Fast food church isn’t good for our health

Life in the postmodern shift

August 26, 2015 | Viewpoints | Volume 19 Issue 17
Troy Watson | Columnist

There seems to be a growing interest in the “slow church” movement as an alternative to “fast food church.” What is fast food church?

Sociologist George Ritzer in his book The McDonaldization of Society (1993) claims the fast-food industry has become the defining paradigm for more and more sectors of western society and increasingly the rest of the world. He highlights four primary components of McDonaldization:

1. Efficiency – utilizing the best method for accomplishing a task quickly. Every aspect of the organization is geared toward the minimization of time.

2. Calculability – quantity equals quality, meaning a large amount of product delivered to customers in a short amount of time is the same as a high quality product. Workers are judged by how fast they are instead of the quality of work they do.

3. Predictability – no matter where or when a customer shops, they will receive the same service and the same product every time.

4. Control – everything and everyone in the organization is strictly standardized and uniform.

In his book The McDonaldization of the Church (2001) John Drane demonstrates how the fast food principles Ritzer highlights have come to dominate the modern church, including our worship, preaching, membership, discipleship, evangelism, leadership, programs and theology.

The pervasive influence of consumerism began infiltrating western Christianity with the church growth movement that began in the 1960s. Donald McGavran founded the Institute of Church Growth in 1957, just a few years after Ray Kroc started his bold expansion of the McDonald’s restaurant chain in the 1950s (often cited as the catalyst of modern franchising). Since then, growth measured by numbers has become the norm, with modern churches unwittingly, and sometimes unabashedly, competing with one another for “market share.”

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The McDonaldization of church has resulted in efficient, calculable, predictable and control-based ministry. For example, discipleship has been reduced to an assimilation process of putting new people (especially those outside the parameters of our norms) through “retraining” programs so in the end they become like us. It’s not that our understanding of what it means to follow the way of Jesus should be ambiguous. The problem is we want to control the outcomes and struggle to allow space for faith and spirituality that looks different.

It’s easy to throw McDonaldization accusations towards highly polished worship “performances” in mega-churches, but the fast food principles have come to govern worship in most congregations, regardless of their size or worship style. From rigid liturgy to highly experiential “Spirit led” worship, most services follow clear “sanctioned” patterns (predictability). It’s easier and quicker to plan worship services with clear templates to follow (efficiency) but is this empowering the whole gathered community to worship? Or are we enforcing a particular mode of worship (control) on diverse individuals who connect with God in different ways?

Drane argues the most devastating impact of the McDonaldization of church is in our theology. The theology of the modern church resembles a pre-packaged product more than genuine theological reflection. Theology ought to describe, not prescribe, what God is doing in our midst. Too often our theological content is reduced to a neatly processed happy meal for quick and easy consumption.

Meanwhile, more and more Canadians are developing a strong distaste for our one-size-fits-all, fast food theology. People are asking deep and informed questions and are interested in spirituality, not a shrink-wrapped belief system. This disconnect is largely the result of the church’s preoccupation with “either/or” thinking when contemporary western culture is increasingly embracing “both/and” thinking.

Drane prudently resists providing a new blueprint as the solution, but he does have some suggestions. Replace formulaic worship with creative and flexible space where worship can happen. Replace stereotypical sermonizing with prophetic communication and telling our stories. Instead of top-down discipleship models with “experts” who train others, start empowering everyone to explore their own paths as equals and share with one another what they’re learning along their own spiritual journeys through life.

The core issue in McDonaldization is about power and control whereas the original Christ movement was founded on weakness and vulnerability. The irony is that more and more Canadians are looking for communities characterized by the vulnerability of love, precisely what Christ calls the church to be. Drane summarizes the problem saying, “We seem to have ended up with a secular church in a spiritual society.”  

Troy Watson is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont., and can be contacted at troydw@gmail.com.

See also:

Slow church movement fights the ‘McDonaldization’ of church 

Slowing church down

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