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Mormonism and the Franchise Model

Much of religion today runs on what Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove calls “the franchise model,” ignoring unique situations in favor of one-size-fits-all replication. I see this issue in Mormonism.

Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book The Awakening of Hope draws stories from the new monastic movement of which he is a part, in which Christians forsake privilege and position themselves “in the abandoned places of the empire.”

In his case, this means the inner city of Durham, NC, where he has vowed to remain his whole life. He and his wife are raising their kids in one of Durham’s roughest neighborhoods, bringing the good news of Jesus to people society has largely written off.

One of the many things that struck me about the book was the particularity of its stories of hope. This is not a top-down guide to how to start a new monastic community, or how to live a better Christian life, though you’ll learn a little about both of those things.

Rather, it teaches us how to pay attention to what God is already doing in the places where we already are. Rather than imposing some system from above, Christians are to move organically from below.

It sounds easy, but it isn’t. We want to systematize, to codify, to control.

Since I am a Mormon, I was reading this book through my Mormon lens and seeing much that I would like to change about how Latter-day Saints seek to transform the world. We tend to do so not by listening deeply to the needs of those around us but by seeking to make them over in our own image.

Mormons choose to evangelize the world by sending identical-looking missionaries to bring far-flung peoples to identical-looking chapels where they can study an identical curriculum that has been approved by a single bureaucracy in a galaxy far, far away. Mormons do not do grassroots Christianity, and are in fact afraid of it.

We chafe at the uncertainty of Wilson-Hartgrove’s approach, though he says this apprehension is universal:

We prefer a franchise model. If you want to reach the whole world with an idea or a product, common sense says that you start with something that can be easily replicated everywhere. Don’t get too caught up in the details and local particularities. The franchise model says, “Focus on the big picture — on the things we all have in common.” Cheap food that tastes good appeals to most people. Put a logo on that concept, and with some good marketing you can serve billions.

This week as I have been reading The Awakening of Hope, I’ve also been re-reading parts of Matthew Bowman’s excellent historical study The Mormon People. I’ve been struck by what he says about Mormonism’s exciting growth during the period of the Progressive Era (roughly 1900-1930), when many of the Church’s auxiliaries and programs were begun or significantly expanded.

One of the things that shines through most clearly is that almost all of the programs the LDS Church runs today, from the Relief Society to the Primary to the Welfare System, were begun at the grassroots level to meet individual needs in particular communities. They were successful because they were initiated by local people who were listening to their own people, not by an institution seeking to systematize its reach by assimilating diverse groups into preexisting programs.

So this is our chance to locate and celebrate Mormonism’s own “awakenings of hope,” whether they be in local wards, online communities, or volunteer efforts. Patheos is offering to publish the best personal stories of 300-500 words in which people describe their experiences in “doing” religion and justice at the grassroots. You can submit them here in the comments, and also to

In addition to the possibility of publication, the author of the most inspiring story posted in my comments here before Monday morning will receive the following goodies:

  • a copy of Awakening of Hope
  • an accompanying DVD about some of the book’s inspiring stories
  • $50 donated to the cause of your choice

So  . . . What is lovely and of good report where you are?


Note: Your comments below can also just react to this post, tell me I'm crazy, etc. You do not have to participate in the contest.

Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice
Beliefs: Mormon
Tags: flunking sainthood, jana riess, jonathan wilson-hartgrove, lds relief society, lds welfare program, matthew bowman th, mormon missionaries, mormonism, new monasticism, patheos blogs, patheos book club,, provident living, wilson hartgrove awakening of hope


  1. The Franchise Model is an interesting term and you listed a number of elements of the Church that support that statement. You didn’t list any that contradicted the term or offer any reasons why it would seem to some that the Church is using a Franchise Model: evidently that you your reader’s job?

    It is blatantly obvious to me why the same doctrine is taught worldwide. As soon as a group gets out of earshot of headquarters someone wants to change the doctrine or the procedures. Think of all the letters Paul wrote trying to get these members back into conformity. God is not a God of chaos but a God of order. One of the hallmarks of apostasy is changing the ordinances (e.g. Malachi’s condemnation of Israel.)

    However, a lot of latitude is given locally in exactly what is being taught. Consider in Priesthood and Relief Society twice each month and every fifth Sunday, the local stake, ward or unit leader chooses what is taught. Three of four (or five) Sundays each month, the Bishop or the Stake President decide what is preached to the members.  On Fast Sunday the Members decide what is being spoken of in Fast and Testimony Meeting.  Sunday School is different. For those over 14 years old, we study the scriptures. Yes, that’s a good thing.

    Even things like cremation, which is not preferred, but if that is required by local law, fire up the furnace.

    When I served as Bishop (2003 to 2008) I was always impressed that instructions came with a caveat.  It was something like, “apply this, considering local needs and circumstances.” I served in California which has needs and circumstances much like Utah so it wasn’t needful or desirable to make many (any) changes.

    I agree with the thought that at first glance it appears the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is using a Franchise Model but when you examine the details important flexibility is afforded Relief Society and Priesthood leaders. There is strict control on the doctrines but how to minister to the members is entrusted to the local leaders.

  2. Also of note and to echo the comments above…

    McDonald’s is the most successful franchise ever because, while it retains certain core characteristics, it adapts to the local culture by accommodating local sensitivities (e.g., veggie burgers in India), and incorporating local food into menus. It is this regional adaptation that makes it so successful and able to assimilate into any region.

    Likewise, the church allows for local adaptation. To paraphrase Gordon B. Hinckley, the church asks people to bring everything good and wholesome—this includes culture and worldview—and let the church ADD to it, not subtract from it.

  3. NJ, can you name a specific example of a unique program that is only at the grassroots level, and was created for one particular ward? Is there a link you could provide on this?

  4. I do not have a specific link, but I can give you at least one example.

    I served as a missionary in Italy. My last area was a ward that covered downtown Milan. There were many immigrants—quite a few illegal, and most very poor. There was no bishop’s storehouse anywhere near Milan, and I do not believe that there was one in Italy at all. The ward was financially strained due to the needs of the many members. The bishop decided to use his authority to see to the temporal welfare of the ward and began his own bishop’s storehouse. He asked members to donate food, and he would also purchase items that were then kept and given to those in need.

    While the concept of a bishop’s storehouse is not unique, this good bishop at the time—himself an immigrant and of modest means—adapted the idea to the needs of a ward that faced financial difficulty. This was not a pronouncement from on high—altitude or heavenly. Rather, he used his priesthood to watch over his flock. Of note is that this system did not exist in Italy. This bishop saw a good concept, adapted it to local needs, and helped many in the process.

    Conceptually speaking, the church does not discourage grassroots efforts. Often, it incorporates them into the centralized system if they can be applied that way. That, I believe, is how most of the welfare and other systems came about. They were tried out in an early branch, extended to other branches, and later incorporated into the whole. Mormon Helping Hands is, I believe, another example of this.

    Following a hurricane in the northeast, our ward began to volunteer in our local community and to organize emergency response for our ward’s geographical area. The central church later came and used the resources behind MHH to facilitate the response.

    Is MHH a “franchise” enterprise? Sure. Does it adapt to the local circumstance? Yes. Does it require the “organic” movement of the local congregation, as well as significant investment from them to begin the “franchise” in the local area? Absolutely.

  5. Thank you for elaborating; that is very encouraging to hear.

  6. NJ John
    Thanks for the echo and that is a great story, right on point, about the Bishop in Italy.

  7. You might be interested to know that Clayton Christensen, a prominent Mormon, has been advocating this kind of grassroots Mormonism for some time now; Mormonism isn’t always as monolithic as you make it seem.

  8. Preserving the purity of ordinances and doctrine seems at a minimum to be an appropriate matter for central control.  The authorities need to keep the incense and candles off of the sacrament table.  But the question is whether the top level exercises too much control and stultifies the local saints both doctrinally and emotionally. 

    For a doctrinal example from years ago.  Avraham Gileadi developed some wonderful scholarship on the Book of Isaiah the basic thesis of which contended that the Book was not the product of multiple authors as most scholars believe, but that the unified structure was evidence of a single author.  He started giving seminars about his insights into Isaiah.  He did not intend to get up a movement, but then Elder Packer was concerned about the the newness of these ideas.  So he asked Brother Gileadi’s stake president excommunicate him.  The stake president refused.  A new stake president was installed who promptly excommunicated an otherwise faithful saint.  Fascinating that the local discretion for a stake president was bypassed.

    SLC control also limits us emotionally.  The Liahona Foundation has identified a serious lack of nutrition among LDS children certain countries in South America.  Most people I talk to assume the church would not let their own children go hungry.  So they are quite content to assume that the welfare system takes care of them.  Here we think the centralized church is caring for the poor, but it does not;  rather it defers to the model of letting local stakes provide for their poor with the donations local to that area. 

    Finally, I was just told that I as a ward choir director that I could choose no songs for performance in Sacrament Meeting except those from the Hymn book.  I doubt this allows enough local expression for the saints. 

    The church does allow some local discretion and we are commanded to do many things of our own will.  That is good as far as it goes.  But the model of Zion is not yet in place.  The good Bishop or former Bishop who wrote in earlier could probably be a better witness for how SLC and his Stake Pres. limits his discretion to a narrow range.  Someday SLC will trust the bishops of the church to exercise their most important duty:  to discern the gifts of the spirit of the people in their ward and allow the expression of those gifts unfettered by the strict rules of the Handbook.  Let us sing and pray and discuss freely without fear of reprisal and rejoice in the gifts the Lord has given us so generously and bear witness of that goodness in our own lives and seek the spirit instead of seeking to please the ones in authority.

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