John William Drane’s epigrammatic book “The McDonaldization of the church” expressed concerns about the commodifcation of faith, the consumerisation of believers and the trite branding and standardization of church life. The patterns that concerned him were nothing new. In fact periods of McDonalidization in church history can be found in the 20th century, the 19th, the 17th and 16th in the West. Perhaps examples – East and West – exist in every period. But it is a paradigm that must be shifted if new expressions of church are to be embraced as essential rather seen as deviations from or even a threat to established traditions.
The big idea of McDonalds was that any customer anywhere (in the world ultimately) should be able to walk into any McDonalds outlet and get the same meal served up. Whatever the surrounding culture, inside the McDonalds restaurant the customer should find a hermetically sealed facsimile of McDonalds culture, clinically clean and reassuringly familiar. Wherever they might be found the golden arches of the big M should signal “You know what you’re going to get here.”
Denominational leaders may not see themselves as agents of McDonalidization. And yet, even at a time of parlous statistics of decline in the mainstream churches, and amid a flurry of new expressions of church and missional community, from Britain to Australia, I do hear some denominational leaders agonize over the question of how we can maintain our denominational distinctives. “Oh dear,” runs the question, “If we allow experiment, how can we guarantee an Anglican / Lutheran / Baptist outcome?” Humbly I offer a couple of suggestions.
Firstly we need to be clear what our essentials are before stressing too much over whether our workers share them! I mean essentials. Presumably these are to do with theology and values – rather than particular ways of doing things(?)
Secondly, forget McDonalds! When a franchise with a tradition and an image as strong as McDonalds tries to do other stuff – for some generations it won’t wash. OK so you can buy some kind of a salad and a mocha latte in a McDonalds – but I relate to whoever it was that said that “Going to McDonalds for a salad is like going to a brothel for a hug.” For my generation, one that has been saturated in traditional Macdonalds branding, there’s a huge credibility gap. We know what McDonalds looks and tastes like! There are simply too many contrary associations. It’s just not believable!
How about, rather than going the way of the single brand – McDonaldization – we go the way of multiplicity, the Disney way? You might ask, “What’s the difference? Aren’t our denominations already offering a smorgasbord of services, styles, and churchmanships? Where is the credibility gap?”
Let me explain what I mean: Disney has followed one of the great paradigm shifts of the last 50 years – that of allowing the needs of your customers drive how you reach them and keep them.
What is significant about the kind of diversification that Disney has achieved is not just the diversification of the product, but the diversification of the brand. A huge proportion of the movies you watch are Disney movies. But they don’t all have the black arches of Mickey’s ears hovering ominously over them.
It’s horses for courses. Disney, ABC, Pixar, Miramax, Touchstone, A&E, ESPN – together they reach a whole range of television, broadband, sports, cable, radio and film audiences. Disney is a tree of many branches and through them the Disney corporation has an incredibly broad reach. Disney’s coat of many colours works well for them. Somehow the colours don’t seem to clash. People looking for a romance or a thriller with Miramax clearly don’t feel sceptical because ABC is broadcasting cartoons for kids.
There is no “salad in a McDonalds” McCafe complex for Disney because the diverse branches of Disney each have their own special vibe and each do their particular thing so well. Clearly there is safe separation between the branches or micro-brands. And evidently Disney is not concerned with defending the meta-brand. Disney are not concerned that a Miramax audience might be completely unaware that they’re watching a Disney movie. So what? The point is they’re watching one.
And audience members don’t resist watching a Miramax movie, fearing that they are being tricked into buying a Disney product. By contrast our church denominations are very concerned with their meta brand and generally are not good at allowing that safe separation between branches. Somtimes the pre-packaged – we-know-what-it-looks-like meta-brand is too strong. Sometimes the sense of family ties, shared heritage and values is insufficient to support that same model of diversification that has given Disney such immense growth and market-share.