January 16, 2009

The Emerging Commodification of the Church

I do have my hang ups with how much time, energy, resources, thought, and planning goes into a single day of the week, Sunday. I've been brooding over this fact for some time now, but haven't come to any real conclusions about how I feel. In the "emerging missional church (EMC)" conversation, attractional vs. missional battle lines have been drawn and Sunday morning has become a topic often battered by a dualistic perspective that paints a strawman for the burning.

David Fitch, who has constantly been a helpful voice in this EMC conversation, recently wrote a good post on this issue referencing to Zizek's "decaffeinated belief:"
Zizek argues that when we say “I enjoy my religion” this implies that I don’t take it TOO seriously. For we really don’t want to take it too seriously (this is what the fundamentalists do according to Zizek). We keep it at a distance so to appear to be a Christian with all of it comforts and accoutrements yet not requiring any great disruption to a comfortable way of life. This distance, between the subject and the Symbolic Order, is what allows the subject’s Christianity (or religion) to be subsumed by the existing order.
The existing order that controls Western culture is the power of the spectacle produced by consumer culture. We commodify everything including our faith. Sunday becomes about receiving religious goods. Pastors are recognizing this growing trend and
…agree that a growing number of worshipers are talking or sitting through the congregational singing writing notes during the special music, showing up 10-15 minutes late, not worried about interrupting anything or anyone. One pastor shared that a congregant stopped attending worship opting to stay home and worship with a church on television. When asked about this, the congregant responded, “Why does it matter where I watch the service?” Another pastor commented that people treat everything in the service as if it were a movie preview and it is not until the feature presentation (the sermon) that people really start paying attention. Or in other churches with a more contemporary style of worship a pastor stated, “Once the ‘concert’ is over, they just settle in waiting for a sermon.”
Most church plants are in the business of Christian reconfiguration, they steal Christians from churches in the area instead of leading people to faith (and this is NOT an overstatement). My growing concern for the "emerging church" is that it preys on the sensabilities of its consumer culture, thus utilizing culture uncritically or being used by culture.

The power of consumer culture and the commodification of everything is that religious seekers can take objects, beliefs, and pieces of traditions and lift them out of their context to be used in whatever way they like. They can have their cake and eat it too, because they simply cut off the baggage from where those traditions arose.

In some respects, I believe this weakens the ability of emerging churches to form people for Kingdom work, because the main tool for combatting commodification is immersion in a religious community who emphasizes its deep religious tradition (baggage and all) for the formation of disciples. I know this is a generalization, but emerging churches are heavily influences by the culture of consumerism because they tend to be planted by those on the cutting edge of consumer culture.

Of course, I've excluded from this conversation "seeker churches," who attract people to church Sunday mornings by having a great rock show and a funny preacher (because I'm sympathetic to EMC). Sunday morning should be about formation:

I think this is a mistake. For the missional church communities require a regular practice for the shaping and forming of a people into the Life with God, the Mission of God. Missional people do not grow on trees. If then we would see people formed into the Missio Dei we must order our worship so as to be encountered by the living God. We must learn how to preach not as information but as proclamation and invite people into the Mission. The real presence at the Table must be the center of our gathering, our lives and our community. If we would see people formed into the Missio Dei, our gatherings must take on liturgical shape, a way of inviting people into the prayers, confessions and affirmations of the alive relationship we have with the living God of Mission. We must learn how to listen, interpret Scripture for what God is doing among us and in the world, hear God and then respond to God. This should be the character of our Sunday morning gatherings.

This kind of gathering should be both easier and harder to plan than any kind of programming approach we have hitherto been used to. It should be simpler and less focused on excellence of performance. It should not cost near as much in time, resourses and planning. It should be able to be done in a living room with three to thirty people or in a larger sanctuary with 200. Yet this kind of gathering takes more discernment of the Spirit, theological wisdom, historical sensitivity than we have been used to in the protestant church of our evangelical past (we haven’t paid attention to theology of worship in evangelical church). This way can lead us out of the wilderness of decaffeinated worship.

Deep traditions like lectio divina, intentional community, monastic practices, authenticity, and vulnerability are all very important, but so are the communities, traditions, and histories they have grown up in. Much of the EMC conversation is reactionary and deconstructive (which is fine, I understand), but there is something unhealthy about simply cutting ties with communities of faith that tend to have baggage because they've been around for 50, 100, or 150 years. Of course, this critique works in the inverse. Communities with baggage need to be listening to churches who are concerned about doing and being church differently.

My main concern though, is that churches critically engage culture so that contextualization is healthy (meaning the gospel doesn't get subsumed or overpowered by the culture). Our culture is a product of late capitalism, consumerism, and commodification; so we need traditions and narratives that will equip us to live counterculturally. We need Sunday mornings baggage and all to be unenjoyable, uncomfortable, and formative.

If you've made it this far, you might also be interested in Fitch's conversation over the epistemology of missiology and ecclesiology.


Anonymous said...


I have to agree with much of the critique.

Your second hand Zizek quote fits within his larger description of "things that are not what they claim." Along with this "religionless" religion, he offers Colin Powell's "war without casulities," nonalcholic beer, and virtual/cyber sex. Each of these are created by the hyperreality of empty signifiers. They are products of nothing more than advertising...beer is by nature, filled with alchol. Sex is by nature only possible within the real of presence.

Zizek suggest the telos of late-captialism (another designation for our "post-whateveryoucallit" era) is social atomization and the creation of the free floating Void. In his "Welcome to the Desert of the Real," (a title taken from Simulacra and Simulation) suggest his own Marxist solution - a new collectivity.

In your responce to the consumption of the gospel/church by consumerism - the rabid libido dominandi - the uncontroble desire to master, to purchase, to own, you are offering a similar, though quite different solution.
I deeply agree with the solution.

Zizek is proposing a coherent (though possibly unrejectable) communit of meaning in which citizens are forced to live face to face, to practice a set of communal practices, to share responsiblity. Of course, he is proposing a communist collective.

The church functions for its members, and only its memebers, in a similar manner to a Zizekian collective. It sets the practices which shape the members, it sets a shared system of values, and offers the grammar of grace which moves the world from corrupted to perfectable, which renounces the word enemy and offers the "neighbor" love, which offers love without remainder through word, sacrament, and service.

My time in emergent congregations suggest to me that, though their desires to see the gospel "set free" from the modern west, they are often exactly that both "modern" and "western." It appears that much, I will not say all - again, I have deep sympathies and hope for the "conversation" - of emergent is the new twist on "seeker sensitive."

Good thoughts...lots of Cavanaugh in there. I miss sitting at the table with you.

Adam Moore said...

Joe, I think we are going to differ on this some. Personally, I am leaning towards consumerism as a good thing (in one sense). I know, that's weird. Let me try and explain.

Isn't this all a continued working out of the reformation? Individualism, consumerism, rejecting authority, taking the ancient and using it for our own purposes? I think this is good. And I don't think it requires or necessarily involves a complete severing from tradition, history, etc.

I think all of this leads to a greater diversity of Christian and religious expression. I used to think this was a terrible tragedy, but now I think it is a positive. We cannot contain God, or the Christian faith, in any one form. We are all trying to express the unexpressable.

At the same time, I must say that this does not make all expressions equally true. I think there are better and worse expressions of Christianity, but I am for more and more expressions.

So at the top I mentioned that consumerism is good in one sense. That's what I've been trying to express. However, I do think there are negatives as well - some of which you point out. Christianity as merely something we consume to feel good, is not something I support. However, I do have a positive view towards more and more diversity of expressions - maybe this isn't exactly consumerism per se...what do you think? I really do think the following is a positive:

"The power of consumer culture and the commodification of everything is that religious seekers can take objects, beliefs, and pieces of traditions and lift them out of their context to be used in whatever way they like. They can have their cake and eat it too, because they simply cut off the baggage from where those traditions arose."

I don't think your statement requires leaving tradition and the Christian community. I think it can do the opposite. I think it can bring greater unity as we drawn on various kinds of Christian tradition and do not solidify into one particular tradition/denomination, etc.

However, I also agree with Chris when he says many emerging churches are really just fancier seeker churches. So maybe that contradicts everything else I wrote...I don't think so. I think it's possible to have an authentic and unique Christian expression that is not merely trying to appeal to a certain sensibility.

I hope some of this makes sense...I'm thinking through it still...

You should check out Barry Taylor's book "Entertainment Theology." This book really impacted some of my thinking in this area. I'm actually rereading it right now, so I was already thinking about some of this.

Lucas said...


while i certainly agree with much of your critique of consumerism and commodification, i'm not sure your application of the critique to the emerging church (as if that is a monolith) is appropriate. there are some who certainly fit your critique, but plenty that would not. perhaps it's better to make the critique generalized to the whole culture and whole church, rather than the way a few get it wrong.wje.wordpress.com

JoeBumbulis said...

Lucas, thanks for the critique. Of course I do not believe there is a single monolithic entity called the "emerging church." Yet, I don't think it's fair that we can often talk about "emerging churches" when it comes to the positives, etc, but not when it comes to the negatives or critiques. That being said I did not references the church in general, because I didn't mean for this to simply critique the whole church which it is does. But I meant to reflect on the movement and churches produced out of the cutting edge, emerging churches.
I think it goes both ways.

Adam, good thoughts. My concern here is not control or hegemony, but that "We cannot contain God, or the Christian faith, in any one form" is not my concern, but that what we are getting is not quite the Christian religion. Yes, there are positives within our culture, and even neutrals; yet I think we have to be careful to admit there are also negatives in culture.

Where you see commodification of religious belief building community, I see fragmentation and harm. What occurs is a false solidarity, so that Christians can be Christian without tying themselves to the tradition and history of the religion.

All that being said, I painted the canvas with broad strokes. Within the bad is good and vice versa. But, there's seems to be little talk about the harmful effects of commodification which plays a role in new churches and emerging churches (and all churches in the West).

Part of it is that we must meet people where they are, so b/c of commodification and consumerism we are anti-tradition, anti-institution, anti-religion, anti-authority, etc. While these do and can lead to positives, they can also lead to greater alienation, isolation, and the inverse of what the churches are intending to do.

Anonymous said...


even as a critique of emerging churches i think it is simply too broad to be fair or accurate. in some ways it sound like you are critiquing churches that are adopting some surface level aspects of a movement/conversation that is much deeper. so by definition churches that fit your critique are not so much emerging/missional churches as extensions of a seeker sensitive model.

perhaps your working definition of an EMC is different than mine (although i don't have a very specific definition more a gut feeling). i'm working out of my own experience and ideas of what constitutes this thing, but that may differ from yours.

Anonymous said...


I wrote a responce, but feel now it may be to pointed. Even though I love to hear my own voice and read my own thoughts, I figured the peace of Christ is more important...oh well.

I can email it to you if you want.

JoeBumbulis said...

Certainly there are some working assumptions here and I'm basing some of my critique here off of recent experiences.

I do agree that there are churches that are not the new sort of seeker sensitive or for "burnt" christians only, but certainly none of these churches in the West can escape the power of the economic climate, consumerism.

Surface level or not, I've read the material and really understand and believe in what the conversation has to offer, but in practice what I've seen or experienced (which is superlimited, I have no problem of admitting) is nothing more than commodification of belief and practice which tends to void the faith tradition it was taken from.

And Chris, your comments are welcome as long as they're not hateful or mean, which I don't think they would be. It's always helpful to get your ideas in the conversation.

tripp fuller said...

Great point. I have said similar things in staff meetings at church to get some interesting responses. I think most VBS are even a bigger waste of time and money with a radically insular and entertainment based function.

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