If you google on “Why are people leaving the church?” you’ll find more websites than you could possibly open in years. Various authors, of course, explain the exodus in different ways. In his book, British author John Drane says some of the trouble has come from The McDonaldization of the Church.
He borrowed the fast-food reference in his title from The McDonaldization of Society, by George Ritzer. Drane explains that “when I . . . applied Ritzer’s four characteristics of the McDonaldization process—efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control—to the Church, I began to see some of the reasons why so many of today’s people struggle so much with it.”
Drane taught Practical Theology in the University of Aberdeen’s Department of Divinity. That role put him in touch with leaders from a great variety of churches across Scotland. “I soon realized,” he says, “that if our faith was to continue to make a difference to our nation in the twenty-first century, we could not continue to do the same things as our forebears had done before us.”
Squeezing More Out of Less Effort
McDonald’s now sells burgers in more than 100 countries—in part because the chain has turned efficiency into an art form. Drane sees a similar priority in churches. “I have come away from too many churches feeling that I have been given the same sort of pre-packaged ‘welcome’ as I might expect in a fast-food outlet where the server will routinely enquire about my day, but really has no interest in either me or my life.”
In the McDonaldized church, “somebody else does the thinking for you, predigests it, and serves it up in an efficient manner. It is the spiritual equivalent of fast food, and unlike the home-prepared meal it requires no preparation, no cleaning up afterwards, and no involvement in cooking it.”
In my own book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I describe church meetings in which “all elements . . . are preplanned, in which the voices heard are prearranged, and in which any words spoken or sung by members of the congregation are preselected by someone else and provided for them.”
Running by the Numbers
Drane sees calculability as the second characteristic of McDonaldization evident churches. As he puts it, “Christians are not immune from this obsession with numbers and quantity.” But our counting does not end with bodies, buildings, and budgets. Drane contends that “most churches just have far too many gatherings that they expect their people to attend, midweek as well as at weekends.” Christians serious about their spiritual lives, he says, are likely to remain unimpressed.
Drane includes an example from the experience of a pastor friend: “He had started with just seventeen people, and ended up with more than 3000, but in the process the church had become a depersonalized machine. . . . Growth led to increased numbers, which required a bigger space to contain them, which called for fund-raising and building projects, which necessitated a mortgage to pay for it all, which demanded efficient marketing and sales techniques to maximize the attendance in order to raise enough money to meet the payments, and on and on in a vicious spiral of cause and effect. When all of that came together, it created a system that, in terms of human relationships and real spiritual growth was pathologically self-destructive—but which was apparently necessary in order to maintain the trappings of ‘success.’”
Admittedly, says Drane, “The security of what is predictable can indeed help people to feel safe—but the downside is that it all becomes routine. . . . Pragmatically, the Church’s love affair with this aspect of McDonaldization is a major stumbling block to effective evangelism in today’s post-modern culture.”
In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I quote a blogger who wrote, “Routines are convenient and make for a comfortable, easy life. They make you think less. They let you predict the future. In essence, routines make you lazy. They make your life and you boring. Routines won’t provide you with stories to tell.” Even so, in some churches regulars don’t even have to read the order of service in the bulletin to know what will come next.
Managing the Event
“This issue of power and control,” Drane says, “is at the heart of all the other factors that are at work in a McDonaldized style of being.” As an example, he points to the typical church practice of offering self-tests to help people discover their spiritual gifts.
“While we say we are wanting to be sensitive to people’s skills, and open to using them in the life of the church, the possible ministries that are on offer invariably have an over-emphasis on particular areas—all of them carefully chosen to ensure that we identify in other people only those gifts that are not going to challenge the position of the established leadership.”
The Shared-Church Connection
What does all this have to do with shared church? I’ll close with one more quotation from Drane when he says that today’s world will require the church in its worship services to “place the mutual sharing of stories of faith at the center of its search for meaningful human community, not to mention its obedient commitment to the gospel.”