The rise of fast food restaurants in the world is a current phenomenon. McDonald’s was the first major chain, and it stood unchallenged for many years providing inexpensive fast food and an entertainment experience. The market exploded suddenly, with a numerous variety of franchises spreading to the reaches of North America and eventually to the world. Although the fast food restaurant is a product of modern culture, it has remarkable similarities to church. This may sound like an outrageous statement, but consider the likeness of their history, beginning with the official Catholic Church which “stood unchallenged for many years”; then numerous other denominations were created. Today, churches and fast food restaurants have an easily recognizable physical structure and a set of consistent routines and procedures. They also both teach desirable values through their interaction with society.
Churches are easily recognized by their outward appearance: some are very ornate stone with spires, bells and stain glassed windows, while others have a simpler or conservative construction. Each denomination has a distinct appearance that is duplicated in the towns and cities of North America; likewise, restaurants are easily recognizable. Even a child can spot the ‘Golden Arches’ of a McDonald’s from a distance. Just as there are numerous flavors of churches, there are also many different fast food franchises, that offer a customized menu and atmosphere. Each restaurant has an individual style, but they are all colorful, stylish buildings with bright, large windows.
The inside of franchised restaurants are decorated in the same style, just like in churches of the same denomination. There are standard decorating and furniture by franchise or denomination. For example, churches have seating in a main hall or sanctuary where sermons are received. In a Catholic Church there will be wooden pews in rows, whereas in a Brethren Church there will be modern cushioned chairs, placed in an arrangement of sections and rows. Likewise, all fast food franchises have fixed seating of tables, chairs, and bench seating, but each has its own manner and style of arranging the seating. Inside or out, fast food restaurants and churches are easily recognized by their physical appearance.
Both institutions have predictable routines and procedures that are followed by the people who go there. When going to a church service, you are greeted by an usher; likewise, when going to a fast food restaurant you are greeted by a server. Both can be visited alone, with family or with friend, and offer a social aspect as well. During both social experiences, you will consume food and drink. During the church service you will take communion, bread and wine, and during your restaurant experience you will eat a meal of your choice. One feeds the body, while the other feeds the soul.
Routines will vary by denomination or franchise, but will be consistent in each. For example, all church services involve singing, preaching, offering, and praying, but the order and style will vary by denomination. A Baptist Church service generally begins with a couple hymns and an opening prayer. Then announcements, special music, and scripture reading before the sermon. Sermon. Closing prayer and/or hymn. It’s a predictable experience. Attending a Catholic Mass will be different from a Baptist service, but it will be equally predictable each week.
Likewise, going to McDonald’s involves getting in line at the counter, ordering your food, taking your tray to your table while picking up napkins, ketchup, straws, etc., on the way, eating, and cleaning up your own mess. Then kids can play, while the adults relax. No matter what McDonald’s you visit the experience will be the same. Going to Burger King provides relatively the same experience, but the food, atmosphere, and play items will vary. You could be dropped into a church or fast food restaurant blindfolded, and it’s absolutely certain that you’ll know what’s expected of you when the blindfold is removed!
Finally, both churches and fast food restaurants teach values through their respective institutions. Churches teach biblical values for how people should live their lives. “For the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness,,,… and self control” is an often quoted verse that names virtuous qualities for people to develop in themselves. There are also many parables that teach about making right decisions. Beyond believing in God, Jesus and the sacrifice of the cross, people are encouraged to strive for good qualities so that they can be good people.
Fast food restaurants teach values, although it is done more implicitly. They encourage cleanliness and responsibility by expecting people to clean up after themselves. The words “Thank You” on the garbage receptacles are an encouragement to dispose of your waste instead of leaving it on the table. Kindness is also exemplified through their advertising slogans. Dairy Queen has trademarked the slogan, “We treat you right.” McDonald’s uses the slogans, “We like to see you smile” and “The smiles are free.” These are feel good, positive statements that encourage the consumer to respond in kind.
Both institutions are involved in charity, collecting money for worthy causes that will help people. Churches collect money through collections to offer programs to the people in their community, while fast food restaurants provide change receptacles at the cash where you can donate to various charities. These are ways that both institutions teach values to the people who frequent them.
Although there are many striking similarities between churches and fast food restaurants, there are also differences. While church is offered at fixed times during the week, fast food restaurants have lengthy and flexible hours. It’s very convenient to eat dinner quickly, inexpensively, and without the work of preparing it. Church services are offered at fixed times and it’s unlikely you will get out of there quickly. As well, going to church is meant to meet a spiritual need, while going to a fast food restaurant is meant to meet a physical need. At the restaurant you are feeding your body, but at church you are feeding your soul. Attending church helps people maintain a balanced life, while going to fast food restaurants merely provides an unhealthy meal, which contributes to an unbalanced diet.
One experience is free, but the other has a cost. You can willingly give a donation or politely decline during offering, but at any fast food chain you will not be given food unless you pay. Fast food restaurants are money making ventures, in contrast to the non-profit nature of churches. The restaurant owner offers this food and service to make a living; whereas, the minister or priest is collecting money to use for the physical or spiritual service of others. It may be argued that the church overseer also receives a salary, but idealistically the salary is given for self-less service and not personal gain.
I have presented this comparison to a variety of different people over the last few years. Curiously, the initial reaction of most people was to adamantly argue against the idea that these institutions were similar. The main reason for their persistent protesting was that they thought it was heresy to make this comparison – between the modern, pagan fast food establishments and rituals and the long-standing Christian churches whose establishment and rituals’ purpose is to reunite the human race with God. For many people, the comparison becomes intensely personal and they feel that it’s wrong.
Overall, there is a sense of strangeness in the similarities that exist between fast food restaurants and churches. The remarkable likeness between the two should not be surprising as they were an invention of people who have been raised in a church-going society. Whether they are active, religious church goers or not, they cannot help but be implicitly affected by this pervasive institution. People are comfortable with predictability; thus each familiar experience, whether in church or a fast food restaurant, is like an old familiar shoe.