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Q & A
Q&A: What churches can learn from Disney Sam Hodges, Jun 6, 2011
Christopher W. Perry
The Rev. Christopher W. Perry begins his new book The Church Mouse: Leadership Lessons from the Magic Kingdom (The Pilgrim Press) this way: “Hello. My name is Chris and I’m a Disneyaholic.”
He’s kidding, but barely. Mr. Perry, 37-year-old pastor of Robinson Springs United Methodist Church in Millbrook, Ala., spends time on Disney fan websites, has Disney-themed rooms in his home, and seems to know every detail of every Disney ride or movie. He recently spoke with managing editor Sam Hodges.
How many times have you been to a Disney park? Oh my goodness, I couldn’t count. Well over 20. Probably more like 30 or 40 times. I’m helping teach with various conferences down at Disney, and I take my family. We’re down there a lot.
What’s the most important lesson that the Magic Kingdom has for those trying to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth? Intentionality. Disney is extremely intentional about everything they do, whether it’s who they hire or how they present their shows, and even the environment you walk into, just coming through the turnstiles. So often in the church we kind of let things happen and go with the flow. We’re not nearly as intentional about the environment we create in worship or about how we go about our mission for the kingdom of God.
What specific lessons from Disney have you tried to put in place at Robinson Springs UMC? One of the biggest is attaching everything we do to a story. Disney does not just throw out a mission statement or a slogan. Everything they do they attach to a meta-narrative, an overarching story that everybody can grasp onto.
Here at Robinson Springs, if we have a new ministry we want to try, if we have a new vision we want to convey, we try to intentionally craft the wording, but more important, we try to attach a face to every ministry, a story to everything we do, even if it’s just taking up an offering.
Many Methodist churches hear about apportionment all the time, and I regularly hear that [apportionment is] viewed as basically a church tax, in a negative light. What I’ve tried to do most weeks is share a story related to the ministries that are covered through our apportionment, to show how this ministry has brought healing to a part of the world. When stories become attached to ideas, the ideas take hold in the lives of people.
You write in the book about how you’ve tried to make Robinson Springs a very welcoming church. What did you learn from Disney on that front? When I arrived at Robinson Springs five years ago, this was a church with about 50 people, a building that goes back to 1845, and not a lot of other resources. So for me it became about looking for something we could do with the resources we have. Disney had a campaign—“be our guest.” It comes from the Beauty and the Beast movie. We grabbed that whole idea, looking at how we could make people that come through our doors, every person, feel like an honored guest. That really took root and became part of our culture.
Where are you now in average weekly attendance? We have about 150.
Explain what you mean by an Epcot church. When Epcot opened in 1982, the original title was an acronym, and it stood for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. To me, that’s what the church should be. Jesus has told us that we are to be the kingdom of God, that the kingdom of God is in us and among us. A study of the Greek language shows that when Jesus talks about eternal life and the coming of the kingdom of God, he’s talking about something that has a present reality but a future fulfillment, meaning we’ve got a glimpse of it now, but we’re not going to see it in its fullness until later.
So the Epcot church idea is that we as the church should show the world now what heaven is going to be like. We should be reflecting the kingdom of God in the way we conduct ourselves now, as a glimpse of that future fulfillment.
Are there things that the United Methodist Church as a denomination—an aging, shrinking denomination in the United States—can learn from Disney? I think so. Part of it is, we need to reclaim our story. We have the greatest story ever told in the Christian church, and in the United Methodist Church we really have this unique story of God’s grace and reaching out to the hurt and the marginalized and the lost, of making disciples and not just converts.
I think we’ve somewhat lost that focus in all of our argument about peripheral issues. And I think if the United Methodist Church would, like Disney, reclaim our story, we could be a force to be reckoned with in our country and in our world once again.
People in today’s culture want to be part of something bigger than themselves. When you go to Disney you completely lose yourself in the story, and I think that’s what people are looking for in a church home. They want a place where they can truly feel part of something bigger than themselves, and in the United Methodist Church we offer that. It’s one of the things that’s so great about the connectional system. We just haven’t taken advantage of it very well recently.
You write of Disney’s goal to make people happy. But Disney also has the goal of money. Corporate success sometimes comes in a context where top executives are paid millions and the rank-and-file workers are barely making it. It sometimes comes from selling goods that aren’t necessarily good for people. Is there a prophetic word that the church has to say about how corporate America conducts itself? Absolutely. Specifically related to companies that profess family values, that hold themselves up to the standard that Disney specifically does, when they get off track it’s time for the church to stand up and say, “Hey, you’ve lost your compass.” I think that fits very much within our Methodist heritage. John Wesley and the whole Methodist movement certainly did not shirk away from fighting for better rights for the workers, abolishing the poor houses, better living conditions. That’s part of our story, whether it be Disney or any company out there. I think we as Christians have the obligation to stand up for those who maybe don’t have a voice.
If you decided to give up Disney for Lent, could you? [Laughs.] Yes, I could. It wouldn’t be fun, but a sacrifice for Christ definitely surpasses my love for Disney.
Have your parishioners been patient with your Disney obsession? They’ve been extremely patient, because they have seen the benefits. They understand that my fascination with Disney is not just simply as a fan boy, that I’m fascinated by the things we can learn as a church, that I’m fascinated by how creativity can be used to advance God’s kingdom.
How about fellow United Methodist pastors? I’ve found overwhelming support. They’re intrigued by the ideas. Again, for me, it’s not just talking about Disney. It’s about looking at the concept and considering how we can revolutionize how we view the church. I enjoy the rides and shows, but for me that’s not the main part of the fascination. It’s the DNA, the culture, the concepts that I find so applicable to how we lead our church for the kingdom of God.