Pitfalls of Franchising the Church

My sister lives in a small town, where Butch’s Deli, a family-owned business, has been serving the community for 25 years. This coffee and sandwich (and soup and pizza and ice cream) shop, founded by Butch and now owned by his son Adam, is a fixture in the community. It serves as an early-morning gathering place for a group of retired men, who share coffee and the news and talk about old times. It’s a popular lunch spot, a hangout for high schoolers, and a caterer for some of the community’s auspicious occasions. Families and friends make memories over Butch’s food, and community events and good causes enjoy the deli’s sponsorship. This is a homegrown business, planted in the soil of this town and an unequivocal part of the community.

This is a small town but not a tiny one. It’s a bedroom community with plenty of other restaurants, including franchises that may take in more business than Butch’s, selling Cokes and fries through the drive-thru. But they weren’t born in this town and ultimately their owners’ livelihood doesn’t depend on the health of the community. They don’t feel the same way about the town and its people, and the people don’t feel the same way about them. They’re part of the landscape, transplanted and tended by a gardener somewhere else; Butch’s grew up from a seed.

Reminds me of the contrast between some of the churches I know.

I’ve written before about some of the problems that happen when churches behave like businesses. Here’s another: franchising has its downsides.

I know we don’t call it “franchising” in ministry. We call it “satellite campuses,” “multi-site,” or “applying ministry models.” But the practice of replication often bears a remarkable resemblance to what the business world calls “franchising.” As in business, this approach has some obvious benefits: predictable quality, efficiency, economies of scale. But for church leaders pursuing this strategy, it’s important to think about some of the downsides. Most notably, it comes with trade-offs in that personal touch.

Here are more pitfalls, which churches should consider before employing this strategy:

* Franchises rarely respond specifically to local needs; they’re in the business of cultivating taste for an existing product.

When you apply someone else’s ministry model or replicate their church in your setting, you may not be providing what the people in your congregation or community need. Just because it worked somewhere else, among other people, doesn’t mean it will work where you are. And even if it does work, it will function more like a product, packaged and sold, than a homegrown solution. And you’ll have more work to achieve buy-in and recruit volunteers.

* Franchises rarely support their communities by using locally grown ingredients or locally manufactured goods.

Franchise churches sometimes build their ministries using blueprints and packaged resources that have been created for a different setting, employing the gifts–spiritual and otherwise–of the people in that setting. This produces a far different result than developing ministries around the gifts that are present in your own congregation and community. This approach can also leave people out in the cold, without a place to exercise their gifts or offer their resources effectively.

* Franchises don’t need highly qualified staff; in fact, they work better when staffed with young, inexperienced, unskilled workers.

In church ministry, this means highly skilled, highly educated people who have significant life experience find themselves using none of the best they have to offer in service to the church. Their best contributions simply aren’t needed–someone else has already done the strategic and creative work; all that’s needed is implementation. And the church misses out on an opportunity to mobilize the joyful creativity, insight, and wisdom of capable people in the congregation.

* Franchises employ older, experience workers in demotivating conditions that don’t make full use of their gifts and experience.

These same skilled, seasoned people end up filling openings that may not make good use of what they have to offer. Yes, changing diapers and setting up chairs are critical and important tasks. But they are not the best ways for everyone to offer what God has placed within them.

* Franchises generally sacrifice the customer experience in favor of efficiency.

One upside of a franchise is that you usually know what you’re going to get when you walk through the door. The product and its presentation are predeterimined, precise, and produced with as little waste as possible. In both businesses and churches, this means warmth and intuitive response are often absent (no substitutions, please).

* Franchises discourage homegrown innovation.

If necessity is the mother of invention, it’s rare to invent when someone else has preemptively prescribed their own solutions. Replicated churches are sometimes also missing the sense of congregational ownership necessary for people to feel their ideas might matter. And when ideas do rise from within the congregation, they’re frequently squelched in favor of the “proven model.” Some churches have simply replaced “the way we’ve always done it” with “the way they did it over there.”

* Franchises are boring.

There’s a predictable and polished quality to some churches that basically drains the fun, the adventure, the life from a community of people. This is particularly true when sermons (or entire services) are broadcast and shown on screen. It’s difficult to grow as a group, and to deepen relationships, without a little drama. If your congregation has never had to solve a problem, come up with an idea, or laugh together over a blooper or blunder in a service, it’s hard to feel that the community is genuine.

Now, I’m not saying that it’s wrong or necessarily detrimental to replicate your church model or to serve as a “storefront” for someone else’s ministry. But before using this strategy, churches need to think about whether this approach really makes sense for them, consider what they’re giving up when they embrace this model, and what they can do to counter its pitfalls. Many churches would do more for their communities if they were more like Butch’s instead of McDonald’s.

  1. Annie says:

    Finally, some honesty is what I see in this post. Sometimes I would love to go to a poor church in Africa or some other country and just feel th joy and warmth.

  2. Manfred Roth says:

    Thank you for these good thoughts. I have wondered about this for years. Being a Pastor of a „home grown“ Church myself I regret it very much that over the last 15 years or so also in our part of the world (Europe) franchising Churches has more and more become the thing to do and the places where many believers seem to navigate to rather automatically or “by default.”
    Honestly I don’t see anything good in this way of planting Churches. In my opinion it’s quite contrary to everything that we read in the New Testament.

© 2015 Amy Simpson.