Over the last few weeks, I have been paging through recent publications in the area of “Ecclesiology” or the structure of the Church. I find that authors in the present day refer to a published work from 2000, The McDonaldization of the Church by John Drane, a British pastoral sociologist. When I first saw this term, I thought it was a put-on, to tell you the truth. But “McDonaldization” is a stand-alone term in sociological circles with its own Wikipedia site. The term was coined by sociologist George Ritzer in 1993. Ritzert defines The McDonaldization of Society as the process of American economy and culture adopting the characteristics of a fast-food restaurant.
As it applies to Christian Churches, the theory is used to explain, at least in part, why so many have given up on traditional church experience.
Pull up a Big Mac and Fries while I spread the menu. Ritzert breaks down the operational principles of a traditionally successful fast-food enterprise into four parts.
The first is efficiency, or the optimal method for accomplishing a task. Among other things, efficiency includes the goal of delivering the goods in the fastest amount of time. “The fastest way to get from being hungry to being full.”
The second is calculability. Objectives should be quantifiable (e.g., sales) rather than subjective (e.g., taste). McDonaldization promotes the notion that quantity equals quality, and that a large amount of product delivered to the customer in a short amount of time is the same as a high-quality product. This allows people to quantify how much they are getting versus how much they are paying. Workers in these organizations are judged by how fast they are instead of the quality of work they do.
The third is predictability – standardized and uniform services. Predictability means that no matter where a person goes, they will receive the same service and receive the same product every time. This also applies to the workers in those organizations. Their tasks are highly repetitive, highly routine.
Control – standardized and uniform employees, replacement of human by non-human technologies.
In our book at hand, The McDonaldization of the Church, Drane borrows the model for possible clues to the wholesale departure of members from the mainstream Protestant and Catholic Churches. Drane was writing in 2000; I would say that the parallel makes even better sense in 2021, and from this vantage point we get more useful insights into where American Catholicism has fallen into difficulties.
I feel the need to state the obvious that the Catholic Church is not the same kind of organization as Dairy Queen or Burger King. However, Drane argues that the McDonald business model is so pervasive in America that it has become the secular template for public organizations, and that Catholics and Protestants alike have succumbed to a McChurch style almost subconsciously. And because of this, much of our public has grown weary of us and—in my opinion—we are paralyzed in regrouping ourselves after the Covid epidemic.
Reading the four “McDonaldized” bullet points, it should be clear that any institution shaped to this model is going to have a difficult time with change, no matter from what cause, source, or motivation. In the case of McDonald’s, the twenty-first century saw several significant changes in customer expectations. Notably, many Americans started seeking healthier diets with less fat and more fiber, greater attention to the green movement, and better salaries, benefits, and working conditions for McDonald employees. The popular call for the $15/hour wage found in McDonald employees the poster children for labor reform. And, as more Americans work from home and on laptops, the furnishings and surroundings of the fast-food marketplaces required greater accommodations to these needs. McDonald’s has been perceived as slow to respond to this new environment. When the pandemic arrived in 2020, McDonald’s and other chains of that model found themselves caught flatfooted, having to depend exclusively on super long drive-through lines with a depleted workforce and restrictions on sit-down clients. My Publix Grocery chain reinvented itself immediately to shop for me and deliver the goods. McDonald’s was unable to do that.
However, innovation is not a sure-fire recipe for success, either. In his 2008 book Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul, CEO Howard Schulz, returning from an eight-year hiatus from the company, relates the fuss when Starbuck’s began serving hot breakfasts, perhaps hoping to capture a portion of the McDonald’s market. Every Starbuck’s outlet no longer smelled of coffee, he discovered. Rather, the aromatic ambiance of the coffee shops was burned cheese from the grill, a major turn-off in a business that features multiple exotic coffee blends. Ironically, one of Schulz’s first moves as CEO was company-wide attention to the actual brewing process of a cup of coffee. As research for this blog entry, I stopped into Starbucks yesterday on the way to Costco to see how the shop smelled. Fortunately, it smelled of coffee. [However, I ordered a frosted pumpkin scone with my delicious Pike Place, and at the first bite the frosting broke into a hundred pieces.] What both McDonalds and Starbucks teach is that customers are both traditional and innovative in that they want…and it is critical to listen to the clientele with both ears open.
Drane cites William D. Hendricks’ Exit Interviews  to explore how Christians became dissatisfied customers, so to speak, with their institutional communities of worship. At the time Hendricks conducted his studies, about 60,000 Christians in the U.S. were leaving organized churches every week. One interviewee, a returned missionary no less, said this: “I guess my problem with church is not that I’ve lost my faith or feel like it’s hopeless or that sort of thing. It’s more that I am bored with it. I go to church, and I hear sermons and I think, ‘I just don’t want to hear this.’” Hendricks goes on to say that “leaving the church often seems to be a consequence of people dealing with issues of personal maturity and growth in their lives.” [Drane, p. 5]
Drane’s own observations tell him that people do not necessarily equate leaving the church with leaving faith. “They also frequently claim that leaving the church is actually a way of maintaining their faith.” One Amazon reviewer made a prescient observation in a post of several years ago about people leaving the church. “I think that half of the people who stay [in the church] feel the same way as people who leave. It would take just one big crisis for them to leave, too.”
Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis may have been that deciding moment when, having lived without weekly Mass for extended periods of time, many Catholics have discovered that they can survive—perhaps even thrive—with alternative religious experience, or on the contrary, that they can live without the Sunday community gathering altogether. Covid did not exactly create the mindset of a mass exodus; more likely, it exacerbated an already existent exodus which had [or has] two distinct populations: those who leave the church physically; and those who have left the church psychologically but continue to attend out of habit, social attraction, or family influence.
There is no hard research yet on the sociological/religious impact of Covid on Catholic membership, in part because the Delta variant continues to wreak havoc on social life here in Florida and elsewhere as I write today. It pains me to report that, anecdotally speaking, after my pastor requested that everyone wear masks to Mass, a full 40% of Mass-goers do not wear them at my Saturday night Mass, one that historically is attended by many elderly and vulnerable persons. That act of diffidence/defiance has done nothing to warm my heart toward the idea of the Eucharistic meal as a communal celebration of love and concern. Under different circumstances, maybe this would be enough to send me looking elsewhere for genuine religious experience.
In Chapter 5, “Celebrating the Faith,” Drane examines the worship experiences of the various churches—he is most taken with Catholic worship—and the fashion in which McDonaldization has shaped even the ways we worship together. It is his conclusion that a fast-food mentality such as those cited above has driven many from regular worship, even if subconsciously. Generally, when someone leaves church worship, the reasons generally given are poor preaching, boredom, and personal irrelevance. All these tags convey a loss of visceral, personal connectedness with both the rites of worship and the congregation itself. I agree to a point with Drane that separation from the Eucharist is not generally a deliberate act of disaffiliation from God. In fact, it may be the most authentic act of an adult’s life, maybe the first, something we should bear in mind in our thoughts about evangelization.
Drane states that one of the best analyses of the problems of worship comes from a 1978 directive booklet from the American Bishops, today’s USCCB, entitled Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. Amazingly, this work is virtually out of print in 2021 [and it shows]. But Drane quotes these points from the U.S. bishops over forty years ago: “Liturgy has historically suffered from a kind of minimalism and an overriding concern for efficiency…. As our symbols tended in practice to shrivel up and petrify, they became much more manageable and efficient.” [p. 97, italics the author’s] As examples, Drane points to the manufactured bread wafers used in the Catholic Mass and the limited amounts of water used in Baptism, both of which scream of a minimalism and economy that belie the luxurious outpouring of God’s goodness in the person and actions of Jesus. To this I can add an observation from the late Benedictine liturgist, Father Aidan Kavanaugh, made in my presence at a workshop many years ago: “When we celebrate the sacrament of Confirmation, the greatest act of faith is not that the Holy Spirit is descending from heaven, but rather that the bishop is really using oil.” [Psalm 133:3, “It is like fine oil on the head, running down on the beard, running down Aaron’s beard over the collar of his robes.”]
The minimalism and practicality of a corporate mentality infects church architecture. Consider the pews, which render us immobile and prevent us from seeing one another as we share the common meal of people of faith. I come close to breaking my ankles during the kiss of peace. But more than that, the very sermon of the Mass is a neatly packaged ferverino that says little to engage the passions that true religion engenders. I believe it was the famous theologian Karl Barth who told his students that when they finished their preaching, their listeners should desire to stand up and request to be baptized again.
Drane’s summary of the McDonaldization process stresses that the customers get the same thing every visit at every location. This is a recipe for stagnation. Although I was never a big McDonald’s fan, at some point I abandoned them entirely for Panera’s or Dunkin’s or Barney’s as my life, my health, and my tastes evolved. There is good research [certainly bolstered by anecdote] that those raised as Catholics have moved on to other churches, generally either the Episcopal Church or one of the Evangelical communions. I wish I knew what they were looking for and how we failed. Looking at Catholic life, we don’t really have the collective pastoral skill of listening to and deciphering with our people—all of them—as they navigate their faith lives through the decades of their adulthood. In my darker moments, I fear that our hierarchy does not really want to know—for reasons that are very understandable to those that are unconscionable.
Equally troubling is an internal assumption that we have all the answers to what we believe to be the important questions in the journey of faith. Management decides, customers pay. We assume that the Holy Spirit’s primary gift is compliance, an assumption that short circuits the divine charisms poured out at the initiation sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist to every new member of the Body of Christ. The novelist Graham Greene confided to the priest instructing him for baptism that he could believe everything the church teaches, except that he wasn’t sure about the existence of God. The priest baptized him anyway, aware that Greene’s wrestling with the God question was itself a sign of divine stirring. Presumably, they continued to partner on Greene’s journey.
A business that does not habitually hear the legitimate needs of its clientele is in trouble. Perhaps the efforts of Pope Francis to establish the concept of Synodality—a Spirit-filled sharing of faith, insight, and direction—may become a template for the post-Covid era Church. For the moment, at least, we can hope that the church learns from the mistakes of a McDonaldized era, at least to the degree that the restaurant manager visits each table to hear the diners every night.
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