Thursday, July 11, 2013

Misery Loves Company ... Reflections on McDonald's

Much figurative ink has been used detailing the challenges the church has faced reaching a new generation of Americans.  While the decline of the main-line church has been going on for 40+ years, recently the big focus has been on the movement of younger adults away from the church.  A great deal has been made recently about the changes in worship/spiritual habits of the millennial generation.  Given the frustations many of us inside the church feel at reaching this generation it was perhaps more than a little heartening, though maybe not surprising, to see that we are not the only ones struggling.  McDonald's, long a bastion of corporate health, though maybe not dietary health, has seen its ranking has a top destination for fast food decline among this newer generation of shoppers.  While there are a myriad number of reasons for this, I wanted to start by looking at some of the solutions they claim to have found ...

Fresh and organic food: Millennials place an emphasis on the importance of organic and fresh food. Fast-casual chains do well with the demo because many of them promote a fresh or organic message.
Variety and customizable products: In the food world, millennials appreciate the ability to build their meals from an array of choices. Chains like Chipotle and Subway do well in this regard because each item is made to order.
Social change: Millennials care about social issues and tend to support companies that are actively helping address problems across the globe.
Sustainability: Particularly with food, millennials value companies that are proactive with sustainable farming practices and are environmentally conscious.
Social-savvy brands: Brands that have active Facebook and Twitter pages and engage in conversations with customers tend to have more long-term support from millennials.
Since these are generalizations and so by nature easy to criticize, I would like instead to spend a moment thinking about how these translate to the church.

"Fresh and organic food" ... I see two very different ways to translate this into church parlance.  One way would be to look at theology.  Often in the church we tend to offer "canned" theology.  Sometimes it is from time honored recipes, like the Apostle's Creed or the writings of Luther or Wesley, but still maybe what people are looking forward is a chance to be a part of the process, to engage with thinkers from the past and create something fresh and new that comes from our own experience and location

"Variety and customizable products" ... one size fits all is a hallmark of the fast food industry, after all, simplifying the choices helps enable fast food, but it is also often a hallmark of the church.  Even when we offer a multiple choices for worship it still comes at just a few times and many of our offerings are limited.  Maybe what need to do instead is to look at more ways to encourage people to find what they need in the midst of the many opportunities for spiritual growth we have, mixing and matching between corporate and personal activities, missions and Bible study, tactile and auditory.

"Social change"  ... this seems like maybe the easier one of all to do.  I think the church only stumbles on this one in that we have often chosen to out source our missions/social change, hiring missionaries or writing checks instead of rolling up our sleeves and when we do get our hands dirty we don't do a good job of communicating about it, asking for more help, encouraging others, and doing ministry with each other instead of for/to each other.

"Sustainability" ... this is one we really should be focusing on more, especially as many dollars that could be spent on missions are going to heat over-sized, poorly used, and energy inefficient buildings.  I am not say we should raze all our churches and start over, but maybe we could be more serious about how we actively be stewards of God's creation (see Genesis 1).

"Social-savvy brands" ... I think this is a stumbling block for the church in part because our institutions are not geared towards being nimble and this ends up meaning we are pursuing, not leading the way when it comes to changes and trends.  I have still be around conversations where churches are talking about starting a website, or getting email, hardly the cutting edge of change, even for a decade ago.  We are hurt in two ways, one is that our membership is older and that tends to mean we are not up with the newer things because usually older people are happy with the older ones, its what worked for us.  Second, our training of pastors is hard to keep current.  When I was in seminary it felt like little was being taught or studied around the use of media technology in worship.  Why is that?  Because to teach at a seminary you usually end up needing to spend 10 years in academia, maybe with a few years in the field in between your Masters and PhD.  Staying current is hard to do when there is such a lag on the time between what you learned/experienced and when you are teaching.  We also only have a finite amount of time to learn and there is a lot of things we wish we could know more about, but little we really need to less about.

Once again, I am not sure I agree with these generalizations totally, but they seem to be a good starting place.  I also think it can be dangerous to try and translate things from the business world into the church.  I do know that like McDonald's the church needs to be reaching each new generation, because when we fail to reach one, it gets that much harder to reach the next as well.