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Leaving Salem

“McDonaldization.” I love that word. It was first coined by sociologist George Ritzer to describe American culture. The predictable, robotic means of producing hamburgers and fries, according to Ritzer, has overtaken our society.

Like one giant automated system everything from fast food to childcare to education rolls off the assembly line to be delivered to the consumer for the saving of time, money, and effort. Ritzer contends that what is saved by means of efficiency is lost in taste, creativity, and naturalness.

Scottish theologian John Drane has rightly applied the term to contemporary spirituality. For the most part, he says we have lost our spiritual imagination and daring. I think he’s right. I also think McDonaldization applies specifically to the American church.

We have so motorized, organized, and institutionalized the church that songs, sermons, programs, and prayers just roll off the spiritual assembly line. The religious consumer can then peruse the products and hopefully make their purchases.

Churches have become chains or brands, where if you’ve been to one, you been to them all. Every movement and word is orchestrated to ensure the customer is guaranteed a consistent experience. The production is the most important thing, even if creativity and authenticity has to be sacrificed in the process.

What are actually produced are churches where appearance is more important than substance. Sound-bite, quick-fix consumers are targeted at all cost. Don’t risk the customer going down the street to another spiritual one-stop-shop that offers all the latest products and services with a thirty-day-money-back guarantee if not completely satisfied.

As Christians we want so much for our churches to “succeed” that we will go along with most anything the culture decides is successful. Whatever will draw a crowd, whatever will fill the offering plates, whatever will keep people in the pews. These we will embrace without discretion or good judgment.

After all, if the goal is the make the church bigger and better, then this is what we should do. Raise the sanctified golden arches and use whatever method will ably deliver the goods to the religious shopper.

Just get the right preaching, the right music, adequate parking, proper advertising, the most alluring programs. Then people will surely flock to the campus. It is a “build it and they will come,” approach to faith. But is this even the point?

What if efficiently “succeeding” isn’t the goal at all? What if having the biggest and finest crowd isn’t the primary objective? What if our carefully controlled, mass produced spirituality ends up being a distraction to true growth?

Instead, what if the goal is for us to learn to be partners together on this journey of following and becoming like Christ? What if the goal is to be the unique, counter-cultural, community of God? What if the goal is to love our neighbor and aid people in becoming who they were created to be?

Then, with all our big plans and strategizing, we probably have our ladder propped up against the wrong wall. While the culture around us can cookie-cutter its marketing plan to draw the biggest crowd, this does not mean the same practice is right for the church.

Now, I am not suggesting that our churches should be anti-growth or that they will not be places full of life and growth. I am not saying that at all. On the contrary we may be fortunate enough to have an abundance of energized, fellow-travelers on this journey.

Yet, I am saying this: Churches should cease in their efforts to build spiritual shopping malls and focus instead on helping people become committed followers of Jesus. This may reduce our attendance numbers and the financial bottom line, but without a doubt this will increase our distinctiveness, and certainly our credibility.

For Jesus did not teach, bleed and die to give birth to just another American McDonalized corporation concerned with expanding its market share. Jesus bled into existence his own body, the church.

Consequently, the church does not have a product to sell or merchandise to pitch to would-be consumers. Spirituality cannot be mass produced, wrapped in wax paper, and put under a heat lamp.

Genuine spirituality must become a way of living; an alternative lifestyle; a collection of people who become what Jesus is.

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