Doesn’t the burger and fries in this picture look really appealing?
Seriously – crispy fries, and that burger looks oh so juicy… nicely melted cheese, and that lettuce and those tomatoes look PERFECT.
And all I had to do was pay $12, wait a couple minutes, and !BAM! – hot, tasty, filling meal.
What’s not to like about a good fast food joint?
We Americans have a serious love affair with McDonald’s and similar fast food restaurants. It might not be perfect, but it’s consistent, it’s tasty, and we can choose just about anything we want, delivered in minutes, with little or no work on our part. Okay, it’s maybe not the most healthy food option, but it’s filling and convenient.
Maybe you already see where I’m going with this.
Recently, a phrase crept into my vocabulary, and I keep returning to it because it keeps being more and more relevant to discussions that I’m having. That phrase is “McDonald’s Christianity.”
I’ve been living outside of institutional church culture for a few months, which has given me a new clarity about things that I formerly took for granted.
It occurred to me that most American Christians are just in love with a certain style of Christianity as they are with fast food, and for very similar reasons.
I want to walk into an establishment, pay someone $12, have them hand me a convenient meal, and walk out without any fuss or cleanup or dishes. I’d rather not kill the cow, or dig up the potatoes, or any of that mess. I’ll just pay you to serve me, thanks.
What does the average Sunday morning look like for most American Christians?
I want to walk into an institutional church, pay someone 10%, have them hand me a convenient spiritual meal, and walk out without any lingering guilt or cleanup or responsibilities. I’d rather not have my sacred cow killed, or dig up my own spiritual food, or any of that mess. I’ll just pay you to serve me, thanks.
Obviously the traditional Western church model is easy for most people.
It’s convenient. The pastor is responsible for hearing from the Lord on my behalf; I am supposed to read my Bible and pray each day, but it’s really up to my shepherd to tell me where to go and what to do, to lead me beside still waters and provide food for me.
It’s cleaner; someone else has the responsibility of handling all the other messy people and situations that might disturb my peace. Sure, I might have to pray for them or cook a Meal Train dinner every so often, but that’s about the limit of it.
It’s cheaper. That 10% tithe covers all my financial duties to the Lord, rather than Him getting 100% of what I own.
It’s less complicated. I don’t have to decide what ministries to personally support, because the church splits out that 10% to whomever the pastor and maybe the elders feel the church should support.
It’s less uncertain. Someone else tells me what to believe, and I never really have to wrestle with whether the Bible actually supports that doctrine, or how precisely the Lord is telling me to act and move on a daily basis.
It’s hard to argue with the convenience and clarity of the whole arrangement.
But is that really a model that the Bible ever suggested?
I would argue that it’s actually unbiblical.
Even though it’s apparently served the church well for quite a long time, I am increasingly of the opinion that the Sunday morning model that’s in place in almost every institutional church in the Western world has some serious flaws and leads to some serious deficiencies in the “Christians” that it produces.
- It produces a culture of dependency. The vast majority of the members of any church implicitly expect other people to do most of the hard work. There are always a number of committed and deeply involved members – I was one of them for over 30 years, always busy with something – but most of the attendees are only minimally involved. It’s the 90/10 rule – 10% of the people do 90% of the work.
- It eliminates any requirement on each Christian to contribute spiritually to every event. 1 Corinthians 14:26 says “When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. All things are to be done for edification.” EACH ONE means everyone, regardless of gender, age, even spiritual maturity. But when there’s one preacher, and one worship leader, and one sermon, only a few people contribute on a given Sunday morning, and it’s usually the same people each week.
- It allows immaturity to persist. When all the work is done by a few, the immature are never challenged. But when an “everyone contributes” expectation exists and is explicit, nobody gets to hide in the dark corners. Proverbs 17:28 says “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; When he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.” But when you’re required to participate, it becomes immediately apparent which people are lacking wisdom and maturity. The expected involvement drives each to pursue maturity, simply to not appear foolish.
- It allows people to be lazy during the week. Any pastor or small group leader knows (and will happily tell you) that there is preparation time required during the week, to have something to bring to the group for a meeting. So the requirement to be part of the dialog and teaching and worship gives incentive to seek the Lord for His “download” ahead of time. But when someone else handles all that, there’s no urgency for anyone else.
- It allows people to avoid serving one another. When the institution organizes and handles all the “needs of the saints” ministry, it’s easy to not pay attention to the needs of those around us. Someone else is responsible, until we agree to get involved. When those needs exist outside of a small committed group of intimately familiar people, we have the option to ignore them.
- It allows people to let someone else decide what to do with the finances the Lord has given them. If the church is making all the decisions, we don’t have to seek the Lord for His will for the dollars He gave us to steward. We just write that weekly tithe check – or let Direct Debit EBT handle it automatically straight out of our paycheck, so we never even have to remember.
- It takes away from the need to constantly seek the Holy Spirit for guidance. Having a pastor, a shepherd, looking out for our spirits, is a wonderful thing, but the typical Western institutional church setup makes that lead pastor into the one-man stop for all the five-fold gifts in our lives. He becomes the evangelist, directing the activities towards salvic outreach. He becomes the prophet, hearing the Lord’s voice for us. He becomes the apostle, setting the overall direction of the assembly and organizing its government. He becomes the lead teacher, deciding what and when we learn. And he’s the pastor, who is expected to effectively care for hundreds of people. And on top of that he’s really the CEO of the legal structure wrapped around the ministry. We’re expected to abide by his decisions for what’s spiritually best for us and for the organization and the ministry, even if we’re not in a legalistic or controlling church. In some sense, the pastor is really the main person expected to hear the Holy Spirit, not each and every believer each and every day.
- It teaches us to trust someone else’s spiritual sense for us more than the Holy Spirit Himself. Even in churches that actively teach how to hear the Spirit speaking to them, it’s extremely risky to follow the Spirit’s leading in a direction other than the organization is going. It squelches any kind of dissent – even healthy dissent where the Lord might be leading some in the church to a different direction than the church leadership might be pulling. It becomes conformist, because there’s an implicit – and often explicit – understanding that if we sense something other than what is said from the pulpit, we must be in error and we’re called to repent. Or at best we’re taken aside for “the talk.”
- It doesn’t pursue true discipleship. That word “disciple” meant something entirely different to Jews and early believers and to Jesus Himself, than it does to most of us. To them, it meant giving up everything comfortable, leaving family and home of origin, and fully devoting yourself 100% to following and serving a rabbi, all in a quest to mature and become a wise and respected rabbi yourself someday. That’s nothing like the “join a discipleship group for a weekly hour-long Bible study” answer that you’d certainly get if you asked most American Christians what the word “disciple” means in their church.
- It’s about the numbers, not the quality. A few years ago, McDonald’s changed the slogan on every franchise restaurant sign to read “billions and billions served.” They were very proud of the fact that they couldn’t even count the number of people they’d served. But they weren’t saying “We provided the best food ever served.” You won’t see the “billions served” slogan on that small mom-and-pop diner sign – but you will often see something like “Our town’s best pie” or “serving the world’s finest coffee.” It comes with a strong pride of quality. Similarly, too many churches today seem focused on the number of conversions, not the quality of disciples.
Is it Biblical?
So to me, the McDonald’s Christianity model that’s squarely in place in nearly every Western or American church doesn’t look much like how the Bible describes the process of “go and make disciples of all men.” Instead it produces a vast crop of people who are immature, have never been challenged to constantly seek the Lord for His word and will for them on a daily and weekly basis, and are content to let someone else manage their spiritual life until the day they die.
Unfortunately, there’s not that much out there that looks different than that model. You can’t just decide “well, we’ll pick a church that looks like the Biblical description,” because there really aren’t that many of them out there. Perhaps the only thing that looks like that model are small house churches, where everyone is involved and it’s not about the numbers, but about the relationships between members and their Lord.
This isn’t to say that Sunday morning institutional church has no value. For better or worse, most Americans will look there for help if they are in a spiritual crisis; it’s what we’ve taught people to think about when they want to meet God. It therefore has some value as a point of introduction and involvement. But it doesn’t seem to me that it will ever be capable of producing truly mature disciples of Christ.
The only place I see that possibly happening, in the current Western Christian church model, is in the small groups. But that still won’t happen unless the church considers the small group to be the absolute lifeblood of its process – not simply a feeder to the Sunday morning “experience,” and not simply calling a mere Bible study “discipleship.” But more than that, it also requires the church leadership to constantly divest itself of being the sole provider and source of spiritual authority – which is exceedingly rare even in churches that have strong small groups. I can’t see any way to have people who are trained to be dependent on centralized scriptural authority and management, and simultaneously expect them to really mature into self-sufficient, Spirit-dependent, constantly contributing, and truly Christlike believers.
If you don’t insist on reforming the institutional church model away from McDonald’s Christianity, trying to somehow fix these deficiencies, the only alternative I see is to stop “doing church” – to stop using the institution as a source of spiritual fast food.
But it should be fairly obvious that the resulting lifestyle will be dramatically different, and not at all easy or simple.
- Nobody else will make your spiritual burger and fries or soda or coffee for you. The only nutrition you get will be from the Word directly, and from those in your small fellowship.
- You’ll have to put in the time during the week to hear from the Lord, not only on your own behalf, but also explicitly on behalf of those in your small fellowship.
- You’ll have to deal with their messes and mess-ups and emergencies and illnesses – just like they help you through yours.
- Nobody else will make your spiritual decisions for you. The Holy Spirit will have to be your constant companion and source of decision-making wisdom.
- Nobody else will decide where to send your offerings or ministry money.
It won’t be easy. It likely won’t even be “fun” either.
But it will be joyful. It will be fulfilling. It will lead to growth. It will build you together with your group family into a rock-solid body, able to weather storms. It will be so unlike anything that the world sees that others will want to know about this God that you serve. When you invite someone to join, it will be into your spiritual family, not some impersonal service.
So I’m done with McDonald’s Christianity.
I spent 48 years of my life in that model, and I honor what it did to bring me to the point where I am today. But I sense that the Lord is now shaking that model to its very core. Many people will certainly hang on to it for dear life – it’s the only life they know, and it’s too scary to step outside that life. But others, many others, have already recognized that it won’t do the job, and are separating themselves from the institution so that they can find the Lord on His terms, face-to-face. Just search for the word “deconstruction” for a hint of the issue – and the mess involved. I expect it to be messy for a while. Upheaval is always messy. And it’s never without casualties – some will certainly be lost in the fuss and shuffle. But I don’t see any other way forward towards what God seems to be trying to do in this season. Hanging on to an old model prevents us from adopting a better one.
So I welcome the fuss and confusion and shuffle and discomfort, because I value the end result more than I value my previous comfort and stability.
I invite you to join me on this wild ride. Thanks for being part of it with me.