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Book Review: Franchising McChurch
Reviewed by Jonathan Leeman
How do you review a book when you pretty much agree with everything it says? Book reviewers, after all, often feel the need to demonstrate that they can think critically and aren't entirely "taken in" by any one book. There's a temptation to comb through the haystack, looking for that one needle of disagreement. Inevitably, you find yourself falling into some kind of picayune pedantry.
Which is basically all I can do with Thomas White and John Yeats' Franchising McChurch. I have a few petty points of disagreement on various practical matters. And there are a couple of things I wish they did better. But honestly, the biggest problem with this book is that they didn't write it thirty years ago, before most evangelical churches decided to pull their car into the drive thru of consumerism.
The book's title says it all. Too many Evangelical churches have adopted a philosophy of ministry which reads suspiciously like the McDonald's corporate guidebook. Efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control are the prized virtues in running a successful franchise restaurant. There's a reason I've eaten McDonalds in Brazil, Greece, and South Africa. I know what I'm going to get! Churches, apparently, assume they have much to learn from this organizational paradigm.
For all the books presently on the market which discuss the role of consumerism in religion generally (e.g. Consuming Religion, Selling God, Shopping for God, In Pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, or More Money, More Ministry), very few, surprisingly, consider consumerism's affect on the local church. This Little Church Went to Market, The Market Driven Church, and the David Wells oeuvre are several exceptions. And just as each of these books makes its own contribution, Franchising McChurch does, too. First, it's written at a "pop" level that may better appeal to pastors who are intimidated by Wells' books.
Second, the authors clearly mean to persuade seminarians and pastors that there's a more biblical way to approach the local church. So they present something of a positive philosophy of ministryparticularly grounded in preaching the Word of God.
Third, and most significantly, this is the first book I've encountered which offers a sustained critique of the multi-site church movement. Several times I have heard of a pastor who went looking for a biblical or theological critique of a multi-site structure, but who, finding none, proceeded to split up his church into multiple churches yet strangely decide to call them "one church." White and Yeats do us all the service of offering the evangelical church one of its first critiques of the multi-site movement.
The first seven out of eleven chapters don't focus on the multi-site phenomenon, but on the consumer-driven mindset out of which the multi-site franchise ultimately flowers. Chapters 8 to 10 then focus on the "flower." Chapter 11, entitled "Quitting McChurch," offers a way out.
Pastor, whether you've already moved multi-site or not, you should, for the sake of your church, take the time to read this material, especially chapters 8 to 10. Here are a few of the thoughts they offer against a multi-site "church":
And the list keeps going. White and Yeats present a strong and sustained case against the multi-site church. Whether you agree or not, every Christian should be grateful that these two men are finally taking on the subject and introducing substance into the conversation.
Of course, I do agree with them. That said, here's my fear concerning White and Yeats' Franchising McChurch: I wonder if it will persuade those who are not already persuaded. We can use that ugly word "consumerism" and all agree that it sounds just horrible. But I've watched the very men who criticize consumerism, cheap grace, and nominalism turn around and promote the very practices which, I would argue, in and of themselves inculcate consumerism and nominalism in a church. It's like they don't get it, even if they think they get it.
If you've been eating fast food all your life, you simply may not know what healthy food tastes like. Even if you have tasted it once or twice, you may not have found it immediately appealing and so never give it the chance to experience a steady diet of it. So the junk food continues.
Maybe there is one thing White and Yeats could have done that they didn't do: They could have painted a picture of the many men and women we have all personally known who have floated along anonymously in today's consumer-driven churches, churches both multi- and single-site, into places of great danger. Consumerism is not just an ugly word. It has a face. It's the face of a closet alcoholic. It's the faces of the divorced couple. It's the face of the woman who long ago renounced her faith. These are friends of mine who would have said that they "belonged" to a church, but who got lost. Yes, many other factors are to blame in such circumstances. Of course. But among those factors was the fact that the structures, the programs, and the cultures of their churches never asked these friends to be anything more than a consumer. The churches took their consumeristic orientation for granted. They allowed these friends to think they could come and go from church as they pleased. They allowed them to think, when it comes to everything from music to sermon styles, the customer is always right. Leaders were always happy to bend toward their preferences and expectations. The consumer has authority. And when everything from the door greeters to the song selection to the finely crafted sermons to the motto "excellence in everything" really says, "Christian, we want to please you!" the heart is only too happy to play the role of judge. "I like this; I don't like that." So these friends of mine, some long lost, some still struggling, have all sat in judgment over one church, then another, and never submitted their discipleship to any. Milk is what they wanted, never meat, and their spiritual health showed as much--like an adult man who never moved beyond the food he was given as an infant.
The multi-site and multi-service models are, I trust, earnest responses to Holy Spirit-given growth. And yet, as I watch so many smaller churhes empty into larger churches, and then larger churches split into franchised campuses, I can't help but wonder if multi-site is not also, unwittingly, one more mechanism for catering to highly demanding Western consumers, even as their leaders decry the consumeristic mindset.
We can all have polite conversations about this polity versus that polity, and all chirpily agree to disagree in the end. Yet it's worth remembering what's at stake: the souls of sheep, who are threatened by wolves and the crevices which hide in the shadows. And how we structure our churches is one critical component for keeping the sheep safely enconsed in the pen. Like you, I've known many crippled and lost sheep, and I cannot help but get angry when I consider how their (both multi- and single-site) churches and pastors failed them as those pastors became enamored, not with God's Word, but with some new technique that they hoped would attract the sheep. No, I don't claim to be without responsibility for these lost sheep either. The good news is, Jesus ain't no video-screen shepherd.
White and Yeats offer an alternative and excellent course for our generation. Yet I wonder if we still have the ability to recognize healthy food from junk food.
Jonathan Leeman is the director of communications for 9Marks.
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