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Church Communication Hero: Walt Disney

I wonder how many people we’d reach if more churches embraced the teachings of Walt Disney.

When asked to write an article on my favorite “church” communicator, Disney immediately came to mind. No, he didn’t lead or start any churches that I know of and quite frankly, I’m not even sure if he was even a Christian (Editor’s Note: Yes, Disney was a Christian, at least in a nominal sense). But his philosophy is deeply woven into much of what I’ve been teaching church leaders over the past 17 years about how to reach people more effectively. The connections seem so obvious to me…

When I think of Walt Disney, these thoughts flood my mind: Vision. Imagination. Dare to dream big. Sweat the small stuff. Create an experience. Be committed to excellence. Always have the big picture in mind. Take risks. A passion to tell stories. Strong desire to bring families together.

Actions speak louder than words. Which means as communicators it’s not just about what we say but what we do. So let me unpack a few of these principles I learned from Walt that make my heart beat fast:

1) Create an experience.

People remember 10% of what they read but 100% of what they feel: Experiences matter. Disney went to great lengths to ensure park guests engaged in an experience and let nothing inside the park conflict with the magical world he intended to create.

If you were cut off in the church parking lot, had a painful process of checking your kids into the children’s ministry and were reprimanded for bringing coffee into the sanctuary, does it matter that “Love your neighbor,” was this week’s message? Ensure the experience is consistent with who you are and what you want to be known for both in and outside the church.

2) Always have the big picture in mind.

Disney was a master of planned design. Do the communication efforts of your ministries work together or are they unintentionally competing with each other for the attention of your congregation? If everything speaks at the same time at the same volume, nothing will be heard. Be intentional about how everything fits together.

3) Be committed to excellence.

Disney didn’t settle for second best and recognized details matter. God himself commanded the best sculptors, cedar and finest furnishings when the tabernacle was built. So why do we think it’s OK to settle for second best when people’s eternities are at stake?

4) Dare to dream big.

Disney was an innovator. “Steamboat Willie” was the very first animated film to have synchronized sound in 1928. In 1937, “Snow White” was the first full-length animated feature (also the first in English, first animated feature in Techincolor and first made in the United States)
. Walt Disney World itself was one-of-a-kind in many ways and didn’t even open until after his death As the story goes, someone asked Walt Disney Studios Creative Director Mike Vance if he was disappointed Walt didn’t get to see the end result. “He already did,” he replied. “That’s why it’s here.”

Walt Disney wasn’t afraid to take risks, loved to tell stories and has impacted generations on a global scale. We get to tell the greatest story ever told, yet time and again I see the fear of failure hold churches back—content with mediocrity. Marketplace companies have R&D labs. Why don’t we? When was the last time your church truly pushed the envelope knowing it would make some people unhappy? Don’t let the comfort of your congregation limit the vision God may have for your ministry.

What a Mouse Has To Do With Ministry

At the end of the day, our goal as church communicators is to do much more than just provide a magical experience. Eternities are at stake. But if we can do everything possible to remove barriers so it’s easier for people to connect with God, we may just have the happiest places on earth after all.