Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Ray Kroc revolutionized the franchising concept in the 1950’s as he standardized McDonald‘s restaurants across the country. He ensured that a Big Mac would taste the same in Philadelphia as it did in San Diego and that all McDonald’s stores would look pretty much the same, complete with standard logos and uniform menus. This is part of Kroc’s genius: create a recognizable brand that people could like and trust, no matter where they went.
There’s little direct, causal, historical evidence to support my claim, but I wonder if Christian denominations didn’t try to imitate Kroc’s methods in building up their church “franchises” back in the 1950’s and 60’s. For instance, if you walked into a mainline Presbyterian church in the early 1960’s (the zenith of mainline Protestantism) it would be eerily similar to just about every other Presbyterian church in the land. Sure, there were variations in building architecture, for example; but many parts of the church program were standardized according to the larger organization. If you looked in a Presbyterian sanctuary in those days, you would see the maroon Presbyterian Hymnbook nestled neatly next to the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (usually in black bonded leather binding!) in the pew racks. Likewise, if you were to take a tour through the newly added education wing, you would find that the Sunday school students were dutifully using all the appropriate denominational curriculum.
The underlying idea, I think, was to standardize the denominations (I assume here that the Methodists and Lutherans were busy doing the same thing) ala Ray Kroc, and make the member churches absolutely uniform, regardless of regional geography, individual preference, and local tradition. This would enable people to recognize the trusted “brand” and plug into the right McChurch in their community.
And apparently this idea of franchising churches along denominational lines (i.e., forcing every congregation into an outward mold based on curriculum, hymnals, and pew Bibles, rather than on shared ethos and theology) dies hard. Even today, if you walk into an average Presbyterian church (PCUSA), you will most likely find the blue Presbyterian Hymnal in the pew racks, nestled happily next to the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (note: apparently this is the only acceptable translation of the Bible, especially if you notice that every denominational publication that bothers to quote the Bible uses the NRSV solely; kind of like KJV-only, except with a different fixation). And if you walk into the old educational wing, you will find that many Sunday schools are dutifully using the denominational curriculum. You will also notice that most Presbyterian congregations follow the exact same pattern of “official” denominational special offerings, especially the One Great Hour of Sharing.
Along the same lines, if you walk into an ELCA Lutheran church today, you will find the new red Evangelical Lutheran Worship next to the NRSV; if you walk into a United Methodist Church, you’ll find the United Methodist Hymnal next to the NRSV (by the way, my biggest pet peeve is to see the denominational logo emblazoned on the pew Bible cover; this borders on idolatry). I know of a few (mostly older) Presbyterian pastors who will only use materials that are officially approved or produced by the denomination. Yikes.
Is it just me, or is this standardization of the “franchise” a rather strange practice left over from another era? Is name-branding really helpful for churches and denominations today, especially when people care less about denominational labels? How is it that we have lost our shared ethos and theological convictions but yet we’re expected to keep up the outward form of connectionalism through books and programs? To me, this kind of parochialism stifles creativity, mutes individual creativity, and obliterates local tradition. Let’s be reasonable!
FOOTNOTE: Take a deep breath with me, folks: the Presbyterian Church (USA) is planning a new hymnal. If the blue 1990 hymnal was so bad, I can’t imagine what this one will be like. Please, if you have an opinion (please!) visit their Web site and offer your input for the new hymnal, due out in 2013. Don’t wait until it’s too late and then grumble!