Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What the Church Can Learn from Disney

So yesterday I went to Disneyland. Have you been? If you have but it's been a while, well, it's mostly just the way you remember it. Yeah, there are new rides (some amazing ones), but the bedrock is all the things you know -- Space Mountain. The Haunted Mansion. It's a Small World.  

On the surface, most of this seems aimed at kids. (I can't tell you how many times in recent years I have heard some of my nieces clamoring about wanting to go to Disney to meet the Disney princesses! Ugh!)

But I will tell you, it is a remarkable place to come as an adult, too. There's a certain easiness to being there.  Pathways are large enough and varied enough to accommodate the throngs without anyone feeling suffocated.  There are a million people in the park, and yet unlike every other amusement park I have ever been to, food kiosks and restaurants are so numerous as to not be overcrowded. And yes, there are long lines, if you want to wait, but there are also no-charge fast pass options that allow you to check in hours ahead of time for rides and then go on your merry way.

The other thing is, many of those rides kids love remain super enjoyable for adults.  A roller coaster in the dark is fun and scary whether you're 13 or 47. Pop culture rides like Indiana Jones and Star Wars are probably even more entertaining for adults who get the jokes than for kids. And many other, not so heart-pumpy amusements like the Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean are so rich in detail and humor that they inspire you to just sit back and relish them.

That's what happens at Disney -- you relax, and you relish.

None of this is unintentional.  Walt Disney often said he wanted his theme parks to be places where people could come and play, without any apprehension or worry. A place you could leave your troubles behind for a time and get in touch with that playful childhood part of yourself again.  And his imagineers, as the people who design every detail of every Disney park, cruise and hotel are called, continue to embrace that vision.

I've been thinking a lot lately about organizations like Disney, Apple, Google, and what lessons they might offer the Church.  When it comes to Disney, I think it's three things:

1) Have a clear sense of what you're trying to accomplish.  If you were to ask 30 pastors or parish councils to state succinctly what they want Catholics to experience when they come to Church on Sunday, I wonder what they would say. I also wonder whether the Disney vision might be a partial way of thinking about what we want the experience of "Church" to be -- a place where we release our hold on certain things, where our brows are invited to grow unfurrowed. A place where are invited to relish.

Either way, what you see at Disney is, having a clear vision is fundamental to your visitors/parishioners having the sorts of experience you want them to have.

2) Make sure that vision is humane -- that is, that it relates to the primal spiritual/physical/emotional needs and desires of human beings, first and foremost.  I think we've probably all been to Masses or parishes that seemed relatively or completely uninterested in the parishioners in attendance.  It could be those parishes have a clear sense of what they think Mass or Church should be. But if that vision is fundamentally disconnected from those who will be in attendance, it's not adequate.  

3) Lastly, bring that vision to bear on every detail.  At Disney, every element is considered in every area, every ride, every restaurant, because it's understood that one's experience comes from the combination of all of those elements, not just from a few. What makes the Golden Horseshoe Saloon a must see attraction is not just the fun stage show, it's that they also have fantastic root beer floats to drink there. And the place is clean.  And the lines aren't long.

So, thinking about our Masses -- it's not just the homily we need to think about, or the architecture of the Church -- it's the sorts of welcome ushers offer as parishioners arrive; the statues and stained glass of the church; the precise formulation of the petitions; the vestments of the liturgical ministers; the design of the pews; the style of the missals and music books.

One example: if we understand the liturgy as an opportunity for people to have an experience of God, and we see that as happening in part through relishment, that is through the engaging of the senses, then the vestments the presider wears are really important. I can't tell you how many dirty or faded albs and chasubles I've worn because that's what the parish has on hand.  And you say to yourself, well, I'm some distance away, they'll never really notice anyway.  And maybe that's true. (Probably it's not.) But even so, it's a missed opportunity. A rich, colorful vestment is one more means of engaging the parishioner, of triggering that primal hunger to savor and also to celebrate.

I admit, it all sounds a bit much.  But when you visit Disney, and you see just how much peace and joy a million tiny details can together accomplish, their wisdom rings loud and clear.  If we want a taste of the truly magic kingdom (and we do), we have to work at it!


Wotnop Dahc said...

Number 4 has to be: People will pay extra for a Fast Pass...

Opps, my bad that was Universal Studios... What a deal!

Jim McDermott, S.J. said...


Anonymous said...

Jim - you got the wrong Magic Castle.
Rookie's mistake.
We will fix that.

clapping robot said...

Those three can be applied to screenwriting as well.