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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.”

editors journal pull quoteAll 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.

Author: Douglas Baker

View more articles by Douglas Baker.

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  • Thank you for such a well written piece, outlining some of the problems of the “McDonaldization” of the church. A great description, and one that voices what I have been sensing for some time; and, why I, and my leadership team, decided to not align our new church plant with the SBC, even though I am SBC educated and have pastored SBC churches. It was a difficult decision, but a necessary one. Michael Young

  • Gary Capshaw

    Perhaps the SBC has gotten too large and has reached what economist’s call “The Law of Diminishing Returns.” The more we try to do better, the worse we get. If that’s the case, then something like the GCR is not going to solve our problems. Nothing less than a total and complete revamping of the organizational structure will do. Good luck with that!

    Or, perhaps our largest congregations, if not the SBC itself, which can pack the pews, but fail to positively change lives, are too enamored of business models and principles of management, rather than the preaching of the Gospel. Any organization eventually reaches the point, as Doug suggests, that maintaining the organization can easily become the de facto reason to get up each day and our congregations and denomination are not immune from slipping into the practicing of good management principles and away from the Gospel as a primary focus.

    At heart, I think the cause is a failure to trust Christ and the Holy Spirit to give the increase. Whether or not a denomination or congregation succeeds very much depends upon the measurement of success and when success is viewed from a human standpoint, the church is “progressing” when more people attend, donations go up and folks are “busy” in church work. Such things can be accomplished by applying good, sound principles of management and organization, but when we do that, we say to God, “Don’t worry. We’ve got it. We can do this.” That’s nothing less than taking the power of the Holy Spirit to give the increase and appropriating it to ourselves. While it seems like the prudent thing to do, it’s actually self-defeating.

    From God’s standpoint, success is measured in terms of redeemed hearts, not in just pure numbers. When we, as preachers, teachers and laymen called to the Great Commission focus entirely and exclusively on reaching people effectively with the Good News of Christ, God himself will manage the ministry successfully. We don’t have to “help” Him; all we have to do is listen for His instructions, do what His Word tells us to do and take advantage of the help He sends our way.

    We should never doubt God. He has promised to equip and empower us to perform the missions He sends us to do and His word is good. We don’t need Masters degrees in management or finances. We only need to preach the Gospel, in season and out, and everything else will fall into place when we let God lead our ministries.

  • Chad Kaminski

    George Ritzer also talks about the way McDonalds controls employees by threatening to replace them with technology. Whether right or wrong we already see satellite campuses piping in sermons from base-camp instead of calling a teaching pastor for each location. Soon I may be able to assemble an entire pastoral staff with computers and software, providing all the love and care technology can provide without the often difficult inter-staff relationships, human error, or the extra cost of salaries. Lord help us.

  • Gary Capshaw

    Chad:

    While there is certainly no substitute for coming together with like-minded believers, at least in my opinion, the fact is that the internet and other high-tech venues are where the people whom we need to reach actually are. If we’re losing contact with the younger generations, it’s because we’re not “hanging out” where they hang out…on line.

    While I’m certainly no technological genius and hardly up to date with the most modern gadgets, I’m willing to bet that we could be doing a far, far better job of reaching out to those younger people by converting our message from pulpit preaching to some sort of electronic outreach beyond just a website. Sadly, as those younger people disappear from our traditional churches, they take with them the knowledge of how to do that. We old fogey’s don’t have a clue and aren’t likely to get one any time soon. As Bod Dylan said a generation ago, “The times they are a changin’,” and we’re not keeping up.

    Perhaps our greatest challenge isn’t so much the McDonaldization of the church as it is that we’re stuck in processes and structures which are no longer relevant.

  • Chad Kaminski

    Gary:

    You may be right, and you’re certainly right to a degree. It may be time we try to clarify what technological methods qualify as “preaching,” and what qualifies as “community,” and what qualifies as believers being “assembled.” I’m not sure what I think at this point, but it is plenty to ponder.

  • Gary

    Pow! What a wake up call. We must stop making more religious franchises and start making disciples!

  • Gary Capshaw

    To “Reply:”

    Yes, we do need to start making disciples, but that leads to two $64,000 questions:

    1. Why aren’t we doing that now?

    2. How do we take the Gospel to a generation which oftentimes philosophically rejects the notion of absolute truth, which favors compromise over absolutism and which prefers virtual, on-line relationships over personal ones? How do we, as church, develop a Gospel message in a form which they will accept?

    I wish I knew. If I did, I’d be the greatest theological philosopher of the 21st century! 🙂

    All kidding aside, though, it IS a serious question which is related to the subject of Doug’s article above because the McDonaldization of the church isn’t much more than an attempt to make church more palitable to a greater number of people. That it’s not resulting in changed hearts is more revealing of our failure than it is their lack of interest in things spiritual.

    I interact with a lot of younger people, mostly less than 40, and they feel the same longing for answers and a connection with God which human beings have felt since the Garden of Eden, but their usual view of modern-day Christianity isn’t a positive one and it’s difficult to witness to them because of it. It’s harder to get them to actually come to church and sit down. Their lives do not revolve around traditional organizations and they’re not much for “joining” in the sense which we may be familiar with. And, it’s not just the church which is having trouble enticing younger people to their message. Veteran’s organizations, service organizations and volunteer groups are having the same problem of declining active membership and for the same reason: We’ve all been left behind in the dust by the technological revolution and the resulting change in the definition of “community.”

    • Grant Burgess

      I was researching something else, and came across this article and after reading the feedback, had a couple of thoughts of my own. Is it possible that we are not creating new disciples because we have raised several generations of those who as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said have been saved by a “cheap grace.” Perhaps the saved or chosen ones of Jesus have allowed church membership to take a higher precedence over christian living. Discipleship is costly, and we, I think, have just become too lazy.
      Is it necessary to change the gospel message to a form which people will accept? If by this we mean through internet means, or messages delivered in a non traditional preaching way, by all means, but are we giving to much credence to if they accept the form or not? Is not our job or passion to be the telling of the gospel, and letting God do the rest? Maybe we are trying to do to much of the work ourselves, instead of letting God be God. Whatever the answer, may God use us to His glory, and until we meet again, Shalom

  • Gary Capshaw

    Grant:

    You’re right that we should never change the message. It is what God intends it to be and can stand alone all by itself.

    However, we may have to look at changing how the message is delivered. Just as we no longer preach the Gospel in Latin or by reading letters in church, the time for pulpit preaching may be becoming just as archaic in the information age.

    • Grant Burgess

      Thats what I thought you meant. Agreed.

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