Soul Church IV – The ‘McDonaldisation’ of the Church

After 3 days of posts that offer critique of our enterprise expression of church I am about done. I don’t really like writing with this tone as I know it makes me some enemies and makes me sound plain critical. Sometimes I am plain critical, but I also believe that sometimes you need to be confronted with the stark reality of the problem to even consider moving to action. So I have one more post in the same vein before I get positive and hopeful. This one concerns the McDondaldisation of the church.

‘McDonaldisation’ is actually a real sociological term coined by a bloke called George Ritzer in his book The McDonaldisation of Society published in 1993. Scottish theologian John Drane came along not long after and wrote his own book called the ‘McDonaldisation of the Church’ drawing on Ritzer’s ideas and observing how they have been adopted (to our detriment) in church.

Ritzers key argument was that “the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world.” He highlighted four primary components of ‘McDonaldization’:

Efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. You can unpack their broader content by reading the wikipedia article. Suffice to say these aren’t bad things in a business – but when applied to a church they just don’t sit well at all. In fact his argument is that when we ‘McDonaldise’ society we dehumanise people and we sabotage the very thing we are seeking to create.

So when we do it in church?…

The church was never – never – never intended to be a business operation!

The church was never intended to be a business operation!

Its that simple.

When it takes that on as its primary sense of identity people become cogs in a relentless machine. I have heard congregation members referred to as ‘giving units ‘- revenue sources that need to be recruited and attended to often to ensure the organisation continues its march to glory.

When a church gets McDonaldised then the bottom line rules.

Pastors become fund-raisers for the ongoing activities and the senior pastor becomes (as Bill Hybels would often remind us) the primary fund raiser. It is his or her job to inspire and motivate with big vision which then unlocks the funds needed to resource that vision.

If it sounds a bit like pitching to investors then its because that is what it becomes. Then once a train gets in motion it needs people to keep it moving and those people become busy – very busy. Volunteers are recruited and worked hard (with accountability for their output).

If KPIs aren’t met then heads roll.

I followed a link to a Facebook ad yesterday, directed at ‘Lead Pastors’ and specifically about ‘Church Health and Growth’. Some of the content included these gems:

Our passion is to help increase engagement and attendance whilst also lifting resources to assist and transform the community. It is our mission to continue this work and help as many church leaders as we can.

I’m imagining better days where ALL the church health dials are heading in the right direction! Where the church is attracting more guests than ever AND actually retaining them. Life groups are growing at >20% per year & made huge leaps forward in your serving teams! It’s kicked into a realm of financial strength where you can actually start investing in future vision & growth beyond paying the bills!

Once this all this cranking, you can expect double-digit growth to kick in sustainably


We’re talking about a church right?…

Help me Jeeeeeesus!

Surely at some point there is somebody somewhere in leadership who asks ‘Is this really what we are about? Increasing engagement and attendance? Shooting for double digit growth?’

But if your job and your mortgage depend on your meeting these kinds of goals then you just shut up and keep working because those bills aren’t going to pay themselves.

This is just what happens when you set your course in that direction. You get trapped… and even if you want out you have to find something else to do. Many pastors don’t have another option – they have one skill and are trained in this one paradigm of church.

In this system the big get bigger and the rest struggle to survive or they live in a different space altogether (more about that later). The franchising of Hillsong into different cities and states must surely come at a cost to local churches who are hillsongesque, but not the real deal.

So the impact is on church leaders who now have to work harder again to compete with a behemoth and also on the people in the pews who can now ‘attend’ and ‘hide’ if they so wish. There are opportunities to serve, but my hunch is that most people don’t go to a church of this ilk to find a place to serve. They go there initially to join the crowd and enjoy the experience of being in a euphoric environment each week – an experience that could possibly even be confused with encountering the presence of God…

In the end we have church leaders running harder on the hamster wheel just to keep up and offer something comparable to the Hillsong standard and people in the ‘pews’ who now experience less of what it means to actually be the church. Its the dumbing down of discipleship – not because the teaching input is poor, but because the very system itself attends to the consumer impulse – the dominant spirit of our culture.

As with any franchise the real winners are the people at the top of the pyramid who see their empire growing and their reach expanding.

I began with a spiel on the shifts we have seen in the surfing world as the industry has grown and ultimately become globalised and franchised. The losers in this sphere are the local shapers who try to compete and end up working for a pittance just to keep their head above water. But the other ‘losers’ are the local surfers who choose to ride poorer imitations of quality surfboards and in the end do not find the joy in surfing that could be there.

No one wins when the world gets franchised and the bottom line rules.

There has to be a better way…

More about that tomorrow

5 thoughts on “Soul Church IV – The ‘McDonaldisation’ of the Church

  1. Great thoughts mate. Sad in one breath that it is this way, but also great opportunities for new expressions of faith to emerge. Society is slowly rejecting large corporations and returning to the go local and support local, I wonder if this will also flow into the church in some degree??

  2. Well you certainly haven’t alienated me. But who am I? Just another cog in the machine, or another brick in the wall, or insert preferred metaphor here.

    Having come from a small-churches background in country NE NSW, I’ve seen commercialisation and other -isations wander in and take over time after time. What bothers me is that the average Christian in the pew is no longer encouraged to test, evaluate and discern.

    It really does seem sometimes that we are to be decapitated living sacrifices, transformed by the removal of our minds (c.f. Roman 12:1-2)

  3. “I have heard congregation members referred to as ‘giving units ‘- revenue sources that need to be recruited and attended to often to ensure the organisation continues its march to glory”.

    This exactly what I sensed I was to the large Church I joined in the noughties. When I noticed that the Pastors were having the time of their lives and making a very good living on the inter-church speaking circuit (trips to Paris, London, NY), I realised many were actually family owned event marketing businesses). Many have become franchises. None freely provide detailed financial statements. Business people are placed on pedestals and honoured through “Kingdom Builder” clubs or the like. Top-tier givers even get to spend some time with the Pastor.

    I have researched it. There is a litmus test that tells you whether the Church has theological integrity or not. It is the doctrine of the Tithe. In these Churches is mentioned more times than the Cross. I am all f or generous, freewill giving – but challenge the Tithe it and you will find yourself on the wrong side of their version of orthodoxy.

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