From the Bimbo cartoon “The Bum Bandit” (1931), Fleischer studio- not mickey mouse!

How the Disney World Model Leads to Top-Down Absolute Control

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Did the American Evangelical megachurch adopt the unchecked executive model because it wanted to emulate Disney World and its fantasy of American small town life? It’s a charge that’s worth looking at because it can shed some light on this issue. I’m going to be unabashedly churchy in this, so comment if you need a translation of the Evangelical jargon.

In my quest to understand why American Evangelicals have rejected the balancing of powers that the Reformation developed for the Strong Executive model (which we can even call the “Infallible Pope model”, and will when we look at Lord Acton’s lectures), I have returned to some books on Christianity and post-modernism written during the last decade by some friends of friends who teach at Evangelical-associated universities.

David Wells was a Distinguished Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and an ordained as a Congregational minister. He can be expected to argue for stronger theology among Evangelicals in his books. Or even any theology at all: many Evangelicals scoff at the need for “all that theology stuff”, which in his mind explains a lot.

In his Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, Wells discusses how the megachurch is a response to the new religious “consumer”. Religions of all types in America have seen massive amounts of “switching”, people who used to call themselves adherents to a particular faith but now don’t. Sometimes this is to another faith — and I’ll lump “atheist” in this — but it is increasingly to “non-aligned”. The switching isn’t just at Christian churches: in 2001, 33% became Buddhists while 23% left it.

[These numbers come from CUNY’s 2001 The American Religious Identification Survey and the Pew Forum’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. We’ll cover this in a later post.]

Wells argues that this has driven Evangelical churches to be increasingly focused on how the newcomer feels when coming to the church. He believes:

[t]hat is why Disney World is considered a model that some churches have tried to follow for it has been so successful in creating for its “guests” (as its customers are called) an atmosphere which is clean, bright, optimistic, and fun. It has also demonstrated that it has the know-how to keep its customers satisfied so that they want to return…..

The sudden fascination with Disney obviously goes beyond an interest in how to emulate a well-run, effective business. As Stephen Fjellman has pointed out [in Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World in America], these amusement parks are pilgrimage sites, in which the memories of youth are rekindled in a context that is clean, civil, safe, and where fantasy abounds. The Disney creations are, in fact, a counterblast against life which is often not clean, civil, and safe….. Disney, the happiest place on earth, is, in fact, utopian. It is a compelling distillation of how the middle class wishes life looked in the United States or how they (mistakenly) remember it as having been. And the key to producing such a happy place is complete managerial control, considerable imagination, and technological wizardry. None of these points has been lost on emerging [Evangelical] seeker churches. In them, one finds the same control beneath the apparent spontaneity, the same attempt at imagination, the same state-of-the-art technology, the same attempt at creating an atmosphere for the middle class which is safe.

[pp 271-3]

Did you notice it? “The key to producing such a happy place is complete managerial control”. You can’t get this type of environment through the messiness of community standards and community discussion.

So I’m getting closer to the nub. (The rest of this argument has been taking place elsewhere.) The reason that democratic principles no longer matter in American churches is that they no longer represent communities, even the non-location based community. They are like Disney World, a consumable. Their mythology is cleaned up: the Indians don’t die massively of diseases brought by the Europeans, people don’t die, conflict is unambiguous. Their mysteries are eliminated: disagreements over the Body and Blood don’t happen because, for most of their members, the Eucharistic sacrament isn’t observed.

What’s really interesting is that this requires a complete managerial control. There are no surprises in the megachurch. Everything is predictable. There will be no prophesying or glossalia from the pews to disturb power structures, unlike in the Apostle Paul’s experience in Corinth. These must be tightly run organizations so that the experience is smooth and predictable.

previously deleted material, restored 2013 without review

Years ago, I used to be a member of a megachurch in San Antonio, Texas. Texas has been the home of some pretty large churches in the past thirty years. This one was middling size for a megachurch: we sat around 7,000 on an average Sunday over several services in the 3,500 seat auditorium. (I’m pretty sure that we didn’t call it “the sanctuary” or anything remotely sacred-y.) This was twenty years ago and I was a youth leader, working with ninth graders. We had about 300-400 students (grades 6-12) each Sunday and I was the “grown-up” for about 20 or so.

These kids were the beginning of the Emergent thinking. They knew the score on the services. Baptisms through full emersion occurred almost every Sunday night in the service following youth group &mdash the kids, often represented the bulk of the baptisms, called it “swimming for Jesus”. They called the Sunday morning service “The Show” as in “Hey, Forrest! You coming to The Show this morning or did you hit the early service?”

And it was a tightly run church, with no room for disagreement about the direction or choices. This led the kids to be a bit less respectful than I think they would have been otherwise.

I’m not sure how all this falls together yet. The church has to have unquestioned leadership in order to succeed in this model. They eschew the Catholics for their hierarchy and their unquestioned traditions yet they create an even stronger hierarchy in their own churches, which can run upwards of 100,000 members. Instead of ex cathedra three times in a century, you get leaders who must be all infallible all the time, never questioned or confronted.

I’m not sure how the Disney World model works with Levels of Work yet. Oddly, I know more than most about how the creative side of Disney World works — one of the few benefits of studying cartooning and animation history — but I still don’t know how these interactions play out.

So this is a random note.

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