Editor’s Journal: Against the McDonaldization of the SBC
He that delighteth not in holiness, hateth not iniquity, loveth not the unity and purity of the Church, and abhoreth not discord and divisions, and taketh no pleasure in the communion of saints and the public worship of God with his people, is not fit to be a pastor of a church.
—Richard Baxter (1615-1691)
Since the days of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), it has become acceptable (even appreciated) for modern men and women to become “Machiavellian” in their actions. Effective leadership is often described as saying one thing and doing another to the point that it has become the unspoken hallmark and goal of leaders to know and understand the art of clandestine warfare—even in the church.
Many pastors, like many politicians, now combine the proverbial wiles of the fox with the strength of the lion to produce an “if you don’t lose, you win” type of attitude. Modern ministry has become so very large and lucrative that para-church ministries have, at least in the recent past, overshadowed the struggling local church with all of its problems. Specific ministry expertise combined with an ever-growing technological capacity has produced an entrepreneurial cadre of ministry professionals to create, in the words of sociologist George Ritzer, the “McDonaldization” of the church.
The idea of “McDonaldization” is a somewhat new term based on the American food chain that remains the largest franchise in the world. Ritzer’s understanding of the phenomenon is “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.” To McDonaldize something is to put in place collections of rules, procedures and an established bureaucracy so that efficiency and effectiveness become the goal for all actions of the organization. Some aspects of this idea are extremely beneficial. They have been widely adopted across the world precisely because they are so very helpful in many ways.
It is not so much that well-run organizations fail in their mission. It is that the organization becomes the mission to the point that the original vision of its founder(s) can easily become a distant memory. Evidence that this is indeed the case in modern evangelicalism can easily be obtained by simply walking into most any Christian bookstore. The multitude of products and thousands of various books promising a fulfilled life simply by completing certain “steps” or achieving genuine spirituality through careful bite-size doses of successful Christian living in 60 minutes or less have made the “Christian” industry one of the largest in the American business market.
Yet, even as Americans continue to purchase more than 20 million new Bibles each year (which adds to the four which already sit in the average home in the United States), the state of general Bible knowledge is at an all-time low. One Gallup survey discovered that less than half of Americans could name the first book of the Bible, only a third know who actually preached the Sermon on the Mount (Billy Graham is one of the most popular answers), and only a quarter of the entire population know that the Christian church actually celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead at Easter. Sixty percent cannot name half of the Ten Commandments leading George Gallup (an Evangelical himself) to describe the United States as “a nation of biblical illiterates.”
All this in light of the special interest groups that have arisen which permeate local church ministry to such a degree that a quick survey of a pastor’s daily mail reveals everything from Christian koozies to that latest denominational program guaranteed to boost baptisms. Pastoral ministry, therefore, has easily become in many congregations more the management of a religious franchise rather than personal ministry to people the Bible calls the bride of Jesus Christ. Doctrinal rediscovery (even though deepening among denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention) has not yet overcome decades of franchise-like programs which often produced “results” with little long-term roots for genuine spiritual growth and lasting effects on the culture of both the church and society.
Large numbers mask an unhealthy reality in many congregations. This is even true in the Southern Baptist Convention. How else can the vast membership of the Southern Baptist Convention (over 16 million) result in only six million in attendance on any given Sunday if not for the organizational aptitude of the denomination to produce numbers? How many of these numbers represent authentic disciples?
In response to this McDonalization of the church, a revolt of sorts has commenced among a growing number of pastors. It is not simply determined by age (admittedly, however, most are younger), but by a stubborn refusal to be cajoled into a corporate mindset of ministry where large programs and initiatives dwarf the community of a local congregation—no matter the size. Many large and small congregations are seeking a renewed emphasis on Bible teaching, community and a personal transparency that freely admits human struggle and pain through life’s journey. Churches that are denominationally linked are creating a certain thrashing about resulting in massive shifts of momentum for denominational identity. The Southern Baptist Convention is no exception.
What the Great Commission Resurgence has revealed about the inner workings of the Southern Baptist Convention is something far more than generational conflict and loyalty to the Cooperative Program (or the lack thereof). The question: can a denomination the size of the SBC overcome its programmatic tendency toward an “SBC” franchise complete with all of its institutions, boards and programs, and advance in its place a more church-centered, gospel-driven denomination? For all of the dichotomies of spiritual/structural, obedience/allocation and heart/wallet that have captured the recent attention of various media outlets and blogs, the reality is that without severe corrective measures, the SBC might be nearing the end of organizational efficiency. The next step the denomination takes will set its course for decades to come.
Whatever transpires when messengers gather in Orlando this week will leave the SBC forever changed. For many pastors, there is no turning back. The status quo is unacceptable and the denomination’s organizational identity must be re-framed and re-formed lest it continue its slide further into merely a political turf battle. The change which is needed is a radical shift away from the denomination itself to what Richard Baxter termed the “personal conference, examination and instruction” so desperately needed by members of Christ’s flock. Baxter saw his role as pastor in the local church as “the nurse of Christ’s little ones” and those for whom he was to personally involve himself as teacher, exhorter and shepherd.
Such images give rise to a new vision for the modern church (and the SBC as a whole) that remains as old as the Bible itself. God has always provided for His people men capable of caring for others through the careful preaching of His Word, the counsel of His church and the impact thoughtful organization can bring to the advance of His kingdom. The Gospel is the key. It is the declaration that God has accomplished something so spectacular in the person and work of Jesus that even denominations must bend to its strength.
What looms in Orlando is not simply a civil war of organizational priorities, but also an opportunity for a renewal of unity around the essentials of the Gospel for the strengthening of local SBC congregations. Viewed in this way, the surge the SBC so desperately needs might be found in the re-discovery of a gospel realignment that sets its course for the 21st Century. In the words of Baxter, “Our very business is to teach the great lesson of self-denial and humility to our people, and how unfit is it then that we should be proud ourselves!” Great humility is required for the 2010 annual meeting of the SBC. Time will tell if truly spiritual men can come together to agree on gospel priorities and cast aside any pride of ownership, prestige and position.
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.