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7 Ways Disney Changed the Church

Walt disney and Mickey statue, Christians protest outside of Disneys headquarters

One hundred years ago, Walt Disney and his older brother, Roy, signed a deal to produce short films for a New York distributor. Three years later, at Roy’s urging, they renamed their production business Walt Disney Studios.

Since that fateful day on October 16, 1923, the influence of Disney has been nothing less than profound. As the Los Angeles Times noted, “The company has shaped the very nature of entertainment through its movies, theme parks that have become vacation destinations, merchandising strategies and television networks.” Others have gone further, such as historian and author Garry Apgar, calling Disney “the most consequential figure in the history of American culture.”

To mark the company’s 100th anniversary, the Los Angeles Times ventured seven touchstones of Disney’s influence on the business of entertainment: animation, Disneyland, merchandising, kids and family entertainment, synergy (e.g., turning characters and films into the commercial side of toys, videos and experiences), sports programming (Disney owns ESPN), and superheroes and blockbusters (Can anyone say Marvel?).

But Disney hasn’t just changed the entertainment industry. It’s changed church-world. In saying that, you might think that I will launch into the evils of the influence of the entertainment industry on the church. I suppose I could. But to be honest, I am more inclined to go a different route. Here are seven ways Disney changed the contemporary church—and for the better:

1. Children’s Ministry. Few would deny that it was the influence of Disney – and specifically Disneyland and Disneyworld – that led to churches improving the quality of their children’s ministry, including enhanced theming. Disney raised the bar for what it means to engage children. More importantly, they raised the bar on the importance of children.

2. Parking and People. If you have visited a Disney theme park you have experienced unprecedented attention to ease of parking and the movement of people into the park. The same attention to detail is encountered when exiting. Churches of all sizes have learned not only the science behind Disney’s parking and crowd control, but also the importance of it. If it’s frustrating to attend your church, people will vote with their feet.

3. Guest Services. Disney calls all of their employees “cast members.” They have roles and responsibilities, the most important of which is being courteous. As Jeff James, former Vice President of the Disney Institute, put it, “A $200 million attraction won’t be fun if the cast member at the front is less than pleasant.” Until influenced by Disney, most churches didn’t even have “guest services.” Ushers, yes, but not any sense of guest services. Much less a sense that it mattered.

4. Excellence. In the book Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service, the folks at the Disney Institute spell out their approach to customer service. It’s not complicated: “Quality service means exceeding your guests’ expectations by paying attention to every detail of the delivery of your products and services.” Excellence, sadly, was not a value talked about in church circles until recent years. Now, the mantra that “excellence honors God and inspires people” is well entrenched.

5. Cleanliness. Beyond this is the attention to detail, particularly in matters of quality. In Disney theme parks they have the saying, “Everything speaks.” This means: “Every detail – from the doorknobs to the dining rooms – sends a message to guests. That message must be consistent with the common purpose and quality standards, and it must support and further the show being created.” Churches have learned that “everything speaks” as well—and that it matters. Particularly when the message has to do with the Savior of the world.

6. Culture. Disney works hard to have a culture that is both created and protected. Employees have to attend training that immerses them in the values of the company. Churches have learned the importance of a cultivated, and then protected, culture in terms of its mission, vision and values.

7. Centrality of Jesus. Walt Disney was famous for saying that he hoped “we never lose sight of one thing—that it was all started by a mouse.” Okay, this isn’t something that has influenced the church. But if we did share a similar sentiment – that everything about our church was started by a Savior –  

... that would be a good thing, too.

Sources
Meg James, “Disney at 100: Seven Ways Walt’s Company Forever Changed Entertainment,” Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2023, read online.

Photo Credit: Travis Gergen/Unsplash 

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.

 

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