Franchising the Consumer Church

kinnon —  February 1, 2008 — 13 Comments


Some things are powerful enough to raise the dead – or at least the sick from a bed. This Out of Ur post had that effect on me – McChurch: I’m Lovin’ It.

Eddie Johnson, the lead pastor of Cumberland Church, espouses the franchising concept when it comes to the relationship between his church in Nashville, Tennessee, and North Point Community Church in metro Atlanta. On his blog, he states, "Just like a Chick-fil-A, my church is a ‘franchise,’ and I proudly serve as the local owner/operator."

And later in the Out of Ur post,

"Just like that Chick-fil-A owner/operator," he says, "I’m here in Nashville to open up our franchise and run it right. I believe in my company and what they are trying to ‘sell.’"

You’ve got to be kidding me, right? Apparently not. He equates "his church" to a Chick-fil-A franchise, and believes "in my company and what they are trying to ‘sell’". The language is in-frackin’-credible.

Out of Ur asks the question,

Is this the future of the Western church- franchised congregations of megabrands in every city with pastors serving as the local owner/operator? Many of us have seen this coming, but it’s rather shocking to see the model and language of the franchised church so enthusiastically embrassed* as it is by Eddie Johnson.

*embrassed is a typo – but perhaps its closeness to embarrassed is appropriate.

Let me go all prophetic for a moment. This isn’t the wave of the future. This is the pathetic foreshadowing of the death of the mega-consumer-church and its franchised video venues. I go back to this quote from "Sarah, a Gen-X church visitor" that I used in my year-old series on Marketing the Church (see the side bar).

We know you have tried to get us to church. That’s part of the problem. Many of your appeals have been carefully calculated for success and that turns our collective stomach. (From Earl Creps book, Off-Road Disciplines.)

As fast food franchises struggle to even maintain market share today – desperately searching for ways to bring the boomer-led crowds back – those boomer values are morphing into the values of the emerging generation. As my friend and marketing genius, Roy Williams (also quoted in the same Marketing the Church post) said four years ago,

…today’s teens are rejecting Pretense. Born into a world of hype, their internal BS-meters are highly sensitive and blisteringly accurate. Words like "amazing," "astounding," and "spectacular" are translated as "blah," "blah," and "blah." Consequently, tried and true selling methods that worked as recently as a year ago are working far less well today. Trust me, I know.

My friend, John La Grou quoted UnChristian as part of his response on a recent discussion @ Phil Cooke’s blog partially around Cooke’s upcoming book, Branding Faith and Mara Einstein’s book Brands of Faith. (Is there a trend here?)

David Kinneman, in his new book UnChristian, says of the Millennial generation, “they can smell B.S. from several miles away, they are easily offended by unwanted marketers. They identify more with an experience and relationship than a message.”

John, on his own blog went on to say this,

I’m more persuaded that the whole modern religious package is looking more and more like a big commercial enterprise – so unlike simple, organic NT models. The interview depressed me. Someone once said, “we work in corporate America all week long, why go worship there too?”

In her interview, Mara refers to Jesus as a “product” – I find that kinda creepy. I ‘m not denying that much of modern Christendom is successfully “branded” to “sell” more of its “product” – I’m just not sure this is kind of language or ethos we should be using to reflect a transcendent God. It seems backwards. God is reflected and transmitted in both nature and transformed lives, not in slogans.

Modern business and marketing tools were invented by capitalists to gain wealth and power. One wag has defined marketing as the “subtle art of manipulation and deception in selling crap to nerds.” How does the church distance itself from these man-made vehicles?

And later,

The commercialization and institutionalization of NT faith and community may be one reason why young people (18-29) are leaving the Western church in far greater numbers today than at any other time in history. We have centralized, corporatized, formalized, stratified, academized, and mega-fied something that was intended to remain organic, holistic, egalitarian, participative, distributed, fluid, and deeply communal. The ways of business and commerce seem to further the former at the expense the latter, which is why I’m concerned.
  Later, Mara joined the conversation, and said this:
  "you can’t give people the faith if you can’t ‘get their butts in the pews.’ This generation is… used to being talked to in the language of marketing and so marketing seems to be the way for faiths to reach this group."
  The idea of church marketing as “getting butts in pews” highlights my concern. It furthers the top-down notion of church as an “institution” managed by “experts” and consumed by, well, consumers. Certainly we’re missing the bigger picture – that perhaps “church” was never intended to embrace models of politics and commerce. We live in a world utterly saturated with marketing, branding, and other forms of mass capitalism. No surprise that these same tools have (sadly) become a normative part of faith culture.

Eddie Johnson may well end up with satisfied consumers at his Cumberland-fil-A Church. Whether they will actually experience orthodox Christianity is an entirely different story.

UPDATE: Original source for Out of Ur’s blog post. I cringed @ the use of BHAG in that post. When will someone explain to these leaders that Jim Collins is neither an apostle nor prophet to the church – unless, of course you view church through the lens of business.

UPDATE 2: Perhaps this provides a little perspective, via the iMonk.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

13 responses to Franchising the Consumer Church

  1. I wish I had read this before I paid the flipping franchise fee.

  2. Damn – I was going to start an “Achievable Ends” franchise! It was cheap and completely cool! Oh well…now I have to be doing this whole blog thing on my own.

    Seriously, I am SO nauseated by this…I can’t even blog on it myself. This is denominationalism run amok! thanks Bill for highlighting this…I think!


  3. Excellent conversation, and oddly enough, my book “Branding Faith” ( discusses this very concern. Branding isn’t about making your church more like McDonalds, it’s about telling a compelling story about how you can impact the lives in your community. The truth is, the church invented branding because for eons, we’ve been sharing the story of how faith has changed our lives. The problem is that today, business has hijacked it and now, they do a better job of telling their story than we do….

  4. Darryl,
    Don’t make me laugh – it makes me cough – and that hurts.
    First ae is not capitalized – that should have been in the franchise agreement. (GRIN) The Out of Ur post actually launched me out of my bed to write the post – it made me so mad.
    I look forward to reading your book – but confess that I find Branding language plays into consumer church way too much. Perhaps I’ll feel different after reading what you’ve written.

  5. Bill,
    Thanks for the nauseating post – now you’ve got us all sick. What I especially loved is the irony of that final link you gave in Update 2, from Leadership Magazine (via IMonk, apparently). When I opened the link, a popup ad appeared : ‘Supercharge your ministry!!..etc’

    Ah, the beauty of evangelical blinders.


  6. Hey Gang,
    Thanks for the insights. Don’t agree with it all but I certainly am enjoying the conversation. It’s an important one.

    Check out my thoughts and feedback on this topic over at my blog –

    Let’s talk about it. Thanks!

    Eddie Johnson

  7. Bill,

    A scary post, but dead on. I honestly can’t see how people are being fed at these McChurches out there. Either they’ve never seen meat before or all they desire is milk.

  8. Eddie,
    Thanks for dropping by. I’ve checked out your thoughts at your blog and confess that they continue to disturb. You’ve confused the church with a business – it isn’t one. And Jim Collins, as smart a man as he may be, is not a prophet to the church.

    Perhaps some of these folk who are “leading” the McChurches actually have a call to be in retail – and might have more kingdom impact if they were doing that – rather than figuring out how to franchise “successful churches”.

  9. I worked at a church in Tampa. The pastor began talking about franchising the church. He compared it to McDonald’s and said we have a product, comparing the gospel to a Big Mac. After listening to this for almost 4 months I couldn’t take it anymore and left (along with about 1/2 of the church, most of whom now go nowhere). Yeah sadly franchise is the rage in church.

  10. Can’t you guys get it? Evangelicalism is dying. After Falwell, Dobson and gang turned it into a red state darling and Osteen put the big numbers over the top, it didn’t have a chance. Whether it’s the four spiritual laws or other cliches that poisoned it, let’s face it, it’s dying. Let it go.

  11. Ken,
    Profoundly sad but profoundly true.
    Let what go…the Church? I’m afraid that I’ll keep commenting as long as I believe that there are millions of Christians caught up in something they think is real – because of that their “leaders” tell them.

  12. I’m a bit late to this but I must say that this is a grotesque example of the marriage between churches, business and marketing; also of the church in American, and sadly, Western culture.

    Jesus is the Consumer (a consuming fire), I’m the consumed – it’s the way of the cross. Last time I checked that was the narrative I signed up for … a daily taking up of the cross and following. It’s actually terribly exciting!

  13. Has anyone posting here actualy attended a service at Cumberland Church?

    Contempt prior to personal investigation is really not beneficial to anyone.


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