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Is now the time for “Burger King” churches?

Is now the time for “Burger King” churches?


by George Clifford


The neighborhood church is dead. Long live the special interest church.


If you doubt that pronouncement, map where the attendees or members of your congregation live. Also plot the locations of all churches – regardless of flavor (i.e., denomination) – in the geographic area in which your congregation lives.


The parish system originated when the Christian Church tailored its organization to meet the requirements of being the Roman Empire’s established religion. Ecclesiastical and/or secular authorities divided territory into non-overlapping, contiguous dioceses. Dioceses were subdivided into geographically defined parishes, with a church and at least one priest assigned to each parish. The nation states that emerged after the collapse of the Roman Empire retained the parish system for their established Churches.


The parish model theoretically provided ministry to everyone. Ministry, particularly in pre-printing press days, primarily consisted of administering the sacraments, caring for the sick, burying the dead, and managing the institution.


The parish system has two potential disadvantages. First, as population shifts occur, church buildings and parish boundaries once tailored to fit the population distribution may no longer align with where people live. Second, the parish system presumes a sufficient supply of clergy to staff all of a diocese’s parishes.


The Church of England’s Diocese of Birmingham recently proposed ending its parish system for both of those reasons. Birmingham’s population has migrated from rural areas to urban and suburban areas, producing an imbalance between the location of church buildings and people. The Diocese also has too few clergy to assign one priest to each parish.


The Episcopal Church (TEC) does not have formal geographic boundaries for its parishes and missions. Nevertheless, TEC has functioned for most of the last two centuries as though it had a de facto parish system. TEC divided the nation into geographic dioceses. Dioceses often aimed, intentionally or otherwise, to situate a parish or mission in each town, neighborhood, or other population cluster. Each of those congregations then usually sought to develop the finances to afford its own full-time priest, the primary distinction between parishes and missions.


Both disadvantages of the parish system are evident in the American context. First, population shifts from rural to urban and suburban areas have left many once thriving congregations struggling to afford a priest and to maintain buildings. Second, many rural congregations experience great difficulty in calling a priest because priests generally prefer urban or suburban living. This distribution problem is frequently misdiagnosed as a clergy shortage.


Another factor compounds the parish system’s problems, especially in the United States but also increasingly in the United Kingdom. We are living in a “Burger King” culture. Individuals want everything, including religion, their own way. No longer do people almost reflexively walk to the nearest congregation of the faith group inherited from their parents. People want to choose where they worship – if they attend any worships service at all. Growing numbers in both the U.S. and U.K. now opt to identify as spiritual but not religious, agnostic, or atheist.


Persons who do choose religion increasingly want to choose whether to belong to a Christian church or faith community of another religion. Those who choose Christianity then choose which flavor of Christianity they like, at least the flavor they currently prefer, and may move from one flavor to another. Over half of U.S. Episcopalians, for example, are not cradle Episcopalians.


The desire to choose is so strong, that coupled with the American love affair with the automobile, people unhesitatingly drive past one or several congregations of the desired flavor to find a congregation that offers what they seek in terms of worship, programs, ordained leaders’ personality style or type, parking, etc.


The neighborhood church is on life support, if not dead.


Is there a healthy alternative to the parish system?


Intentionally becoming a destination church – what I more broadly call a special interest church – offers a promising alternative, especially in the U.S. where the parish system is not mandated by law.


“Destination church” is not a new concept. “Destination church” typically connotes a church that offers something so special that it draws people from well beyond its immediate neighborhood, analogous to how magnet schools attract students from across a school district. English cathedrals, and often American cathedrals, are destination churches. A large downtown congregation may be a destination church because of its expensive, high-quality music program or some other, probably costly, distinctive programming.


The concept of special interest church adapts the idea of a destination church to fit congregations of all sizes and resource levels. Let’s stop pretending that any one congregation can, or even should attempt to, minister to everyone. Wealthy congregations, like Trinity Wall Street, will never attract people who believe, as St. Francis of Assisi did, that walking in Jesus’ footsteps requires disavowing all worldly possessions. Large congregations, such as St. Martin’s in Houston, will never attract people who seek the family-like experience that comes from knowing every member of the congregation. Conversely, small congregations cannot offer either the anonymity or diverse programming possible in a large congregation. Not every congregation has the youth, leaders or money to offer top-quality youth ministry.


What does your individual congregation do really well? Honest answers, for most churches, will number only one to a half-dozen items. No congregation, no priest, can do everything exceptionally well. To identify strengths, truthfully compare your congregation to other congregations in the community (of all flavors) and in the diocese. What does your congregation do so well that other congregations could learn from it?


Paul wrote that “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) Paul’s statement was clearly a hyperbole. He could not change his race or gender. He remained a tentmaker, being neither a peasant nor a noble. As identity politics underscores, nobody can literally be all things to all people. Let’s stop tilting at windmills, attempting the impossible, and deluding ourselves about congregational limitations. Instead. build on your strengths.


Furthermore, with the multiplication of denominations (making lemonade out of the lemons of schism), extremely few communities have just one church. Only very large congregations have the people, staff, and resources to offer a truly wide variety of first-rate programming for children of all ages, adults of all ages and interests, professional quality music, effective social advocacy that makes a difference locally and globally, etc. People today increasingly reject the mediocre as unsatisfactory. Instead, people want to be associated with the truly excellent, whether in their choice of a smart phone, health care, or a religious congregation. Great congregations today measure success by the quality, not the quantity, of their ministries and missions.


Dream about what your congregation might look like if it single-mindedly focused on its few outstanding strengths. Then design and deliver ministry and mission programs to bring that dream to fruition, boldly scrapping everything else and realigning resources, including lay and staff time, with that dream.


The neighborhood church is dead. Long live the special interest church!




George Clifford served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has an MBA, taught ethics and the philosophy of religion, and now serves as priest associate at the Parish of St Clement in Honolulu. He mentors clergy, consults with parishes, and blogs at Ethical Musings.


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Bruce Cornely

I also find it quite offensive as well as “scary” that it is suggested that our church be modified on a secular model. The “Burger King Church.” ????? FOR SHAME!

Bruce Cornely

The special interest church for which I look is the Episcopal Church which special interest is in preaching and sharing the Gospel of Christ. In the past almost fifty years it had become fragmented because of pandering to various social issues and seemingly pushing the Gospel into the background because it was too specific.
And here we go again, spending time, WASTING time, in the semantics of abolishing the “parish system.” I was confirmed in 1964 and have NEVER been subjected to parish boundaries. I have always sought a parish church that provided a way for me to worship, sharing my love for God in worship, and feeling His love for me as I worshiped, as well has being in communion with other like-minded Episcopalians. I did the same thing in earlier years as a Presbyterian and Methodist, NEVER, EVER EVER EVER EVER seeking to blend worship to bend to my needs and and desires within the allotted Sunday hour or two. .

Thomas Rightmyer

In Maryland and Virginia the Church of England was established and parishes had boundaries. All adult white males and all working age male and female slaves were taxed – typically 30 pounds of tobacco per person – by the vestry to provide for the poor, build churches and chapels of ease, and pay clergy. A field hand could make 1000 pounds of tobacco a year. Clergy were typically paid 16,000 pounds of tobacco. The established Congregational churches in Massachusetts and Connecticut were supported by taxes levied by the towns. Members of the Church of England could direct their taxes to the support of a Church of England minister if one lived in the town, otherwise they paid for the Congregational minister. That system ended in 1776 in Maryland and Virginia but continued into the early 19th century in New England.

Philip B. Spivey

The author has broken the parish (in name only) paradigm wide open; there is value in thinking outside our boxes. But before mechanized transportation, Church WAS “having it your way.” Communities had limited exposure and parishioners had limited mobility. Natural parish affinities developed as a product of shared interests bound by geography. By the 20th century, with the confluence of increased physical and economic mobility and the lowering of racial and ethnic barriers for housing, neighborhoods became less homogeneous. Now, at least in the United States, anyone can live pretty much anywhere they (can afford to).

Today, as a result, “having it your way”at an established local parish may be difficult because “their way” may represent a bygone era in that neighborhood. I wonder how many parishes practice a “my way or the highway” attitude towards a changing neighborhood demographic. I wonder how many neighbors leave their communities in order to find Christian hospitality.

Jon White

I’ve been thinking for a while that if we were starting TEC today from scratch we wouldn’t create the system we have now ( Your second paragraph really hit home for me Philip though. In the city where I live (Syracuse, NY) there were 3 Episcopal churches on the south side at one time. All closed as the neighborhood demographics and economics changed. All three buildings are still used as churches so it wasn’t that those places couldn’t sustain themselves as churches so much as they couldn’t continue to be churches like they’d “always” been.

Kenneth Knapp

Was one of those three Calvary? Several years ago I tried to find the church in Syracuse where I was confirmed in 1966. I finally found the building, but it was no longer an Episcopal Church. When I explained my interest they were very kind and invited me to have a look around.

Jon White

I confess I’m not sure of their previous names; as I’m something of a newcomer to the area. I learned of them because older members of my church had attended some of them when they were younger. The diocese does maintain a very good archives ( though I don’t think alot of it is available online. If you’re ever in town again, do stop into St Luke’s in Camillus.

Philip B. Spivey

God fills a vacuum wherever it exists. And if Episcopalians aren’t doing the welcoming, God finds someone to step into the breach. It’s the way of things these days.

Philip B. Spivey

Yes, Jon. When I joined TEC over thirty years ago, I was introduced to the First-Seven-Episcopal-Words: “We’ve never done it that way before.” I’m sure our Church has no monopoly on that precept having spent time with other traditions. But we might consider that as our numbers decline and that the world needs what we have to offer, now, more than ever, whether our ‘old wineskins’ are up to job.

If, as I do, you see the Church as a dynamic, ever-changing manifestation of Christ Jesus, the question becomes not if we should change, but how we must change—sometimes radically, as Jesus did.

In this season of Lent, I am ever reminded that Jesus left the Wilderness a radically changed person. This experience —and his early formative years that we know little about—- were foundational preparation for his earthly ministry. Does the Church imagine that it should do less? Does the Church imagine that it can get away with doing less and still succeed in IT’S earthly ministry?

Kevin McGrane

Spot on, Rev. Clifford. This is an insightful & positive essay, not an insightful and pessimistic one. Thanks!

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