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Starving the Sheep: A Book Review of “Franchising McChurch”

News Division

By Peter Rasor

It was not long after arriving at my new home in Arizona that the church advertisements began flooding our mailbox. One piece, professionally done, had six of their “promises” to their new customers prominently displayed: “Exciting Kids’ Programs,” “Incredible Music,” “Inspirational Teaching,” “One Hour Service,” “Casual Atmosphere,” and “We Won’t Beg for Your Money.” All that a new customer shopping for a new church could ask for, along with an offer of a $10 Starbucks gift card to first time customers!

Is this what the church ought to be doing? Attracting customers by appealing to their every desire like a Wal-Mart,or is there something wrong here? This is what the authors Thomas White and John Yeats investigate in their book Franchising McChurch: Feeding Our Obsession with Easy Christianity. They evaluate the consumerist philosophy of ministry that has taken over the church. With an irenic tone, they critique the methods of contemporary church growth–including multisite campuses, pandering to “felt needs,” and other popular not-so-well thought through methods–that lead to devastating consequences for the church. This “must read” for all pastors and leaders in the church challenges the status quo of “doing church,” and the authors present a convincing case for their thesis. At the end of the day, the McChurch is starving the sheep of the church and this is why church growth methodologies must be re-examined and ultimately jettisoned.

What Is the McChurch?

What is the McChurch exactly? White and Yeats coined this term from the title of the book The McDonaldization of Society by the sociologist George Ritzer. Ritzer explains that “McDonaldization” is the “processes by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world.”[1] The church is no exception. White and Yeats comment, “Churches unintentionally pick up on the ideas of McDonaldization through leadership magazines, conferences, and books that teach how churches can engage more of the American culture through certain structural, communication, and ministry models.”[2] The result of such McDonaldization of the church is “compromised discipleship, theology, and the loss of the prophetic role of the church.”[3] Hence, “McDonaldized churches become prisoners to the shifting tides of consumer culture as their leaders tend to chase ‘what’s next’ instead of ‘what matters.’”[4]

Throughout Part One of the book, the authors make the case that many American church practices parallel the business model of McDonalds. They outline four areas in which they believe this to be true: efficiency, predictability, counting numbers, and control.

Efficiency. For one, there is an emphasis upon being efficient rather than effective. By this the authors mean that the church has accepted the cultural mentality that it is more important to obtain fast results rather than effective results. “Effective churches,” say White and Yeats, “manage their resources–budgets, schedules, personnel–to accomplish the work of God in their communities without making efficiency the ruling principle of the congregation.”[5] Efficient churches, on the other hand, “place church systems and programs above the spiritual needs of people.”[6]

The difference between effective and efficient churches plays out in many ways. One prime example is that the efficient church places time constraints on the service, not allowing time for reflection and the delivery of theological sermons that build up and strengthen the faith of the saints. Rather, it concerns itself with accommodating the consumerist mentality of “I want it now and want to get out of here before football comes on.”

In many cases, multiple services have contributed to this mentality. In order to get the next “herd” in, the worship service must be planned down to the smallest interval of time to make sure the first “herd” gets out. The authors ask a relevant, poignant question, “If the Word of God functions as the foundation for every believer’s spiritual health and life, why do many churches spend less time studying the Word of God than they do singing?”[7] The authors answer that the reason is that the church has become all about what the customer wants, and the customer is always right. As the authors state, “The primary struggle with most churches comes from [the] desire to satisfy the consumers, we mean, congregants, and keep them coming back. So if the congregants desire to be let out at a certain time, the speaker makes sure the service ends. If the consumer desires to limit the sermon to a specified time, the preacher prepares messages for that time limit.”[8] Otherwise, the consumer goes to another fast-food church that will accommodate. And we all know what happens when the customer goes elsewhere to be served–the bottom line of the business suffers.

The efficient church, then, does not make the Word of God central. Rather it places the consumer’s interest as central. The authors conclude this discussion with observing that “the Bible . . . is what feeds the growing Christian. Experiences are neat. Singing is great. . . . Drama or video may cause us to pause and reflect. But at the end of the day, God’s Word is the only thing that our spirits feed on to be able to grow. The form of the sermon takes reflects the pastor’s respect for the text.”[9]

Predictablity. Another McDonald’s business concept that has been translated to the church is predictability and replication. Consumers expect a Big Mac to taste and look like a Big Mac no matter what McDonald’s one steps into. It is expected to be replicated across all franchises. White and Yeats contend that this mentality has infected the church as well. The is evidenced by the “big church” conferences held across America, at places like Saddleback and Willow Creek, in which pastors from all denominations flock to pick up the next great idea that will ensure growth in their own ecclesiastical franchise. As the authors note, “Pastors and church leaders attend and return home infused with new ideas, hoping to make some changes so their congregations can impact their communities.” However, they continue, “in many cases, these same church leaders attempt to replicate the larger church in toto by applying the principles learned in their local churches.”[10] Of course, many large church pastors would contend that they advise others not to attempt replicating their models. But if this true, the obvious question is, Why have the conferences?

It is not that all the principles and ideas learned at such conferences are wrong or leading one down the wrong path, the authors opine. Rather, it is “because a church is composed of a community of believers with unique gifts and abilities that covenant together for the purposes of evangelism, discipleship, worship, and fellowship,” which “can never be cloned or replicated in any other context.” The solution, urge the authors, is to “spend more time discipling congregants” and “more time in prayer and less time studying the latest methodologies.”[11]

Counting Numbers. “Most churches, pastors, and laypeople measure success by looking at the three Bs: buildings, budgets, and bodies. The more you have, the better you must be doing.”[12] This statement summarizes well the McDonaldization of the church. The parallel could not be more clear: just as McDonald’s measures its success by the numbers, the American church does as well.

Taking cues from not only McDonald’s, some of the American church has taken on the concept of Wal-Mart: bigger is better. The megachurch is a prime example of this, say White and Yeats. Although the size of a church ought to be inconsequential, the reality is that many in the church believe such franchises are successful because of their immense numerical growth. What is most interesting is the observation concerning megachurches, not from a christian source, but from the secular publication National Geographic that the authors refer to: “The Megachurch is the culmination . . . of the integration of religious practice into the freeway-driven, market-savvy, franchise form of American life.”[13]

Although it is certainly understandable that numbers come up in discussions, the problem is when numbers become the focus, as the authors suggest. A few examples from my interaction with some ministers illustrates this well. I once asked a minister how many disciples he had at his church. His response was “I don’t know. But we have 900-1000 people attending every week.” In another instance I overhead several ministers speaking to one another at a popular conference, asking how each other were doing in their respective ministries. One spoke up and said, “Well, we aren’t setting any record numbers.” There seems to be something just plain wrong with this type of mentality which focuses on the numbers.

White and Yeats point out the correct focus of the church when they say, “The church’s Great Commission from Jesus Himself is that we are to make disciples, a process that does not lend itself at times to the principles of church growth. Part of real church growth entails moving beyond the basic teachings of Christ to the enjoyment of the meat of the Word and the replication of the life of each believer by making more disciples.”[14] Of course, the overall main point of criticism of many (not all) megachurches is the methodolgy employed: consumerism–give the buyer what he wants. The “hard truth,” note the authors, is that “God cares more about holiness of the congregation than He does the size of the congregation.”[15] Now if some American churches can once grasp this truth again.

Control. The last issue the authors deal with is control. The focus here is upon the shift of control and involvement from the congregation to the pastor and staff during the rise of the megachurch in the 1980′s and 90′s. When it comes to a megachurch, the control and input members have continually slips away as the pastor takes on a CEO role. White and Yeats observe that “many churches reorganized around this concept, and as a result, members of congregations took less of an active role in the life of the body and waited for pastors or the staff to lead out before getting in line.”[16]

In fact, leadership books produced by church growth professionals encourage pastors to take on the role of CEO and become the one who “casts the vision” for the church while others “get in line” and support the vision. I can even attest to this approach as I have read many of their books and at one time sat under one of the leading church growth leaders of my Christian roots (the Independent Christian Church) in a seminary course. The result of this type of methodology, of course, is less involvement by the congregation in the direction of the church. In essence, the megachurch model is a replication of the American business model found at your local McDonald’s: the pastor as CEO and the elders as his board of directors with the common workers (congregants) having no control or say in the direction of the church. In fact, many mega-churches list on their websites that their pastor’s role is the one who “casts the vision.”

An offspring of this approach is the multi-site or multi-campus church. As the megachurch becomes more “mega,” control becomes even more of an issue. White and Yeats argue that this phenomenon actually begins by adding multiple services. As services multiply, so does the identity of each service and thus creating different congregations. Eventually, once the church can no longer hold more services, it decides to expand its franchise by building more campuses. And as more campuses are added, “the more control is exhibited from a small group of leaders.”[17]

The problem spawned by multi-sites is multifaceted. A main issue, aside from control, is church polity. The structure of the multi-site church is in essence a mini-denomination that resembles Catholicism. The pope is the CEO who heads up the main campus and hands down directions to the “managers” at each campus who serve as the bishops. The authors note, “The irony cannot escape the more careful observers. The vast majority of congregations utilizing multicampus strategies could be categorized as ‘free churches’ [which] emphasize independence from outside denominational control.”[18] This is true, again, of the Independent Christian Church (as well as some Baptist congregations). Historically, this Christian tradition has affirmed the local autonomy of the local church to be led by its own plural elder leadership as found in Scripture. The rise of the multi-site church undermines, yea cuts to the heart, of this biblical leadership.

The authors conclude Part One with a very candid observation:

Perhaps we have adapted cultural practices through pragmatic desires of reaching people and then slapped a Christian label on it. No wonder we have some Christians following a simplified, easy Christianity that doesn’t get close to the image presented in the New Testament. By turning the gospel into the big-box store where we sell and purchase our spiritual wares, should we be surprised people are turning away from the gospel? It is no longer transformative, prophetic, or truly relevant to a lost and dying world. It looks and feels cheap and plastic. A quick look at the package shows that it comes from some other place, and we see that side effects could occur from eating the lead in the glossy paint on the veneer.[19]

So What If I’m Getting Fat on McChurch?

White and Yeats point out several consequences for feeding on the McChurch Happy Meal. Although the authors point out several, for sake of brevity only a few will be discussed here.

The first consequence is the loss of authentic community. As more services are offered to accommodate everyone’s personalized schedule, in effect multiple congregations are created. They just happen to meet in the same building. The authors comment, “The entire body will rarely, if ever, meet together. This provides no opportunity to demonstrate the care, concern, or even knowledge of another’s existence, which should accompany the fellowship of the local church.”[20] Furthermore, as multiple services are added, more worship styles are offered on the menu, which contributes to the consumerist mentality. “Rather than learning to appreciate the taste of other members,” congregants “think individually and make consumer-based choices.”[21] One chooses “traditional” and another chooses to have it “his way right away” (Burger King style) with a contemporary service.

A second consequence, which I take to be the heart of the matter, is that the teaching of the church is compromised. Rather than feeding the sheep, the McChurch ends up starving the sheep. One way in which this is done is that pastors become what the authors call “consumer of sermons,” i.e., preachers who simply regurgitate (read: plagiarize) other pastor’s sermons. Mega-pastors often fear slipping up and not “delivering” for their consumerist sheep, and so they plagiarize others’ sermons. The pastor no longer serves to feed the sheep from his own study. Rather, it appears he preaches out of concern to scratch behind the ears of his sheep. After all, the preacher in such a venue has to appeal to a broad, diverse crowd. So, how can such a pastor preach the more difficult passages of Scripture, such as those that discuss adultery, homosexuality, or even apologetic or theological concerns like the Trinity? Besides, such topics are “too deep” for such a venue when he has only fifteen minutes to serve his customers and get them out the door.

A possible unintended consequence of this type of mentality is the demise of the pastor’s office. The authors point out that if a preacher is simply plagiarizing sermons, then what is the point of having a preacher in the first place? Why not have a recording of the sermon with someone who can speak even better than the pastor? Moreover, why not just hire someone–who does not necessarily have to be a Christian–to write a sermon that appeals to the consumerist sheep? Although this sounds far-fetched, the authors give several examples of this very thing occurring in some churches.[22]

In the end, the McChurch franchise ends up creating an illusion: that numerical growth must be an indicator that something good is happening. But as we all know, not all growth is good. As the McChurch serves up its motivational speaking along with its individualized taste for the type and time of service, the sheep are really starving to death. There is no sustenance in theologically vacuous sermons. “Church consumers,” the authors observe, “become like kids in search of a Happy Meal that has the best movie or TV tie-in. The food doesn’t matter as long as the prize inside is good.”[23] The numbers are deceptive in a McChurch. They do not represent disciples; they simply represent consumers.

The authors’ following comments serve well as a conclusion to their thesis:

The church has bought into the concept. Our sermons must be entertaining, our locations must be convenient, and our music must be exciting. If the location is not convenient enough then offer Internet church to each person’s own living room. If the message of the cross, the blood, or sin offends too harshly, then tone down the message, and speak motivationally about having your best life now. If     theology gets in the way, then claim individual liberty, and allow everyone to have an equally valid yet completely contradictory true opinion. If one age-group wants hymns and another wants choruses, then provide two different services to meet the demands of the customer. Let’s make religion easy so that more people will participate.

From the looks of it, the church advertisement I received in the mail the first week at my new house in Arizona was an invitation to a McChurch. Although a Starbucks cappuccino sounds refreshing and filling and the “exciting music” sounds exhilarating, perhaps such an offer is one that leads only to starving the sheep. And, maybe–as irony would have it–the McChurch franchise ought to go out of business so the sheep can be fed.

This piece was originally published at The Blade Online.


[1] George Ritzer, McDonaldization: The Reader (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2002), 7, quoted in Thomas White and John M. Yeats, Franchising McChurch: Feeding American’s Obsession with Easy Christianity (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2009), 13.

[2] White and Yeats, Franchising, 13.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 23.

[6] Ibid., 31.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Ibid., 33.

[9] Ibid., 35.

[10] Ibid., 43.

[11] Ibid., 54.

[12] Ibid., 58.

[13] T.D. Allman, “The Theme-Parking, Megachurching, Franchising, Exurbing, McMansioning of America,” National Geographic (March 2007): 102, quoted in Thomas and White, Franchising, 60.

[14] Thomas and White, Franchising, 65.

[15] Ibid., 61.

[16] Ibid., 77.

[17] Ibid., 80.

[18] Ibid., 81.

[19] Ibid., 84.

[20] Ibid., 103.

[21] Ibid., 103.

[22] Ibid., 117.

[23] Ibid., 138.

[24] Ibid., 209.