One of the advantages of the recent health issues I have been dealing with is that the forced cutback in my workload has given me a bit more time to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes: reading. A few weeks back I was looking through some notes I had taken from several short works by theologian John Drane and also notes from Mike Erre’s Death by Church. In doing so, I rediscovered a theme discussed initially by Drane, and then by Erre – a theme that is all too common in today’s church and, at the same time, all too tragic.
In a word, the issue I am talking about is what Drane calls the “McDonaldization” of the church, described by Erre as “the process 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.”
The church, especially the church, has not been immune to McDonaldization.
Drane describes four characteristics of McDonaldization, originally applied to society as a whole by author George Ritzer, and discusses how this quartet of effects plays out in the contemporary church. The four trends are efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control.
Sunday morning services are highly efficient and well-planned in most churches these days. Most “worship” services are so over-planned that it can accurately be said that they are pre-packaged. Just let the sermon run over by a few minutes and folks start squirming in their seats, clearing their throats, and in at least one church I am quite familiar with, walking out. Folks want their weekly dose of Jesus in manageable proportions, which leads us to the second characteristic of McDonaldization, calculability.
Churches are notorious for their fondness of counting and quantifying things, especially figures related to attendance and giving. The more of these two things, the better. And the accurate counting of these types of things make them all the more predictable, which is the third McDonaldization trend. We like to be able to predict what is going to happen when we go to a typical church service. As we are parking our car at 9:45 AM we know we can accurately predict that around 11:05 AM, give or take only a few minutes, we will be climbing back in the same car and back home in our recliner in plenty of time for the kickoff of the NFL game.
This issue of predictability is tightly connected to the fourth trend, control. Church leaders like to be in control of things, especially the worship service. And members of the congregation like things to be well-controlled and predictable. Let’s be honest – most folks don’t want to go to church on Sunday morning and be surprised by something unexpected, especially something as radical, unpredictable, and outrageous as some move of the Holy Spirit.
To their credit, the majority of Charismatic and Pentecostal Churches have resisted the trends of McDonaldization, at least in relation to their worship services. A service where the Holy Spirit is invoked and welcomed to be a part of the festivities is a service that is highly unpredictable and, at times, even out of control. However, before those of you that are members of Charismatic or Pentecostal congregations get too smug, take an honest look to see in what other areas of church the process of McDonaldization may have entwined its tentacles.
The typical Mainline denominational church, and even some of the atypical ones, are often characterized by an inherent rigidity of structure in terms of the average worship service. These Sunday morning get togethers are choreographed right down to the split second it seems and any unexpected deviation tends to send ripples of discomfort down the aisles and across the pews as various fidgets, nervous twitches, and a pandemic of clock watching quickly sets in. You can almost hear a semi-audible gasp as congregants attempt to deal with abject traumas such as being two minutes behind schedule or worse, subjected to some brief announcement or activity that was omitted from the printed program. It’s even worse if that renegade Deity, the Holy Spirit, makes an unplanned visit.
I vividly recall an incident where the Spirit showed up unannounced and certainly unexpected in one of the most staid, choreographed, and traditional Protestant programs in existence, Robert Schuller’s “The Hour of Power.” Despite the unexpected visitation by the Comforter, the pastoral leadership managed to handle things quite well while, at the same time, giving honor to the Crystal Cathedral’s unexpected visitor.
Perhaps you, too, witnessed the broadcast. The guest speaker for that’s day’s service was none other than Evel Knievel, the hard-living, daredevil motorcyclist. Suffering from chronic pulmonary diseases and wearing an oxygen tube, Knievel gave an incredibly moving testimony, paying tribute to the power of God’s intervention in his life and expressing his gratitude over his salvation. If you saw the broadcast, you will recall that there was not a dry eye in the house, especially visible in then Senior Pastor Robert A. Schuller, the son of Robert H., who founded this highly impactful television ministry. In fact, at one point the younger Schuller had to turn away from the camera uttering something like “Please, excuse me.” It took the pastor a few minutes to compose himself and the same was true for a number of other folks on the stage and in the audience. It was a very moving program and way, way out of the norm for this typically unemotional, dry, and reserved ministry.
Ah, the power of the Holy Spirit is amazing.
I can’t say this with anything beyond my own speculation, but I have a suspicion that what happened with the younger Schuller that day had something to do with his subsequent tendency to become more scripturally oriented in his preaching, much to the consternation of his father. It was not too long after this episode that Robert A. Schuller was relieved of his duties as Senior Pastor and eventually went out on his own to begin his own church. So, in the final analysis, the McDonaldization of the Crystal Cathedral is alive and well, but Schuller the Younger appears to have broken free of the shackles of that toxic trend.
It takes sincere commitment, an eye of discernment, and a commitment to excellence to make an honest assessment of what is going on at your own church. It may be that your congregation has successfully maneuvered around the treacherous waters of McDonaldization and if this is true, you should be grateful. On the other hand, it could be your church, like so many others, now offers Holy Ghost Combo Meals and asks quite seriously if you want to super-size that McJesus sandwich you just ordered.
If you find that your church has, indeed, become a franchise, it is time to take action. Believe me, although such a church can function well in terms of efficiency, calcuability, predictability, and control, it will more often than not fall far short in terms of disciple-making and being an incarnational presence in the community.
Like most fast-food menus, what is served will be quick, easy, tasty, but devoid of nutrition and actual nourishment. You might, indeed, become fat and jolly, but rarely firm, fit, and truly joyful.
Think about it.
© L.D. Turner 2009/All Rights Reserved