McDonald's and churches have more in common than I thought

December 16th, 2014

Those pesky millennials. They’re ruining everything. Even fast food behemoth McDonald’s can’t figure them out. And it’s not because the restaurant chain isn’t spending millions of dollars trying.

A few days ago Mickey D’s announced its latest round of changes to stop declining sales. And boy are sales declining. Last month, sales fell 4.6% from November a year ago. The chain hasn’t seen a sales increase in over a year, and its third quarter earnings dipped 30%.

If you’re McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson, you’ve got major McProblems. And according to one restaurant expert, the biggest one is the company’s positioning with millennials.

It will take some time to know whether or not the latest changes have a positive impact on business, but given the sales trends over the last year, staying the current course would probably have been a much bigger risk than trying new things.

Through research, trial and error, McDonald’s is learning a few lessons about operating a 60 year old company (some would call it an institution) in the twenty-first century.

And like many principles from the world of business, these lessons are also applicable to the church world:

Bad perceptions are hard to overcome. That’s the problem with being an institution. If you get a bad reputation, it’s hard to shake it. For years, McDonald’s courted families with kids, and the chain made its name on unhealthy fast food. Now it finds itself in a decade where young people are staying single longer and having fewer kids. And more of them actually care about the quality of the food they stuff in their face. If you’re McDonald’s, that means you have to change your brand (and risk driving away your base), create another brand to compete with yourself, extend your brand (but risk diluting it) or double down and own your brand (risking continued decline.)

It’s not easy to decide which way to go, and many churches find themselves in a similar situation. Do we start a new service? Plant a new church? Change our name and get rid of the pews? Start a “Doctor Who” small group? Or keep doing what we've been doing but do it better?

Cut your losses and move on when you’ve tried a really bad idea. So the 6 a.m. worship service didn’t attract the multitude you thought it would. Give it some time and make a few adjustments, but once you see the handwriting on the wall (someone may have to point it out to you), don’t be afraid to shut it down so you can try something else. McDonald’s rolled out McLobster and McPizza once. And the chain also spent $100 million marketing the Arch Deluxe sandwich in the mid 90’s. Had an Arch Deluxe lately? Neither has anyone else, because it crashed and burned.

Serving gourmet coffee won’t fix all your problems. Oh, the coffee increased sales for a while. It found the middle ground on price between convenience store sludge and the top-shelf bitter brew at Starbucks. And the thing is, McDonald’s coffee is actually pretty good. But after they rolled it out to most of the stores, the big sales bump disappeared after a couple of years. These things happen. People can only drink so much coffee.

McDonald’s serves coffee, but that’s not what McDonald’s is known for. I’ve been to churches that serve good coffee. Some of the bigger ones even have coffee bars. Those things are great to have but they won’t bring people to church and keep them there.

You can’t get rid of the Big Mac. It’s McDonald’s signature sandwich, and even if the rest of the menu gets overrun with concoctions made of kelp and tofu, the Big Mac isn’t going anywhere. The sandwich and the brand are just too interconnected.

Churches don’t have a flagship sandwich, but many do have certain things they do well that set them apart from other congregations. High-quality kids programs, relevant preaching, solid small groups, effective missions and service projects, etc. What is your church known for? What is its Big Mac? Figure out what it is and don’t let it get crowded off the menu.

More people are wanting a customized, participatory experience. Restaurants like Chipotle and Subway allow you to be involved in customizing your food. McDonald’s has moved toward this but not quickly enough. I’m old enough to remember when ordering a burger at McDonald’s without a pickle or onions would bring the kitchen to a halt. They didn’t particularly care for special orders and if you dared try one, you’d pay dearly with your time. (Burger King capitalized on this weakness for years with its “Have it your way” ad campaign.)

Now more fast food and “fast casual” chains are making your food right in front of you and you get to call the shots. So in response to this trend, McDonald’s is launching the “Create Your Taste” custom menu options with touch screen ordering. It’s betting that millennials in particular will respond to this new “empowerment.” I’m not sure that’ll happen, but the touch screen order kiosks are a nice touch. (Said the Generation X writer.)

How participatory is your church? Is your congregation feeding everyone with a sermon that’s been kept warm under a heat lamp or are there a number of fresh options for education and spiritual formation? Are you mostly presenting information to passive listeners or are you encouraging an environment where people interact with each other and with the word of God?

You never finish tweaking things. Almost 60 years after the founding of McDonald’s, company executives are still making changes. Sometimes those changes work; sometimes they don’t. But in today’s competitive business climate where things fall out of favor quickly, companies like McDonald’s can’t afford to stop evaluating and tweaking, even when they’re successful. It’s the same with churches. Methods that are effective today may not be as effective next year. Or next week.

That’s why it seems like the most influential fastest-growing churches are always trying something new and crazy (even to the point of being annoying.) Sometimes they see things the rest of us don’t. While we’re scratching our heads wondering why they don’t just stick to a tried-and-true formula or make the obvious move, they’re thinking a few chess moves ahead and planning for what’s going to happen down the road.

Sometimes it’s good to simplify. McDonald’s finally wised up and realized that having 16 value meals is too much. So they’re cutting five of them from the menu. They’re also going from four quarter-pound options down to one. (Did you know McDonald’s had four Quarter Pounders? Neither did I. That’s probably why they’re getting rid of three of them.)

Does your church have some sacred cows and Quarter Pounders that need to be yanked from the menu? Maybe now’s the time to make the move.

Just remember to keep the Big Mac.

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