All analogies are strained and imprecise. That being said, here we go.
McDonald’s is the premier fast-food franchise. It spans the globe; its name, symbols, standard menu items, and advertising slogans are known worldwide. It is the standard by which other fast-food franchises are judged.
I’ve never seen a McDonald’s ad that even acknowledges the existence of other franchises. It’s so big, it doesn’t have to advertise in that way. But that doesn’t mean McDonald’s lacks competitors. Its franchise locations are not technically in competition with each other — they’re certainly not allowed to advertise that one location is superior to another — but they are in competition with Wendy’s and Taco Bell and all the other chains.
But lately, McDonald’s, along with other longstanding chains, has been suffering loss of market share to up-and-comers like Five Guys, Chipotle and Panera Bread, along with food-serving coffeeshops like Starbucks.
In a way, you can see the Catholic Church as McDonald’s, and the mainline Protestant churches as the other established chains (Burger King, Wendy’s, etc.). Nondenominational churches and megachurches can be seen as the newer entries into the market — including independent entities that grow and evolve into franchises (like Saddleback Church, which has spread from Southern California to Europe and Asia).
Now, how do rising restaurants capture market share from the big players? They update their menus to adapt to changing tastes (and, as they’re new, they don’t have to worry about maintaining any traditional items held over from earlier eras), and they work really hard on customer acquisition, customer retention and customer service.
You might want a good old McDonald’s Big Mac, fries and a Coke, but hey, this new place has a more attractive, comfortable restaurant; it has a delivery service; it brings food to your table; its drive-through has video screens (and you can hear and understand the order-takers); the playground is far superior; there’s more parking; and best of all, going there makes you look cool and hip and cutting edge.
After all, only families with little kids and the olds still go to McDonald’s, right?
While McDonald’s major-franchise competitors might suffer even more from the new kids on the block — not having McDonald’s global cachet and deep connections to American life — but the Golden Arches, while still strong, is being steadily diminished. Its menu is attacked as old-fashioned, stodgy, and not good for you — but if it’s changed too much, it won’t recognizably be McDonald’s anymore, and loyal customers will feel betrayed (not to mention the memory of the founders).
Modern consumers want choice, freedom and to be catered to — in a way folks in the past never would have dreamed about. They expect all the information and goods they want to be at their fingertips, and as the products of some of the most indulged and pampered generations in human history, they hate to hear the word “no.”
Whether any business chooses to publicly acknowledge it, they are all in competition, both with each other and with the possibility that consumers may choose not to frequent any sort of business like them at all. If one can get ready-made food at a supermarket, why bother going to a fast-food joint? And, if one can order food over the Internet and have it delivered right to the door, why bother going to the supermarket?
When people have options, they take them. One reason McDonald’s is in the powerful situation it is today, is because for a long time, in many places in America and even the world, it was the only game in town. That’s given it a substantial head start, but it doesn’t ensure continued success and survival.
Now that I’ve tortured this analogy for as long as I can, what’s that to do with the Church? Everything to do with it. We are in the spiritual marketplace of ideas, and we are bleeding customers far faster than we are acquiring them — and we’re losing a huge portion of the ones we got at birth before they get out of college or even high school (and a sizable chunk of those are lost forever).
Our parishes are obviously not in direct competition with each other, but the Church often acts as if it has no true competitors at all, except unbelief. That’s demonstrably untrue.
Many ex-Catholics and potential Catholics are not abandoning Christianity. While they may not be going to the mainline Protestant communities — some of which are shrinking faster than we are — they are going to any number of shiny new megachurches, with their coffee bars, daycare, social services, ministries, media outreach, parking garages, active networking, embracing communities and pop-concert services.
And many others are indeed passing on the whole Christian enterprise and falling into New Age practices, agnosticism, practical atheism and indifference — most of which make far less demands on their adherents than we do.
While the Church can change and adapt in some ways, as we have seen in the often-disastrous misinterpretation and misapplication of Vatican II, if it changes too much, it ceases to be what it is. I’ve been to too many parishes that were pale imitations of megachurches, and hardly recognizable as Catholic except for the Consecration (and sometimes hardly even then).
After all, why go to a kinda-megachurch if there are real ones available, with easy-to-follow doctrines, and endless pats on the head instead of rules and regulations?
Luckily for us, though, our original menu items are not only good for you, they’re the very best thing. Along with the Orthodox, we alone have the Bread and Wine of Life.
We have, in fact, the greatest brand in all of Western Civilization, if only we’d stop apologizing for it and start to put it — and ourselves — out there with boldness and confidence.
We must be like the Catholics of the First Century, the Middle Ages and even the ’50s — convinced of the rightness of our cause, the value of our Faith and the support of our Founder. We must use any and all modern means to get the Word out there, because, make no mistake, that’s what our upstart competitors are doing … and they’re doing it with far greater energy and style.
Our commission is no less than to bring every human being into the Church, or die trying. Anything less is a degree of failure, for which we will have to answer one day.
And if that means we have to get our hands dirty and start marketing ourselves in an aggressive manner, than so be it.
We are the One, the Only, the Original — and don’t you forget it.
Image: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons