Culture Change the Disney Way

June 10th, 2011

On my last trip to Walt Disney World, I spoke with people from Brazil, Australia, the UK, Germany, Japan, and a large majority of the 50 states. Why would people travel from all over the world to go to a theme park? When was the last time you ran into such a huge international contingent at any other theme park? The answer is that the Disney Corporation intentionally creates a culture that results in an unparalleled magical experience for its guests.

Disney guests have high expectations when they visit the parks, but no higher than Disney has for itself. When you walk through a Disney park the experience is vastly different from any other place—from the theming to the way you are treated by the Cast Members. Even their terminology (Cast Members = employees, Guests = customers) intentionally conveys a different experience.

The church can learn a lot from the culture-creating abilities of Disney, whether we’re speaking of a six-month-old church plant or a 200-year-old highly traditional church. Lack of attention to culture is a problem I see in most churches in my consulting work. The vast majority of pastors arrive at established churches with a long-standing culture. Under the assumption that they can’t change that culture, they simply learn to function within it. Even church planters, though, often start off with a grand vision for the culture of their church, but after six months they begin to settle into a routine with the intentional effort of culture creation drifting away with the busyness of getting a new church off the ground.

The Walt Disney World resort has been around for 40 years and the Disneyland resort has existed for more than 50 years. How has Disney maintained their culture after all of these years and not suffered the “inevitable” letdown that so many companies experience? One of the biggest secrets to their success is that Disney is intentional about hiring the right people who will fit their culture, training them how to interact within that culture, and then deploying them to further that culture. Within the church we, rightly, accept all people. However, when it comes to leadership within the church we often resort to simply picking warm bodies. We have a certain number of slots we must fill on our committees and we fail to ask whether these are the right people to carry out the mission of the church. In Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about getting the right people in the right seats on your bus. Intentionally choosing your leadership is the first step in crafting your culture.

Disney does not open the gates to its theme parks each morning and hope for the best. Every Cast Member has a mission to fulfill and has been intentionally and thoroughly trained in how to fulfill that mission. Their mission, whether we are talking about a street sweeper, someone performing in a show, a cashier at a restaurant, or an executive working behind the scenes, is exactly the same: to make each guest’s visit as magical as possible. Each Cast Member plays a different role in making that happen, but the mission unites them all.

The church can use Disney’s model of everyone having a function and being equipped to carry out that function in accomplishing the overall mission. What is the mission of the Church? Jesus makes it pretty clear that the mission of every local church is to make disciples (Matthew 28:16-20). This involves bringing people to Christ (evangelism), nurturing them in their relationship with Christ (discipleship) and deploying them to minister for Christ (ministry). All Christians have that same mission, but all of us have different roles in accomplishing that mission. At the Disney parks, all Cast Members have the same mission of giving the guests a magical experience. Some keep everything clean, some sell food or merchandise, some perform, some assist with the rides, but all parts perform their function to the best of their ability to accomplish the same mission.

Another aspect of culture creation that Disney does so well is to attach their mission to a story. The mission statement of the Disney Corporation is “to be one of the world's leading producers and providers of entertainment and information.” I’m not sure if I asked any of the 60,000+ Cast Members that work at the Walt Disney World Resort to repeat that mission statement verbatim that many of them would be able to. A few of them would, but probably the majority would know it more in a summary version. Mission statements, without a story attached, are boring and useless, no matter how eloquent the language. The genius of Disney is that they know how to create a great story.

One great example comes from Disney’s use of their 1991 film, Beauty and the Beast. Everyone remembers the famous catch-phrase sung by Lumiere and the rest of the kitchen: “Be our guest.” Disney still uses that phrase today to teach Cast Members how visitors to the parks should be treated—as guests, not customers. A guest is someone to be welcomed in, to be treated with all of the hospitality you can muster. A customer is someone you want to purchase something from you so that you can increase your profit margin. A guest is a friend to be respected. A customer is a “thing” to be used. The two viewpoints are light-years apart and result in a very different attitude towards those who come to your place of business. Do you view those who come into your church as guests to be welcomed with intentional hospitality or do you view them as “customers” who will, hopefully, increase the church’s bottom line?

If you want to change the DNA of your church, discover your church’s mission and connect people to that story bigger than themselves (the “metanarrative”). By this, I mean find the particular story of when your church is at its best and then connect that to the larger Christian narrative. This mission cannot be just what the pastor wants to do. It has to be something that all of you will rally behind and give your all to supporting. For instance, when I arrived at my current church I saw a congregation with an old building and very few resources. We weren’t going to have the biggest, best youth or children’s programs around. We weren’t going to have the best praise band and, certainly, not the best preacher. I struggled to find our connecting point. Through prayer and discussion with the leadership it hit me: we would be the friendliest, most welcoming church around. We grabbed on to Disney’s “be our guest” idea and ran with it. Now the greeting time during worship can last 5 minutes or more. We have monthly potlucks, weekly fellowship meals, and extra fun events. We refer to the church as our “family.” I intentionally have preached, taught, and encouraged every member to welcome every person they see, no matter what they look like or whether you’ve ever seen them before. A visitor can hardly get five feet inside the door without ten people wanting to welcome them. That shift costs no money—only intentionality. When people visit our church, over and over we hear how welcomed they felt, whether they choose to make this their church home or not. The church bought in because hospitality was something near to their hearts. “Be our guest” made sense. That idea connects with the dominant Southern narrative of “Southern Hospitality” which is already ingrained in almost anyone who grew up in the Deep South. Good stories will connect beyond themselves, usually unconsciously. The folks of my church only needed a little intentional pushing in that direction.

These are but two parts of intentional culture creation. But they highlight the intentionality needed if you are going to shift your church away from “We’ve always done it this way” to becoming the church that Christ calls you to be. If you cannot clearly and effectively communicate to your people the climate you want to exist within the church then it’ll never happen. No great thing happens by accident. When we are intentional with prayer and planning then the DNA of the church will move towards the environment you envision.


Read more in Perry's book, The Church Mouse: Leadership Lessons from the Magic Kingdom.

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