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Sharing the Gospel: Franchise or Indigenization?

From the series Ministering Cross-Culturally

In the back of a cupboard at our family mountain cabin I found my baby-sized A&W root beer cup that dates to the late 1950s. Sometimes after Sunday evening church services my family would take the ten-minute drive from our 200-person farm town to a nearby real town for a mug of frosty root beer. That was my first exposure to a fast-food franchise. A rarity in the 1950s, fast food franchises are now found worldwide. As of 2022, McDonalds had more the 40,000 global franchises.1 Starbucks currently has 38,000 franchises globally and 6,800 in China alone.2 These franchises are extraordinarily successful: today’s 536,825 fast food franchises collect about $731 billion dollars annually with profit margins averaging around 5-8% and in some cases much higher.3 Many of the most successful franchises trace their history to one specific person with a clear and compelling vision and a well-defined quality-control system that facilitated their astounding growth and success.4

Nothing succeeds like success, and many Christian ministries have adopted a franchise-like pattern based on a founder’s compelling vision facilitated by a highly structured and quality-controlled delivery system. Some have thousands or even tens of thousands of employees and budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars and report spectacular ministry impact statistics.

Can the gospel be franchised? I think not.

Almost exactly twenty years ago three friends and I sat in a mission-funded apartment in Moscow waiting to meet our Russian host who I’ll call Ivan. The apartment was a staging point for American teachers providing training for Russian pastors with the eventual goal to start a denominational seminary in Moscow.

Ivan was a pastor and evangelist, a third-generation believer: some of his grandparents died in the gulags for their faith, and his father, a pastor, survived being thrown off trains. Ivan was baptized in a bathtub during a wedding—one of the few safe Christian gatherings at that time.

Ivan began our cultural briefing by gently cautioning us about Western paternalism and colonialism.  His definitions were simple: paternalism meant Westerners believing they knew what was best for Russians; colonialism meant using nationals for your own benefit. His illustration of those definitions was that of a Western ministry that visited his city each summer for short term mission trips but refused to invest in local ministries. When they went back home, they used videos of their trips to raise money for their organization.

Franchising the gospel can sometimes become a fellow traveler with paternalism and colonialism. The pattern goes something like this: a gifted and charismatic leader has a vision for how to help those believers “over there” with a perceived need. The leader launches a ministry, secures funding, develops a proprietary curriculum (for church leadership or theological training or practical biblical skills or…). Field staff are hired and trained and sent abroad to demonstrate and replicate the program. They come home with success stories that find their way into prayer letters intended to help raise financial support. In some cases, 2 Timothy 2:2 is portrayed as a sort of Ponzi scheme: we trained ten people to use our curriculum, and they will each train ten…soon you’ve equipped thousands with your uniquely critical curriculum.

Ministering cross-culturally is the opposite of franchising.

Lamin Sanneh states, “Christianity seems unique in being the only world religion that is transmitted without the language or originating culture of its founder.”5 Jesus designed the gospel to be sown as a Word seed to grow and mature within indigenous peoples’ languages and cultures. His disciples came to embrace Jesus’ strategy beginning with nearby cultures and languages in Judea and Samaria as well as distant Greek and Roman cultures. It seems that strategy worked: today the complete Bible exists in 736 languages, the New Testament in 1,658 languages, and portions of the Bible exist in an additional 1,264 languages.6

Jesus and his followers sowed the living Word in the form of a gospel seed; we watch it grow, not able to control it or even know how it happens; and the fruitfulness is astounding. A franchise can’t do that.


“2023 Global Scripture Access.” Wycliffe Global Alliance. Accessed February 26, 2024.

Sanneh, Lamin. Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003.


  1. “Restaurants by Country,” McDonald’s Corporate, accessed April 17, 2024,
  2. Marcus Lu, “Which Countries Have the Most Starbucks Stores?”, Visual Capitalist, December 29, 2023, accessed April 17, 2024,
  3. “Global Fast Food Restaurants – Number of Businesses 2005–2029,” IBISWorld, September 11, 2023, accessed April 17, 2024,,increase%20of%200.2%25%20from%202023. “Fast Food Consumption by Country 2024,” World Population Review, accessed April 17, 2024, “What Are the Profit Margins in the Fast Food Business?,”, July 2021, accessed April 17, 2024,
  4. See Starbucks’ Howard Shulz and McDonalds’ Ray Kroc
  5. Sanneh 2003, 98.
  6. “2023 Global Scripture Access”
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Ken Anderson

Ken Anderson

Dr. Ken Anderson serves as board chair for ChinaReach, an indigenous missiological training effort intended to help China move from a mission field to a mission force. Dr. Anderson holds DMiss and MAGL degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary. From 2011–2021 he served as an itinerant extension biblical training missionary in China …View Full Bio

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