Book Review: Franchising McChurch, by Thomas White and John Yeats

Review
03.02.2010

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 ministry—particularly 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”:

  • The multi-site entity typically centralizes power in the pastor and those closest to him. After all, he’s the constant in every venue (80-81).
  • In this post-denominational era, people primarily identify themselves with the name of the pastor (81).
  • Ironically, many of these churches call themselves “free churches,” even though they really have something closer to an Episcopal structure with a bishop. Instead of learning how to submit to one another, campuses become subject to the external control of a centralized business structure (81; 192-99).
  • Campuses/congregations become chained “to the demands of a consumer culture. In order to keep up the calculability and meet the demands of predictability, the congregations are forced to become more efficient and sacrifice people on the altar of success” (82-83).
  • For all their talk of reaching postmodern culture, most of these churches are thoroughly modern. “[H]ow authentic can a pastor be if he never shows up in your church except via video?” (87).
  • The failure rate of church plants is used as an excuse to go multi-site, instead of turning to the power of God in prayer (152). A video stream is easier to set up than faithful saints praying for the success of new churches.
  • The idea that the lead pastor cannot be replicated in plants undermines the very idea of discipleship, which entirely depends on replication (152). It’s a good thing Jesus didn’t take this view in order to put off discipleship (153).
  • To argue that church plants fail because their planters are never as talented as the main pastor diminishes the gospel as the power of God (153).
  • A multi-site structure undermines congregational responsibility (154).
  • It also tempts leaders toward puffed-up egos and a reliance on their personalities (155-56).
  • It robs from smaller churches (159f). More to the point, all the talk of “Multi-site churches displaying greater unity!” rings hollow when what they really mean is the unity of their franchise brand. After all, the brand is being pitched over and against all the alternatives in the neighborhood. Why would a multi-site church plant in a new neighborhood instead of supporting and praying for the churches already in that neighborhood? It’s not Christ’s kingdom they want to see expanded; it’s their franchise brand (167-168; 180-83). Multi-site churches focus on independent kingdoms rather than on God’s kingdom (185).
  • What happens when the pastor leaves (183)?
  • Biblical arguments for multi-site from Acts 2 and 15 are weak (172-78).
  • Church planting is the biblical model, and the evidence is abundant (178-180; 185).
  • Multi-site churches are just mini-denominations (190-91).
  • The multi-site structure makes it impossible for churches to fulfill their biblical responsibilities in a meaningful fashion, such as choose their leaders or discipline their members (199-203).

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.

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan Leeman is the Editorial Director of 9Marks, and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Cheverly, Maryland. You can find him on Twitter at @JonathanLeeman.