As a parent of a 5 and 2 year old, Disney World is sheer, unadulterated mayhem. The crowds, the lines, the exorbitant prices! Oh my! We should all hate Disney, (for all those reasons and more) but none of us do. We love it in varying degrees. Now when I say I want to make church more like Disney World I don’t want anyone to think that I mean more entertainment. I don’t at all. My general rule of thumb is that if it takes a Ferris Wheel to get someone to church it’ll take a Roller Coaster to keep them there. But I also don’t purposely avoid fun at church. I want to have fun all the time. But my purpose of gathering together at church is to edify, encourage, and challenge one another. If having fun is the result of doing that then great. It’s just not why I “do” church. So what could I have possibly gleaned from the Magic Kingdom that would be useful for church?
Disney Embraces the Nostalgia
By 10 in the morning there was a 45-minute line for It’s a Small World. Let that sink in for a moment (and let the song invade your brain the rest of the day.) It’s a terrible ride (like almost all their rides.) But people ride it because of nostalgia. They remember riding it when they were a kid and they are now going to make their kids ride it with them. And the cycle will perpetuate itself. There are so many aspects of Disney which only serve to activate our memories of childhood. Churches can’t be afraid to embrace the nostalgia. There are hymns, readings, décor, and other moments that bring the early days of our faith rushing to our remembrance. Identifying those elements and sprinkling them throughout various church services will really put a smile on so many people’s faces. However, what makes the Mouse such a powerhouse is that they are intentionally discovering new ways to activate that nostalgia for future generations. When my kids grow up, they won’t get those warm fuzzies with the Sword in the Stone or the Barbershop Quartets. They will get it with Elsa and Olaf, Woody and Buzz.
Disney Tries to Engage the Whole Family
You spend over half your time at Disney in line. That’s not a scientific study, but none of you are going to argue with me right? (I don’t care how much Fastpasses cost, I think it might be best to keep me sane.) My kids can’t be patient for 3 seconds, let alone an hour (my 5-year old and I waited 80-minutes for the Seven Dwarves Mine Train.) So why aren’t kids miserable? Because they get to meet Princesses and hug their favorite characters and laugh and play games in line and climb stuff they’re not supposed to climb. The line is only stressful for parents trying to corral their kids. But it’s worth it for us when the look of amazement is in our children’s eyes. But Disney reaches out to the rest of the family too. And not just on rides I wish my kids were old enough to ride. Whether it’s in Baby Care Areas for my wife or educational places for older people (and school groups that are forced to go), gardens, rides, shows, or restaurants. There is something for every age, sex, and family status. I honestly wish I could just go with my wife sometime. There are literally things I have never done at Disney because I was either 8-years old or 28 with kids. I never went in-between :( I want to encourage churches to do the same thing. Mega-churches usually don’t have problems with this because they have the resources to engage every group. Smaller churches need to be more tactical. My general experience is that churches tend to either be geared exclusively for old women in their décor and song choices or are for 20-somethings with their industrial look, darkness, and loud music. I’m not saying that compromise is the answer, because then everyone gets something they don’t particularly like or connect with. On the other hand, the goal should be to specifically add elements that will engage as many different types of people as possible. Can you engage young men, widowed women, parents of new babies, teenagers, and little kids? Can you engage people from different ethnic, cultural, and racial backgrounds? The more you can engage, the more diversity you will have, and it will benefit the body as a whole. Disney somehow works as a cohesive unit, and the church has some distinctive advantages to be even more diverse. We’re all united in Christ, we have the same mission that He has called us to, and there are no economic boundaries that limit our gathering (or at least this should all be true.)
Disney Characters Are Not Ashamed of Who They Are
Even my five your old had a moment where she saw the Seven Dwarves after the Snow White ride and said, “Huh, I guess they are real.” I know she’s just now getting to the critical thinking stage where she knows that TV shows aren’t all real, but Disney screws that all up, because these characters are now there right in front of her. There is no doubt that my kids met Cinderella, Rapunzel, Elsa, and Anna. It’s not just because of the way they look, it’s because of how they act and talk. Their mannerisms and what they talk to my kids about are spot on. It comes off as so genuine because they never break character, ever. We as born-again believers in Jesus Christ aren’t acting, pretending, or mimicking, but we come off as less authentic than a Disney Princess. I think there’s a couple reasons for that. First, so many Christians keep backing-off and “softening” what they believe. If something is clear in Scripture then stand-up for it! This should be especially true when you are at church. There should be nothing that gets us to want to back-off truth at church. It should be about encouraging one another to stay true in the midst of an antagonistic world. Also, Disney does a better job in bringing fake characters life like Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too than the church does in bringing a real person to life in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Most Interesting Man in the World. Let’s talk about Him, sing about Him, and discuss Him in a way that reflects that. But the ultimate reason why church doesn’t seem authentic to so many is that with our lips we say Jesus is important and with our actions we display that He’s not worth our time.
Disney Treats Everyone Like They Are Important
Disney employees do a great job whether they are a portraying a King or a Sanitation Engineer to treat every girl like a Princess and every boy like a Prince. I’m sure there are some horror stories, but I personally have witnessed every person treated with respect. I watched a guy try to sneak in the Fastpass line and got immediately caught by an employee who very kindly explained that he must have made a mistake and that he accidently crossed under the barrier into the wrong lane (yeah sure he did.) His response was mean and nasty to that young employee just doing her job. I didn’t hear exactly what he said, but our superstar employee responded with a smile on her face, “No need to curse sir, there are children around.” And then once he walked away, “Have a magical day.” When it comes to church, everyone is important. We are all Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, as Aslan would say. We are all created in the Image of God and everyone deserves love and respect. However, those that have worked in full-time ministry have met people that don’t deserve love or respect, but we should do it anyway because of what Christ has done for us. Our reaction to such a person might totally go over the head of the one being rude and unkind, but others will see the gesture and not miss its importance. It’s easy to be kind to those who are nice. We as the church have a much harder calling. We are to be kind to those who hate us, to be kind to sinners, and to be kind to those who might try to use us.
Disney Employees Know Everything about Everything
If you ask any employee a question at Disney World, they know the answer. They are clearly well-informed. This doesn’t happen by accident. This takes preparation, training, and empowerment. Preparation because there is a lot to communicate in order for a new employee to learn all the information a customer might ask. Training because actually putting that information into practice is more challenging than it sounds. And empowerment because an employee has to know they can leave their job station and help a family in need without fear of getting fired. Churches should do the same thing. Everyone should know everything about your church. Youth leaders won’t naturally know what’s going on with the children’s ministry unless you tell them. Deacons might not know how the new nursery check-in system works unless real preparation and training is continually done. The mentality is to not to overload volunteers and to keep certain information of the church close to the vest. However, my encouragement would be to not take either of these principles too far. Yes, overload is bad, but being well-informed of all that is going on in the church will help the volunteer feel important and will provide better information to a new visitor. Likewise, there are some very personal issues that pastors or elders should not share with the congregation, but if the info is not personal and more directional be quick to share that knowledge with the rest of the congregation. The pastor cannot have an employer/employee relationship with his congregation. It must be open and collaborative. Everyone must identify the church as “theirs.” This only happens when everyone feels like they are an important part of their church.
Disney Does the Little Things Well
Trashcans are like every 12 feet. A bathroom is always in sight no matter where you stand. In any garden area, there are pumped-in bird sounds. Every blade of grass looks like the same height. Employees are always smiling. My girls got called princess everywhere they went. Every overpriced food item we bought was actually really good. And I could think of a few-dozen more things. Disney is walking a tight-rope of the Magic Kingdom just being an overcrowded tourist-trap; but instead they have kept it a magical wonderland. They keep that by rocking the little things. Churches can do the same. Every aspect of the church service should be thought of through the eyes of a visitor. What is being communicated? Many times little things like a dirty bathroom or poor transitions between songs can be an ultimately unnecessary distraction of worshipping Jesus Christ. The little things don’t have to cost money, it simply displays that what you are doing that day is important and we want everyone to have a good experience.
What’s your favorite aspect of Disney World, maybe there’s something for us to learn from.
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