What the Church Can Learn from Pixar and Disney

(The power of story)

As we’re racing through this year toward December and are currently in the process of planning how we will impact the church and our community during the Christmas season, we may do well to stop long enough to really think about exactly what we’re trying to accomplish. The answers could be:

“Create a memorable worship experience for attendees”

“Create an effective outreach to the community”

“Plan a program/event of significance that will draw visitors back to our church”

“Entertain and evangelize”

There are as many answers as there are people, however, there is one ultimate goal of all church Christmas productions that is undeniably obvious no matter the church or the style of the program – and that is to tell a story. THE STORY. The story of how God himself came to earth, in the form of a human baby, in order to redeem mankind from sin and restore fellowship with the ones he created. It has been called (and justifiably so) “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. So how do we go about telling this incomparable story? What is the goal of our telling it? Is it not to impact the heart and eternal destiny of at least one struggling human being who may attend your performance? Is there one way to tell it that is more effective than another? I have become convinced that there is, but first, a little background.

Having worked for 30 years in the Christian music publishing industry, I personally created or oversaw the creation of more Christmas “musicals” than I can count. Almost all of them were fashioned with the same basic format, scripture, same “church-speak” language and many times the same songs (with possibly a different arrangement.) If anything was truly different, it was the songs, but even they had a certain sameness about them. There was a basic pattern or formula that rarely varied. Though there were a handful of dramatic musicals (drama with songs thrown in), 99% of them were cantatas. Today’s church cantatas are basically a collection of pop-styled songs threaded together by narration. The primary focus of such a work is the music, which is sung by a choir – with an occasional solo or two. The format and musical style of these productions can take on the feel of a concert with little but the music to engage the audience.  In our spectator culture, it’s too easy to sit in an audience, disengaged from introspection and thought, and  let ourselves be entertained by the music.

What is missing with concerts and cantatas is “story”. Story is what engages each audience member one-on-one and draws them in to the heart of what’s happening on the stage. Through story, the mind is engaged in thought, analysis and  a wide range of emotions such as sadness, joy, empathy, compassion, etc. This was made vividly clear to me the first time I wrote and published a Broadway-style musical(One Bethlehem Night). The comments were unanimous and all had a version of the same response: “I’ve never seen the Christmas story in this light. It has given me a new appreciation for and insights into the trials of Mary and Joseph as well as a deeper understanding of God’s sovereignty and divine will. I saw them as real people – just like me. ”

So, what is it about story that illuminates the mind and tugs at the emotional core of our being? In Story, considered the definitive book on screenwriting, Robert McKee states, “The world now consumes films, novels, theater and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s prime source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.”  I believe story elicits an emotion response like nothing else can. As Steve Pederson, director of Drama at Willow Creek Community Church  explains, “Drama has the potential to reduce people’s defenses. All of us, Christians and seekers alike, often have psychological walls of protection around us. Unless those walls are penetrated, unless we are somehow opened up and made vulnerable, God’s truth will not hit the mark. …Drama can disarm by getting us to laugh at ourselves, or it can ambush us when it reflects the darker side of ourselves.” Story and drama go hand in hand. It’s one thing to tell a story and quite another to see a story unfold before your eyes.

Disney and Pixar know the power of story. If you’ve seen “Toy Story”, “Monster’s Inc”, “Finding Nemo”, “Up”, or Disney’s “Enchanted”, you know the power of story as well. Think about these films and remember how you were moved as the character’s tale unfolded. Did you cry? Did you laugh? Can you identify one or more emotional responses in each of these films? If you’re not a robot, the answer is yes. That was no accident. The stories were written and designed to create those emotional responses in you. The writer purposely wanted to make you feel something. Did you hurt for Woody when Andy replaced him with a new toy? Did you feel Nemo’s lonliness when he was lost? What about Sully’s affection for Boo? It’s our emotions that can break down those walls that Pederson described and allow us to experience deep, personal feelings that the walls, created by the batterings and bruisings of life, have built around our hearts.

It is characters that convey emotion. It is characters that we identify with. It is characters who let us see ourselves in their lives. A true Broadway-style musical is about characters telling a story. Even the songs are character-driven. We hear in their songs, the longing of their hearts, their frustrations, their musings, and their pain. Is it more effective to hear a song about God’s forgiveness sung by a choir or to hear a character singing to God the details of how God’s grace delivered him from the depths of his sin and rebellion? It’s that one-on-one personal level that connects the character – through the song – to the individual listener.  The powerful combination of great music combined with lyrics expressing the personal emotion of a character in conflict, in pain, or in self-discovery packs a double punch.

So, back to this year’s Christmas musical… How are you going to reach the hearts of church members and your community this Christmas? I would readily concede that the Holy Spirit can work in any situation, however, it should be noted that Jesus illustrated the power of story to communicate truth through the parables he told his followers. Wouldn’t He have chosen the most effective method of reaching individual hearts?  It might behoove us to follow his example in using story to communicate the truth of the gospel. Broadway-style musicals combine story and music in a very focused way that effectively reaches the emotional center of the human psyche.

This Christmas, consider taking the road less travelled. Cantatas are less work than a Broadway-style musical production. Jesus said “the fields are white unto harvest, but the laborers are few”. Note that there is labor involved in harvesting souls. Musical theater does take more work, more time, greater energy and effort, but I firmly believe that it also reaps greater rewards in the long run.

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