The “McDonaldization” of Youth Ministry
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All youth workers love McDonald’s.
If you’ve got an angry van full of growling stomachs the sudden appearance of a pair of golden arches can be a gift from above - fast, cheap, and caviar to teenage tastebuds. Plus, considering the average youth worker’s salary, and as long as it still finds some favor with your more (ahem!) mature palate, it probably isn’t that hard for your throat or wallet to swallow either. So, when the eminent sociologist George Ritzer and the Scottish theologian John Drane recently gave a talk at Fuller Seminary about the “McDonaldization” of the church, the question on many minds was, “So what’s the problem?”
Wouldn’t the occasional McFlurry and a Playland out front be a significant improvement for many churches? But the process Ritzer was discussing has to do with the values governing fast food and franchising in general—efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control—and the ways they have come to govern so much of our lives in American culture as depicted in his book The McDonaldization of Society. 1
Of course, as Americans we like these things very much, and have trouble imagining our lives without them. With our increasingly tight schedules and even tighter budgets we depend on our society to respond promptly, reliably, and preferably cheaply, even if it means a slight sacrifice in quality. But the real cost of this process ultimately means a cheapening of who we are as people, or “dehumanization” as Ritzer calls it. 2 As he looks at culture in general, his theory is that while McDonald’s has brought many positive elements to our culture, it is also eroding much of our life and vitality.
At McDonald’s, the workers are dehumanized by being forced to mechanically recite scripts in their interactions with people, wear ridiculous uniforms, and make hundreds of the same hamburgers day after day while earning pitiful wages in the process. For their part, the customers are dehumanized by lining up to choose which oversized portions of greasy grub they will devour while sitting in hard plastic booths. Both of these roles seem less than ideal, especially in comparison to the diners of old where actual servers had real conversations with their customers before guiding them to make a carefully chosen decision among a wide variety of reasonably-sized options.
But do these issues of dehumanization mean that something needs to change? In his The McDonaldization of the Church Drane takes Ritzer’s theories and applies them to the church. He says that too many churches have become McDonaldized when they have substituted stale religious habits for the kind of life-giving worship opportunity that God intends for us to have. He believes this trend absolutely must change if the Church is to remain relevant in society. 3 But if it is true that fast-food culture has infiltrated the Church, is it reasonable to expect that it has affected youth ministry as well? More specifically, have the characteristics of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control influenced the way we do youth ministry?
You might be surprised at how easy it is to fall into the McDonaldization trap and how it affects students.
Most of us would probably agree that youth ministry has to be efficient at least to some degree. Tight budgets and overstretched time mean that we have to make hard choices.
Yet efficiency, in Ritzer’s definition, refers also to the repetitive patterns we fall into that were originally intended to be efficient, but may have long since ceased to be so. Drane’s example is passing an offering plate during the worship service. Although at one time this was an effective way of expressing our worship through our finances during the service, in a day when many members have direct deposits sent through the bank, the plate often ends up being filled only with information cards and the loose change that visitors feel guilty enough to contribute. Other believers, seeing a mostly empty offering plate, might give less as they start to wonder who else is giving sacrificially. 4
So, maybe it’s time to sit down and rethink those hard choices. Are there things that are not working very well in ministry but we keep doing them more out of habit than anything else? What elements in youth group gatherings have gotten stale and need to be reevaluated? Or have circumstances changed, such as several new regulars showing up, that mean old patterns aren’t working as well as they have in the past? Perhaps it’s time to consider whether efficiency should be exchanged for greater effectiveness. These are difficult, but important, questions.
Calculability refers to the need to see things be countable. But more than this, the motto of McDonaldized calculability is, “Bigger is better,” and few places in the church today better represent this modern adage than youth ministry programs.
The success of any ministry to teens often seems to be judged primarily, and almost solely, on the number of students that attend that ministry’s functions. The best programs are able to draw numbers of kids that are vastly disproportionate to the number of members in the church as a whole. But is this all God wants? Let’s be honest here. Although colossal numbers at youth events look impressive to inquisitive congregations, the easiest way to get those super-sized numbers is to have a super-sized budget.
It doesn’t take a degree in sociology to realize that kids in a consumer culture are likely to be adept in finding the best time for the least amount of money. So if a church is the one offering the most attractive ratio of fun to personal cost, they’ll see the best numbers. If a large portion of an outreach trip to an amusement park can be subsidized, it’ll get larger numbers. If we bring in the higher budget bands, we’ll probably draw a bigger crowd. But is that a true indicator of impact, or just the number of kids who will flock to bigger and better hype?
Perhaps two issues need to be raised with such an approach. The first is whether some other measure of success besides body count ought to be adopted in youth ministry, for example, the number of teens that are growing in personal spiritual maturity and making contributions to the church as a whole. Are our groups growing because the programs are attracting kids from other churches or because non-Christians are coming? And what happens to students when they graduate from your youth ministry? Do they stay connected to God and His community or do they disconnect and walk a different path?
If our target is merely event attendance, we shouldn’t be surprised that when students move on to college and see the flow of cash churches commit to their age bracket reduce to a trickle, their enthusiasm for Christian spirituality dries up as well. Secondly, isn’t such a McDonaldized approach completely at odds with a Christian understanding of discipleship? Of course we want them to grow up and eat their vegetables, spiritually speaking, but this can’t happen on a steady diet of Happy Meals. If we are offering youth a free ride of fun and fellowship while telling them that they need to take up their cross, which message is likely to be louder?
Students need to learn that following Jesus is about following him into the Garden of Gethsemane as well as the Wedding at Cana. Ministry can’t be all about pizza parties. There have to be times of quiet prayer and reflection, and commitments to take Christ’s Lordship seriously.
Predictability refers to the McDonaldized notion that certain actions will consistently yield particular results, otherwise known as the “cookie-cutter effect”. The average customer knows that a Big Mac is going to taste the same whether they’re in Kansas, Caracas, or Kathmandu. But what the McDonaldization mindset fails to reliably predict is human diversity. Therefore, as a franchise McDonald’s has had to adjust their offerings in cultures that don’t find their American offerings as appealing.
For example, in India McDonald’s has been forced to serve chickenburgers instead of hamburgers, since eating a hamburger is taboo in Hinduism. Similarly, a recent article in YouthWorker Journal by Hoon Kim mourns the way in which youth ministry today is too often trying to guarantee success by uncritically buying into a successful youth franchise—adopting the programs, techniques, and even demeanors of other youth workers we admire most. 5
In a sense, the youth room at the church has become our McDonaldland, and the latest hip youth ministry guru is our Mayor McCheese. Kim rightly points out that this strategy, while providing useful models for enhancing ministry, can tend to take our dependence off of God and onto programs and people. We begin to believe that if we imitate what others have done closely enough we are guaranteed to get the results they got, forgetting that it is God who brings the harvest –not some regimented program, no matter how spiritually vital it may appear in the latest youth ministry e-zine.
At the very least, we must consider how well any program fits our particular church, culture, and community context. We cannot expect a program that works in inner-city Los Angeles to work equally well in rural Arkansas. Rather, as we dialogue with these different models we must expect that tailoring will be necessary as we discover the true needs and desires of the youth we are serving in their varied contexts.
Although chaos is one of the youth minister’s greatest fears, the kind of absolute control demanded by McDonaldization is certainly more than what is necessary. At McDonald’s, if a hamburger is left on the grill an instant over the 7-minute limit, it is thrown away. The danger is that we may be demanding the same degree of consistency from our youth in their actions and service. Consider the last time your youth group worshiped together. Are there expected norms for how worship is to take place? Who established them? Drane suggests that in this new era we need to open ourselves to different expressions of worship. 6 He places particular emphasis on creative dance as part of worship. Whether or not we’re a big fan of dance in the midst of worship, are new or varied forms of worship something we are open to? If our target is to see youth worshiping God with the totality of their persons, should we not be willing to explore and encourage some of these other forms before ruling them out? Surely we cannot afford to allow worship to become a rote experience.
The Hidden Costs of a Dollar Menu
From a cultural perspective, it is easy to see why the McDonaldization lens is crucial for our world today.
Anthropologists commonly make the analogy that people are to culture as fish are to water. Just as fish cannot survive without water, people cannot survive without culture. However, just as fish have no awareness that they live in water (especially if they’ve never known anything else), people are generally largely blind to the fact that they are surrounded and penetrated by culture to an astonishing extent.
Similarly, living in a culture driven by a need to purchase and consume can mean we often have difficulty distinguishing when we have stopped communicating God’s values and are instead promoting the values of an unchecked consumer culture. The value of Ritzer’s model is that it helps us identify aspects of ministry that might be too controlled by a culture focused on the sale and consumption of goods than it is on the people doing the buying and selling. Of course, if youth are some of the most committed citizens of our McDonaldized culture, reaching them may involve elements of that culture.
The modern youth worker needs to know and be able to creatively use products of our consumer culture like the lyrics from the latest neo-retro-cyberpunk band’s album and the plot of “I Know What You Did Last Labor Day” almost as easily as they can quote John 3:16. But we must clearly distinguish those truths and values that will draw them towards spiritual maturity from those that brought them to us in the first place. We need to be relevant, but not at the cost of a core commitment to Christ.
McDonaldization has a steep cost: the devaluing of human relationships. The McDonald’s experience is a completely anonymous experience. The workers may wear nametags, but when is the last time you addressed a worker by their name, let alone had more than a token conversation with them? Although this may be acceptable fast food behavior, it is in opposition to the goals of youth ministry. What youth need most is to be known – in all their beautiful, horrible uniqueness.
As Erik Erikson (the father of developmental psychology) reminds us, the teenage years are the time when human beings are in search of identity. 7 They are trying to discover who they are in the context of their friends, their families, their communities, their churches, and in relation to God. Offering teenagers a youth ministry experience that denies their budding identities in favor of a stereotyped, standardized, value-menu experience seems to be growth-stunting, as opposed to growth-encouraging, at best.
Instead, it is crucial that we remember the heart of any ministry is relationships—the horizontal relationships between staff and youth, and the vertical relationships of both youth and workers with an Almighty God that knows each hair on our heads. Our ministries need to be the context where those relationships can be explored – programs are the means, not the end of our ministry. And the degree to which efficiency, calculability, predictability and control – those dominating characteristics of McDonaldization – are hindering those relationships are the degree to which we must see our ministries change.
Of the 4 characteristics of McDonaldization (efficiency, calculability, predictability and control) to which is your youth ministry most likely to succumb? Why is that? Given what you’ve read, what, if anything, needs to change?
As leaders, sometimes our job feels easier if we can base ministry programs on efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. What might it cost you to try to be more creative and relational? What would you gain?
When in your ministry are things like efficiency, calculability, predictability and control good things? Are there any aspects of dehumanization that are hidden beneath the good?