Churches across America of all denominations are closing at alarmingly high rates. McDonald’s, however, is doing quite well. Could a pairing of church and fast food be the innovation that refreshes religion for the 21st century?

That’s the absurd pitch that a new Indiegogo campaign, the McMass Project, is making, in an attempt to raise $1 million to buy a McDonald’s franchise and turn it into a church. So far, the news has been reported in earnest by Deseret News and Patheos, the latter of which is fairly disgusted by the prospect of serving a Big Mac with a side of faith.

Unlike Kickstarter, for example, campaigns on Indiegogo get to keep all their funding regardless of whether they reach their goal, making the platform more susceptible to scams. And no one seems to be buying into the idea — since its creation on November 17, it’s made a paltry $76. So, is it a scam? Is it the real delusion of a tech-savvy proselytizer? Or perhaps it’s the punny practical joke of a talented graphic designer?

It’s “not so much satire- but hyperbole perhaps,” campaign creator Paul di Lucca told ANIMAL via email. “While we we hope that the McDonalds Church exists, we realize that our campaign may have difficulty raising the funds,” he said. “Regardless, we hope that the campaign itself will draw people to think about different ways of bringing churches into the 21st century.”

The campaign’s stated goal is this: “By combining a church and a McDonald’s we can create a self-sustaining, community-engaged, popular church, and an unparalleled McDonald’s restaurant.” The funds would “go primarily towards purchasing a franchise, with twenty percent devoted to construction, and establishing the necessary infrastructure within and around the church.”

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Turns out, it is a joke. Though it’s hard to tell who the joke is on, exactly, and who will find it funny.

ANIMAL spoke to the Indiegogo campaign’s only named donor, Amelia Winger-Bearskin, a graduate student in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Winger-Bearskin is the co-founder of the ITP-sponsored “Stupid Shit No One Needs & Terrible Ideas Hackathon,” which held its second-annual event on November 15. Around 30 teams competed for the dubious honor of wearing an Oculus Rift while beating a pinata filled with cigarettes and mini-alcohol bottles. The hilarious, purposefully bad projects included bitcoin pasties, an emoji subtitle creator, and a language tool that teaches you how to say Mitt Romney in different languages. Of these, said Winger-Bearskin, the McMass Project was a stand-out.

According to her, two men (presumably one of whom was di Lucca) presented McMass during the 9-hour hackathon. While “everyone of [the projects] works or is real in some way,” said Winger-Bearskin, the McMass creators had a vision to go beyond the hackathon, open the idea to the public, and crowdsource the project. They were also planning to contact McDonalds — though when ANIMAL contacted the fast food giant, a rep said via email: “We know there are devout fans of McDonald’s but this is not a realistic scenario as it’s not consistent with the McDonald’s franchise model.”

“It was an amazing type of performance,” said Winger-Bearskin, who added that one of the speakers “could have been a preacher.” She didn’t know if he was religious, but he certainly had that start-up fervor and charisma, she said. “Everybody really cheered.”

The project is reminiscent of “Dumb Starbucks,” comedian Nathan Fielder’s brilliant Starbucks parody chain that became a popular coffee brand in its own right, the Kickstarter to fund a $55,000 potato salad party, or the WhiteHouse.gov petition to deport former CNN anchor Piers Morgan. These are movements so obviously idiotic that they created profound cultural moments, gaining momentum as everyone wants to be in on the joke and stick it to the man. These moments serve as a refreshing reminder that, in a world so tightly regulated by policy and run by corporate-speak, individuality and humanity can still prevail.

Unlike those projects, though, McMass hasn’t gone viral. Is that because we’re not in on the joke? The conceit that makes the aforementioned projects so funny is that we know they’re stupid. McMass got laughs in the room, where everyone laughed at the outward absurdity, but not so much on the internet, where it was presented with genuine religious fervor of a Jew for Jesus. “I found their project so hilarious and amazing that I sent quite a few reporters to them,” Winger-Bearskin said. “None of them reported it, so I think [the McMass founders] were as secretive with them as they were with you.”

How far, then does the art piece extend? Considering that the creator played it straight with ANIMAL, and not with Winger-Bearskin, it seems like part of the piece is baiting the press and the public into thinking this is real. But if no one in the press falls for it, and the public dismisses it, then only the project’s creators and those at the hackathon gets the joke. The butt of the joke isn’t the idea anymore, it’s anyone who takes the idea seriously. “I think a lot of artists are okay with it being both. They are okay with the ambiguity,” said Winger-Bearksin, grappling with the confusion. “Like, I could feel like this is satire, I could also feel like this is real. But then…what does that mean for your audience?”

“There’s something different between an artist saying, ‘I built a McDonald’s in a church to make a statement,’” said Winger-Bearskin, “versus ‘I crowdsourced $2 million to do it,’ — it suddenly says something about the state of mind of the country.” Now that the joke is out of the bag, however, maybe the campaign will catch on.

(Image: Paul di Lucca/Lux Dei Design)