Thursday, August 10, 2017

"McDonald's can be the new American church"

The title of this blog post comes from a line of dialogue in the biopic The Founder, which portrays Ray Kroc (played by Michael Keaton) as the milkshake machine salesman (later corporate shark) as he tries to convince Dick McDonald (played by Nick Offerman) and his brother Maurice "Mac" McDonald (played by John Carroll Lynch) to let him be their guy in charge of franchising their hamburger stand across the nation. You can view the clip below:

As a pastor who strives to see culture through a spiritual, specifically Christian, lens, this phrase really stood out in the movie for many different reasons, not least of which is how Ray Kroc made the comparison in the first place.

First, I'm not sure if Kroc actually said that or not, but whether he did or didn't, in my mind, is immaterial. The drive to make things orderly, efficient, mechanical even down to the movements of the people, to provide a consistent product regardless of what actual location you're in, has been a part of the American culture probably from the time machines began taking over manual labor. Henry Ford introduced the assembly line so that he could turn more cars in one hour than other auto manufacturers could in one week.

It's on this that I want to first write about. In this way of doing things people are no longer people. They're labor, they're part of the machine, a very specific cog that's a small part of a bigger whole. By all accounts, from Ray's version of events to those who cast a more critical eye of him, he wasn't impressed by how polite the workers were at the McDonald brothers burger stand. He was impressed that they were mechanical. He was impressed that some study went into the design of the kitchen. He was impressed by nobody having to do too much or think too hard about what they were doing.

I wonder if sometimes we fall into the same trap. How many times do we see people in a church? Real people that are worthy of more than just a handshake and a "Hey, how are ya?" as we rush quickly and efficiently onto the next, worshiper in line? How many times do we focus on the bodies that are (or aren't) present, rather than peer into their souls? How often do numbers become our indicator of success? The money in the offering plate that week and the number who attended the service? Why not put on our signs the number of people who prayed in our sanctuaries?

The second point I want to focus on is, in that clip, Ray mentions that every little town he's been in has one thing in common: a church and a courthouse; religion and state; cross and a flag; and the flag guarantees the right of people gathering where a cross is displayed. He's saying this as his pitch to the brothers McDonald in order to convince them that he should be in charge of their franchising. It's almost like he's advocating for a trinity of sorts. Except that, as he puts it, they'll be open on more than just Sunday.

In many ways this is how we think though. We wrap the cross and the Bible up in the flag and think that because we're the United States of America we have this whole thing about unalienable rights figured out. That somehow our greatness enables people to worship whatever and however they want. And helping to drive all of this is economy, corporations, the dream of taking what you have and multiplying it, replicating it, making more of it for less.

Except the Declaration of Independence states that there are rights granted to us from a higher authority than government. It isn't our nation that made worship of God possible, and it isn't our nation that can guarantee it. In more parts of the world than not Christianity is illegal, and Christians are prosecuted, persecuted, and put to death on a daily basis. But the Middle East is experiencing a move of the Holy Spirit nearly unprecedented throughout its history. Throughout Asia as well governments can't stop its spread. Rome of the 1st Century took violent actions against Christians, with Nero even blaming them for the burning of Rome. But that didn't stop it. In fact, persecution helped it to grow as nobody wants to die for a lie.

Yet I think that simple line in that movie also reveals religion, perhaps specifically Christianity, is seen as just another cultural touch point, where we can choose to gather (or not), and sing our songs and share our values, and then go our separate ways to live our lives. This is what Ray wanted, another place, open all week, for people to be able to do just that. And maybe that's how we think of church also. It's a place where we all can gather around and learn values and morals and become better people who will "break bread" together.

For all its financial success though, McDonald's isn't the only burger place. In fact, there are many national burger chains and I would eat most of their burgers before I would dare eat a McDonald's burger. Why is that though?

One of my favorite places to stop on our yearly trip to Kentucky is a restaurant called "Steak and Shake", home of the steakburger. Most of the burgers on their menu you can get for $5 or less, and it's a real burger. There isn't anything fake about them. They have substance. That along with "Five Guys Burgers and Fries" are probably my two favorite nationally available burgers (though I wish Steak and Shake were a bit more national). 

A McDonald's burger, on the other hand, is more filler than beef, with artificial coloring to make the meat look better than it actually is. And though it may placate a grumbling stomach for a short time, it's ultimately unfulfilling. And yet, nobody can deny that McDonald's became the corporate juggernaut that it is based on an inferior product, simply because it filled a gap.

I wonder if people tend to treat church the same way. They're looking for something to grab onto, something that's going to leave them feeling satisfied and content. We want morals, but church isn't the only place to get them. We'll convince ourselves though that it's the best place to get them. We want values. Politicians even refer to values we're all supposed to share growing up in and going to church. But church isn't the only place to get values. We want shared experiences, but you can get that anywhere too.

What I'm ultimately getting at is that the church cannot represent the same thing that Ray Kroc told the McDonald brothers in order to convince them to let him franchise their restaurant. It can't even represent the same thing our nation represents. Christianity is not McDonald's, it is not the United States, it is not the American flag or rights, it is not simply a place to learn good values and have a moral foundation. It is a relationship that transforms who we are from the inside out, so that we are not the same people we were before. It's not up to us to market the church and put it out on the buffet of beliefs. I can go anywhere to get a burger. There are other countries that have stable, freedom loving governments. There's only one thing in this world that truly transforms our lives and makes us into who we were made to be.

McDonald's will never be the new American church.

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