. Arguably, the God of postmodernism is not vast, but able to fit neatly into the conceptual packages of nationalism, moralism, and political debate.”[10] A god that has been reduced to something akin to an amulet that is carried around for protection or personal endorsement is convenient and requires little introspection or challenge to any chosen lifestyle. Pushing too hard against the cultural construct could potentially simply drive people away from any form of faith or encourage them to look for a more accepting community in which to express it.

In addition, we have permitted the majority of our congregants the opportunity to ‘consume’ our worship experiences at little or no cost to them, save an hour or two on a Sunday morning or Saturday evening. We have slicked up our messages, incorporated ‘contemporary’ music and instrumentation, brought visual images and video into the sanctuary and effectively created a fairly entertaining experience in which parishioners can ‘connect with God’ and get ‘revved up for the challenges of the coming week’. All this with almost no input from them. They simply arrive on time, find their seats and the show is put on for them as passive observers. Yet, only serves to further undermine the connection between the faith experience and real life for we know that; “Members of the boomer generation value experience over beliefs, distrust institutions and leaders, stress personal fulfillment yet yearn for community, and are fluid in their allegiances.”[11] These tendencies have only been heightened in the Millennial generation and now apparently in GEN Z. They highly value experience but we provide them with minimal participation and their ‘experience’ on any given week of worship amounts to little more than a comfortable seat and a ‘tickling of the ears’.

One of the issues that the church must address then is how to more fully engage congregants in the everyday life of the community and meaningful expressions of faith. It is no longer acceptable to permit the majority of laity to be passive participants while the ‘professionals’ conduct the worship on their behalf. This will serve to help them practice their faith tangibly and may put them in a position where they more fully understand the connection between the liturgy/ritual and their lives throughout the week. “Liturgy is one of the fundamental places where doctrines and symbols are connected with practices. The ritual aspects of liturgy provide a way for participants to enact doctrines as members of a broader believing community.”[12] Many in the contemporary church seem to run away from the more liturgical expressions of faith as though they are the reason people are leaving the faith. Yet, perhaps the real issue has more to do with the pablum they are offered every week in both ‘high’ and ‘low’ liturgical settings. Greater involvement of non-professional laity in the development, implementation and daily practice of communal faith practices may be a meaningful way forward. “The need to involve laity in the creation of liturgy and worship space in order to counter the passive consumer nature of much of worship, have much to say to the emergent church discussion and to worship practices in general.”[13]

We need not fear consumerism as an insurmountable threat to the faithful expression of Christianity. There have always been cultural challenges that have influenced orthodox faith for good or ill. “The encounter with God always takes place within the structures of human social and political existence.”[14] However, we must be willing to recognize consumer culture for what it is and work to help followers of Jesus (especially in the US) to re-evaluate their lifestyle in light of the Gospel. This will only occur as we provide the one thing that consumer culture cannot, a meaningful and dynamic community in which to know and be known.

[1] Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. New York: Continuum, 2005. P. 11

[2] Hedstrom, Matthew. “Consuming Religion.” Church History 77, no. 1 (March 2008): 248-50.

[3] Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. New York: Continuum, 2005. P. 2

[4] Ibid P. 179

[5] Ibid P. 107

[6] Ibid P. 85

[7] Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of out Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[8] Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. New York: Continuum, 2005. P. 88

[9] Ibid P. 79

[10] Landers, Rich. “Consuming Religion.” Anglican Theological Review 89, no. 1 (Winter 2007): 152-54.

[11] Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. New York: Continuum, 2005. P. 89

[12] Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. New York: Continuum, 2005. P. 201

[13] Moser, Daniel. “Consuming Religion.” Calvin Theological Journal 41, no. 1 (April 2006): 182-83.

[14] Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. New York: Continuum, 2005. P. 164

 

About the Author

mm

Dan Kreiss

Former director of the Youth Ministry program at King University in Bristol, TN and Dean of the School of Missions. I have worked in youth ministry my entire life most of that time in New Zealand before becoming faculty at King. I love helping young people recognize themselves as children of God and helping them engage with the world in all its diversity. I am a husband, father of 4, graduate of Emmanuel Christian Seminary, an avid cyclist and fly-fisherman still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

6 responses to “Pablum for sale”

  1. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Dan you are getting at what my big concern is. Is this the way it has to be? Missionaries go in to accept the culture of a country and bring Christ into it. Is having consumeristic churches the only way a consumeristic people will listen to us?

    How counter-cultural should would be?

    A church I know is SF, their slogan is “Come and die”. That is pretty much as anti-consumeristic as you can get. As you can imagine their church is rather small. Is that ok though? I wrestle with this.

  2. Great word Dan! Your last paragraph said it so well…”We need not fear consumerism as an insurmountable threat to the faithful expression of Christianity. There have always been cultural challenges that have influenced orthodox faith for good or ill. “The encounter with God always takes place within the structures of human social and political existence.” However, we must be willing to recognize consumer culture for what it is and work to help followers of Jesus (especially in the US) to re-evaluate their lifestyle in light of the Gospel. This will only occur as we provide the one thing that consumer culture cannot, a meaningful and dynamic community in which to know and be known.” I love this…the motto of the church plant we belong to is “a place to belong”, which is all about belonging to a place where you can be known, which ends up being far more valuable to people than material possessions.

  3. mm M Webb says:

    Dan,
    I had a hard time commenting on your post. I read it twice and reviewed my position on Miller before I came up with anything mildly useful to contribute. Here is my take on your question about returning to a more orthodox and pre-consumeristic form of Christianity. We are time-based creations of God, we don’t move backwards, only forward in time. We cannot see the future, but we can learn from the past.

    From what this class has taught me, Christianity is resourceful, resilient, reliable, and rescues generations of people from the recycling rationales of the devil. With that said, our LGP journey gives us front row seats to not only watch change, but help shape change for our good and God’s glory.

    So, we are not so far apart in our thinking because I support your closing paragraph. I agree, “we need not fear” because if God is for us, who can be against us?

    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  4. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Dan,

    Fantastic ending! The answer is in COMMUNITY, not in consumerism. I love it.
    Easier said than done, though. Wish I had better insight how to foster this more successfully? Maybe your youth could help us with that?

    Still laughing at your fly pole talk during out Zoom (grin).

  5. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    Dan, I utilized some of the same portions of Miller’s text around desire and therapeutic religion. I have had similar encounters with millennial’s lack of interest in simply watching a worship show but wanting to engage in the service and the community (especially the life around the service). Have you found evidence that liturgy draws in millennial’s (and others) in meaningful ways that make them want to deepen their participation in the church community? I could see a case for it but am curious what you have found.

  6. Chris Pritchett says:

    Hey Dan, thank you for your helpful summary of the thrust of Miller’s book. I agree with your critique of the church and I’m wondering what you have found helpful both for your church and also personally to make strides toward not being afraid while also resisting over-influence of consumerism.

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