On Saturday my family returned from Disney World, a.k.a. The Happiest Place on Earth. (Ironically, more than once I overheard a parent using this slogan as a threat toward an overstimulated, beyond-exhausted child: “This is the happiest place on Earth, DANGIT, so start acting like it!”) I am glad for the opportunity my son had to fly on an airplane (a long-held desire), meet his favorite characters (he has always loved anyone in a costume), ride roller-coasters and spinny nightmares (which made him giddy), and see his first in-person fireworks (despite his initial terror that Cinderella’s castle was exploding). I am eternally grateful to my in-laws for making these experiences possible.
During our stay I was reminded of the complex relationship I have with all things Disney. As a forty-year-old, I have never known a world untouched by Disney, with all of its fraught cultural messages around gender, race, ethnicity, and other key identity markers. (If you’re not sure what I mean, see this list of more accurate Disney movie titles.) And Disney’s ability to turn anything into a moneymaker is unparalleled, building on and feeding a consumerism that I worry will be the eventual downfall of humankind. Not to put too dramatic a point on it, of course.
And yet I cannot argue with the hospitality that permeates the whole of the Disney experience. The church could learn a few things from this warm welcome. Rather than focusing on the consumerist side – how do we get people here and then entice them to come back? – that I think is the church’s default in the light of shrinking membership rosters and budgets, I want to encourage some reflection on how we notice and treat people when they come through our doors. Here, then, are some things that we as the church would do well to emulate:
The employees we encountered at every turn seemed happy to be there – and happy that we were there. Maybe you’ve encountered church greeters who look like they’ve just come from a root canal. Or members who glared at you for taking “their” seats. Or pastors who apologized from the pulpit for the sermon scripture or focus for that day. At Disney the bus drivers, security types, vendors, ride operators, performers – everyone – was smiling and helpful. That joyful tone created an expectation that I would be glad I came to this place on this day, no matter what kind of trepidation I came with.
Everything is set up from the visitor’s perspective. There is signage everywhere about directions, wait times, and events. Information is also available by hard-copy map, people stationed around the parks to assist, and an app for your smartphone. There are so many restrooms scattered around that you are never far from one, and the stalls are plentiful such that there isn’t much of a line. Contrast this approach to the one many churches take, in which everything is set up from the insider’s perspective. You’re just supposed to know which door to go in, what time worship takes place, and where the nursery is.
Language choices are given a lot of thought. Disney calls their employees “cast members,” giving them all – no matter their role – a stake in how the experience turns out. The people coming to the parks are not visitors or customers but “guests,” making it clear that they are to be treated as such. Language shapes the way we locate ourselves and others in an environment. What would change if churches called their volunteers “ministers,” which they rightly are by virtue of the priesthood of all believers? What if congregations referred to all newcomers as “guests,” seeing them as the people worthy of the most honor?
Despite my complex relationship with Disney, I came home from my trip tired and full of gratitude, thanks in large part to the welcoming aspects that Disney gives such careful attention. May it be so for those who enter our church walls.