Walt Disney shaped the American Church because he shaped American culture. His vision of American progress in the 1960’s promised that technology would bring about the good life, less work and more leisure. The American church under the influence of this vision tends to choose the optics of progress: new facilities, new political voices, new branding, new technology and more, over the vitals of Spiritual health.
I will never forget asking some fellow American pastors what’s going on at their church. They shared a lot of progress. When I asked, “but what is Jesus doing in your city?” They fell silent. Under the optics of progress, bigger facilities can mean we are making disciples. New streaming technology can mean people are understanding the teaching of Jesus. Fresh branding can mean people see Jesus clearer. Progress technologically does not change people Spiritually.
Yet technological progress remains captivating. Like Elon Musk is today, Disney was to his generation. After he revolutionized animation & innovated the theme park, Disney stood poised to tackle his last great idea: The Florida Project. Today, we know it as Walt Disney World Resort. Today’s resort falls well short of Walt Disney’s vision for a city of tomorrow.
The Florida Project was always more than a resort, just like Disneyland was “more than an amusement park” to Walt. Walt’s original vision for Florida was building an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). It would be a real city with real people, designed for ideal human flourishing by providing the best technology. The kind Disney had been bringing together through his leadership in the World’s Fair.
Today, technology has advanced beyond what Disney could have dreamed. But few would claim it brought the good life. We work longer hours, under more stress, with more health risks, in a society still reckoning with the sins of our fathers: of racism, greed, injustice, and pride. For all our efforts to leave them behind, we remain their children. Disney’s vision of progress has no answer for hearts of darkness. The irony that he planned EPCOT during the Civil Rights movement says as much.
The American church shaped by Walt Disney’s America will believe it must keep the optics of progress over the vitals of health. The cost of progress (there is always a cost) demands we keep moving rather than keep in step with the Spirit. It’s no wonder abuse gets covered, no wonder leaders burnout, no wonder disciples resemble consumers, because American progress in American churches moves with a speed that does violence to our souls.
The American church must resource our definition of progress within the vision of Scripture. Jesus begins with the human condition & works outward into the human community. “For through him [Jesus] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” writes Paul in Ephesians 2:20. The heart of darkness, the central problem in the human condition, is made right through the reconciling work of Jesus who died in our place, and now lives to “take God’s human project forward” as N.T. Wright puts it so well.
Some say that society should not be the Christian’s concern. But I believe it is Jesus’ concern, his post-resurrection priority. Christ expresses his concern for and claim to human society through his Church. The Church is human community under God’s direction. We witness and welcome newcomers into the kingdom of Jesus by gospel proclamation and participation. A Church captive to the optics of progress can never witness to this Kingdom, since it refuses the power that makes such witness possible. Ephesians 2:13-14 teaches that Jesus “is himself our peace, who has made us both one”. In other words, in Christ “ethnic conciliation becomes a reality we receive, not one we achieve” as John Perkins so eloquently puts it. Imagine an American church fully committed to embody the rule of Jesus. A church that displays ethnic harmony as a witness to his power to forgive and transform sinful men and women who live together in radical unity and diversity.
Disney didn’t get it all wrong, but he did get it backwards. God shares Disney’s passion for a city of tomorrow. But that city doesn’t ignore the condition of humanity. Jesus alone will get it done. He is making men and women fit to rule and reign–to create progress–from redeemed hearts that love God and love neighbor. The future is not in the progress of technology, but in the progress of God’s Spirit. Yet there is always a cost to progress. For mankind, our progress has demanded our blood. For the church, the cost of our progress has been the blood of Jesus. I’m content to be a pilgrim on my way to the future city He’s building.