You Can’t Out-Disney Disneyworld (or can you?)…

I thought I was going to make it my whole life without having to go to Disney. But, my family needed a vacation and they wanted to go to Disney, so I relented. Even though I had never been to Disney World, there was something familiar about it. Then I realized what it was. It felt just like church.
Everything was clean. Everyone was polite. No one cussed. Everyone followed the rules. Even the buildings looked like and smelled like modern church buildings. Both have their own radio stations. Both have their own bookstores. Both produce their own movies and cartoons. Both print their own t-shirts. Our VBS themes look just like Disney rides.
If you exchanged Micky Mouse with Jesus and replaced the movie quotes with Bible verses, it would have felt like I was at a Christian summer camp or Christian conference.
My first thought was that the modern American church is based on Disney World (and by modern church, I mean all those currently in existence and operational, regardless of worship style). But then I realized that they are both simply based on the same premise. The best name I can give this premise is the “All-American, capitalistic, family-friendly, entertainment experience.”
That is to say, they both offer to deliver whatever family-friendly experience American families are willing to pay top dollar for. As long as people continue to show up and give their money to keep the doors open and keep salaries paid, Disney and the modern American church will continue to put on whatever show they need to put on and deliver whatever experience they need to deliver to keep them showing up.
At this point the traditional church will say, “We don’t do that, we’re traditional.” But that proves my point. Traditional churches continue to deliver a traditional experience because that is what the people who pay for it want.
As soon as the people stop showing up, the traditional church inevitably switches to a “blended” style or has a separate “contemporary” service to try to attract more people. If the church completely dies, then it is replaced by a contemporary church that gives the more modern audience what it wants.
Here also, the contemporary church will say, “But we are real, we’re authentic; we have been freed from tradition.” First, on the point of tradition, every church has traditions.
The U.S. Air Force didn’t come into existence until after WWII. Also, the Air Force has a reputation for having nice living conditions. One Air Force General stated, “We are a fairly young service, we don’t have many traditions. The one tradition we do have is comfort.”
Not singing hymns is a tradition. The pastor being dressed like a slob is a tradition. Small groups is a tradition. Praise and worship music is a tradition.
But the point of being “real and authentic” is where I would like to focus. First, we must realize that the contemporary church appears just as fake to those who prefer the traditional church as the traditional church appears fake to those who prefer the contemporary. And to the adherents of both, both “feel” real and authentic.
Personally, I have been in both settings that felt real and both that felt fake. Therefore, we cannot form our opinion on whether what we are doing is authentic or not, based on how it feels. Disney World is all about creating the most authentic make-believe experience money can buy.
Only the modern American church rivals or surpasses Disney in creating an authentic fake experience.
Let me say that again because it is my main point. The modern American church specializes in creating the authentic, fake, religious experience that people want to buy. People love Disney because it is where they can go to experience an authentic make-believe experience that closely mimics the real ones that they would like to experience, but can’t or won’t. I might have been more impressed with Disney if I hadn’t experience the real things.
I’ve snowboarded in Utah, that was authentic. I’ve jumped off a black lava rock cliff in Waimea Bay, Hawaii. I’ve wandered the streets of Hong Kong. I’ve steered an aircraft carrier while F-18s and F-14s launched and landed. I’ve ridden waves off the west coast of Australia. I’ve heard prayers broadcast from the minarets in Dubai. I’ve jumped off a waterfall into an oasis in the California desert. I’ve pulled off a perfect swan dive from the highest point of the Rhodhiss rock quarry (yes, I have a thing for jumping off high stuff into water).
Those experiences were authentic.
And those are the types of experiences that Disney World tries to recreate as authentic feeling, fake experiences. If I hadn’t experienced the real thing, I might not know what I was missing.
But I’ve also sat all alone in the middle of the night in the dark with nothing but me and Jesus, realizing that it was going to cost me everything to follow Him. That was authentic. And by everything I don’t mean just worldly things. Following Jesus has cost me the fake church experiences that I had been a part of, both traditional and contemporary. I loved fake church because I didn’t know it was fake; because I hadn’t experienced the real thing.
Once I experienced the real thing, the fake one just wouldn’t satisfy me anymore. Nothing compares to getting completely honest with Jesus about what must be laid down and walked away from.
The problem I now encounter is when I try to walk into a church and bring that authentic experience with me; when I try to introduce church people to that authentic experience with the real Jesus. The problem with experiencing true authenticity is that to experience it, you must admit that what you were doing up until that point, was fake.
For me, admitting that most of what I had experienced in church up until that point was fake, was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. Worst of all, I had to admit that as a pastor, I had lead people in fake church experiences. However, admitting it was fake was also the most freeing thing I have ever done.
As churches, we must be honest enough to admit if we are creating an authentic feeling, fake church experience just to keep people coming (traditional or contemporary). We must do this because it is the first step in experiencing the real thing. This is the cost we are afraid to pay, but we must. This is what we are afraid to lay down, but we must.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the one thing that most church leaders refuse to do. Their pride will not let them even consider the notion that they have invested so much time, effort, money, and energy into creating an authentic fake experience. But let me assure you that it is entirely possible. I have been a part of creating them in both traditional and contemporary settings.
The reason we are afraid to admit that we have been creating authentic fake experiences is that we are afraid of admitting our incompetence. However, the first step in becoming competent is admitting what you do not know. But we are afraid that if we admit our incompetence, people will stop coming to our churches.
But here is the truth. If people stop coming because we admit what we have been doing is fake, then they need not be there to begin with. If they are looking for an authentic fake experience, there are plenty of churches who will provide that for them. And if all else fails, they can go to Disney World.
Here is an even more important truth. Our churches are surrounded by thousands of people who have already figured out that what we are doing is fake. And they have no desire to go to something they know is fake, just like I had no desire to go to Disney World. They haven’t rejected Jesus; they have rejected our fake presentation of Jesus. If we were to offer the real thing, they would be there.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that if we were to teach the real Jesus, many people who come to church now would stop coming and many who do not come now, would start.
Jesus said to churches like ours:
“I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.” (Revelation 3:1-3)