Standardizing McChurch

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!


5 thoughts on “Standardizing McChurch

  1. Howdy. I think your observation applies to those churches (mostly mainline) that resulted from mergers<. Within Lutheranism, the ALC (1960) formed in 1960 (to distinguish it from ALC 1930) from the following: the American Lutheran Church (German), United Evangelical Lutheran Church (Danish) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Norwegian). In 1962 the LCA was formed from the following: ULCA (German, Slovak and Icelandic), the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church (Swedish), Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church and American Evangelical Lutheran Church (Danish) to form the Lutheran Church in America (LCA).

    Thus, there was need to bring some type of unity in outward things. Of course, this was helped by two events: in 1952 the entire RSV was published and was adapted by many Lutherans; in 1958 the Service Book and Hymnal (SBH) was published, which was quickly adapted by many within these pre-merger groups.

    For non-merger Lutherans, i.e. LCMS, WELS, continuity of hymnals, texts, etc. was built into the fabric of the denomination from the beginning.

    I wonder if the same isn’t true with regard to the PCUSA (formed in 1983) vs. PCA, although PCA has a combination background of mergers an independence.

    Anyway, interesting thoughts and comments. Thanks


  2. Rich, thanks for responding. Your perspective on Lutheranism is valuable to discussions about denominationalism.

    I don’t know; maybe it’s impossible to have a strong shared theology without being parochial. I think the PCUSA’s “unity” is unfortunately a veneer of Constitution, name, and national offices, but without true, spiritual fellowship. My observations of the PCA, which, as you know, was a reactionary body against the mainline reunion that was gathering in the late 70’s and early 80’s, are different. I believe that they have a pretty uniform theological ethos that is manifested in their hymnal (Trinity Hymnal), their usual pulpit translation (ESV), and their Constitution (Westminster standards and Book of Church Order). By the way, a merger between the Orthodox PC and the PCA has been in the works for years; but even so, it will not affect their already nearly identical culture. But in my experience, the PCA/OPC are much more open to local expression because they are secure in their common identity. Of course, it’s hard to have a uniform franchise if they are so small they can’t have their own publishing house. But they are open to Reformed Baptist and other conservative and evangelical resources as long as they fit into their vision. Not that they are perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I do covet their seeming unity without compulsory uniformity.

    Someone correct me if I’m wrong about PCA/OPC…

  3. Thanks for this post. Sorry I found it so late. I hear you for sure, but here’s an interesting fact: in the PC(USA), only 50% of congregations adopted the 1990 blue hymnal. Yes, many/most of our larger congregations adopted it and way more than 50% of our members use it. But compared to the ELCA, our hymnal adoption rate is relatively low.

    I grew up in the south and now pastor in rural minnesota. I end up saying to my congregation often, “I think there are now many more differences between churches of the same denomination these days than between similar churches of different denominations.” Maybe I’m way off, but my impression of the PC(USA) is actually more one of diversity than mcdonaldization.

    All that said, YES, please do let those of us on the hymnal committee know your hopes and thoughts for the next resources. We covet your prayers and would love to be in touch.

  4. Thanks for reading and commenting, Adam. I sent a long, detailed document to David Eicher more than a year ago, weighing in with my hopes for the new hymnal. I do agree that Presbyterian congregations–thankfully–retain some of their independent character, especially compared to Methodists and Lutherans, which seem to be much more uniform. My point was that, as a denomination, our shared heart and convictions should supersede the outward trappings that bind us together.

    On a related note, the RCA and CRC (Faith Alive) have been developing a Reformed hymnal, set to be released in 2013. I think it’s a shame that we Presbyterians weren’t able to collaborate with them and produce one monster Calvinist/Reformed/Presbyterian hymnal. Are we ecumenical (as our Book of Order claims), or are we parochial? IMO, this was a missed opportunity to show our unity and rise above denominationalism.

  5. Thanks for this. Got your letter — I hadn’t put the names together. We are definitely in touch with the RCA/CRC folk, but denominational politics within and without the PC(USA) would doom such a collaborative effort before it started. Maybe in a generation or two. We can hope.

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