Not long ago, my wife, Jane, and I ticked off one of the items on our bucket list. We went to Walt Disney World. We had made the pilgrimage to the Magic Kingdom once before, when our children were younger, before our hair turned gray. We went this year to see what it would be like with just the two of us. The answer is that it was fun, in that grueling, Disney sort of way.

If you’ve ever been to Disney, you know that it’s the kind of vacation that requires an extended rest once it is over. It takes planning to get there and work once you are there. We walked miles every day and spent hours standing in line. As I watched fellow pilgrims hurry by, the brief snatches of conversation I caught in passing only confirmed what I already knew to be true. When Walt Disney opened his first theme park, Disneyland, in Southern California, he dedicated it by saying that his objective was to create a “happy place” that would “be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.” The theme park soon adopted the slogan, “The Happiest Place on Earth” and it has been the guiding principle for Disney’s parks ever since. Despite their slogan, a Disney theme park is not the happiest place on earth. There is plenty of happy to be sure. But there is always at least one child crying. Usually several. Everywhere you turn your eye, there are exhausted people. Couples are arguing with one another. In fact, if I had to identify a primary emotion for a Disney park it would be anxiety, not happiness.

We are anxious at Disney World because we are in transit. We are always on our way to somewhere else. Either we are making our way through a crowd to our next ride, anxious that someone else is going to get a better spot in line than us, or we are standing in line, impatiently waiting for the ride to begin, which will last less than a quarter of the time we waited for it. If we are not waiting for a ride, then we are waiting for a bus to take us to the next theme park or back to our hotel so that we can rest up for the rigors of tomorrow’s visit. If you are the paying adult, you do not want to break all this waiting down to calculate the cost per minute. With that said, we had a good time, but the similarities and differences between the promises of the Magic Kingdom and the eternal Kingdom kept coming up. During our trip, four things caught my attention.

The Power of Professional Friendliness

First, it occurred to me that a forced smile is almost as good as a real one. Disney employees go out of their way to greet you with a smile. They don’t do this because they are friendlier than most. It’s their job. I imagine that a portion of their employee evaluation is based on how much they smile. I knew they were being professionally friendly. Yet every time someone smiled at me I couldn’t help smiling back. This experience has changed my thinking about the value of greeters at church.

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I confess that I’ve always felt a little cynical about what I like to call “the gauntlet of welcome” at my church. This common congregational practice has always seemed disingenuous to me. I do not see it as welcoming but impersonal. It is the kind of greeting that is characteristic of a flight attendant more than a friend. I have often questioned whether it makes anyone feel welcome. My trip to Disney World convinced me that it probably does. We know it’s only a formality. Sometimes the smile is obviously forced. But most people like to hear that someone else is glad that they are there even when it’s only that person’s job to say it.

Friendliness is by nature a superficial exercise but that does not mean that it is unimportant.

Friendliness is not the same thing as friendship, but the two are related. Friendship is an emotional bond created through shared experience and common values. It has a serendipitous quality. Most friendships are not planned. They just happen. Often when we enter a new group and try to predict who will become our friends, our predictions are wrong. Friendliness, on the other hand, is a discipline. It is an exercise in politeness. Friendliness is mostly a function of the way we interact with strangers. Friendliness is by nature a superficial exercise but that does not mean that it is unimportant. Acts of friendliness take place within social space.

This is the relational sphere that is epitomized by the kinds of interaction we have in the church foyer. In his book The Search to Belong, author Joseph Myers describes this as “the realm of small talk and small favors.” According to Myers this dimension of relationships provides the sorting space that we use to select those with whom we want a deeper relationship. Churches can choose to be friendly. But friendship creates an obstacle for newcomers and outsiders. The more close knit the congregation, the more closed it will feel to visitors. Most people who have friends are not looking for new ones. Consequently, churches need to move beyond friendliness and provide social structures where friendships can develop. Visitors appreciate friendliness, but those who hope to stay are looking for friendship. If they do not find it, they will leave. A smile and a handshake, no matter how warm or hearty, will not keep them coming back.

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The Princess Factor

My second observation was that little girls still want to be princesses. Actually, it was my wife, Jane, who pointed this out to me. Despite the oppressive heat, Disney’s theme parks were full of little girls dressed in outfits that matched their favorite Disney princess. There was a lot of pink. What is more, the attendants greeted every girl and woman who passed through the gates by saying, “Welcome, Princess!” There was no comparable greeting for the men and boys. They didn’t say, “Welcome, Prince!” or even “Welcome, Jedi Master!” The boys did not seem to care.

Is it possible that we will make more progress in turning the culture back to the biblical norm with a smile than a shouted protest?

I couldn’t help contrasting this with Target’s recent decision to eliminate all references to gender differences in their toy department, including the use of pink, blue, yellow, or green paper on the back walls of their shelves. Disney seems to be capitalizing on gender differences. I am not naïve. I do not believe for a minute that the folks at Disney are trying to make a point about the culture wars. Walt might have. But the company that bears his name has been openly supportive of LGBT rights. In those instances where traditional gender roles seem to be reinforced, the motive is money. If there is more money to be made by eliminating gender distinctions, I am sure Disney will have no qualms about following Target’s lead.

What impressed me about Disney’s greeting was its matter-of-fact nature. The greeting at the gate was made without fanfare or apology. Admittedly it was an exercise in pragmatism rather than theology. But if Disney isn’t embarrassed to act as if gender distinctions still matter for pragmatic reasons, then the church shouldn’t feel squeamish about acknowledging the distinction either. Disney recognizes the difference for the sake of profit. The church has a higher motive. We maintain that the difference between male and female matters because the Bible makes this assertion (Gen. 1:27; 5:2). This is a theological rather than a cultural distinction. This means that it is ultimately a question of biblical truth. Yet there may be something to learn from Disney’s pragmatic nonchalance. Is it possible that we will make more progress in turning the culture back to the biblical norm with a smile than a shouted protest outside the doors of Target’s bathrooms?

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Living in the Past

Still, there is no doubt that the world around us is changing. Many of these changes are uncomfortable. Some are dangerous. Why are we surprised? Isn’t this the very thing that the Scriptures warned would happen? If we are not already living in the period that the Bible describes as “the last days,” then we are living in anticipation of it. Either way, we are headed for “terrible times” (2 Tim. 3:1). In such a world it is tempting to wish that we were living in a different age.

This is Disney’s secret. It is this longing which makes the Magic Kingdom feel so magical to so many. Walt Disney understood that an imagined past is always better than the real past. For me, this mentality is epitomized in Main Street USA, the first sight that greets guests who enter the Magic Kingdom. Main Street is essentially Walt Disney’s reimagined version of the small town where he spent the first years of his life. As you might expect from a place known as the Magic Kingdom, it bears little resemblance to the real world. This is because the world that Disney has created is an idealized world. It is a world without a fall.

Churches have often spent decades trying to return to a past that never really existed.

The world that Disney presents to us is one in which all the sharp edges of real life have been smoothed away. For this reason the Magic Kingdom can never truly be the happiest place on earth in a biblical sense. Unlike Jesus, who entered the real, broken world in order to redeem it, the best Disney can offer is a fantasy of a world that never was. It is a nice place to visit but you really can’t live there.

It is common practice for churches to do with their past what Walt Disney did with his. Churches have a tendency to reimagine the past and make it their ideal. It’s not such a problem for a theme park, but it is a real obstacle for a church, especially when that reimagined world becomes the model for its mission. Churches have often spent decades trying to return to a past that never really existed. The “Christian America” churches try to bring back was not that Christian. The fondly remembered pastor of that golden age was not that golden. Those hallowed church ministries were not as effective as we remember, or if they were, they would no longer be effective today. The sweet fellowship of yesteryear was not that sweet.

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Find Your Happy Place

Sometimes, our churches aren’t just living in the past, they are attempting to live out a fantasy that never was and never will be. In doing so, they run the risk of missing out on what God wants to do in and through them in the here and now. Consequently, the most important lesson to be learned while visiting the Magic Kingdom is that the happiest place isn’t on earth.

At least not now.

One day it will be. The Scriptures promise that the day will come when the curtain which separates heaven and earth will be torn away once and for all. On that day, the church will experience in full the answer to the prayer that it has prayed since its inception: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). When that day comes, the happiest place on earth will not be the Magic Kingdom but the kingdom of God. But until then, Philippians 1:23 reminds us that it is “better by far” to “depart and be with Christ.”

The most important lesson to be learned while visiting the Magic Kingdom is that the happiest place isn’t on earth.

A few weeks after our trip, all the major news outlets trumpeted the terrible story of a two-year-old child who had been carried into the water and killed by an alligator at Disney World. The boy and his parents had been staying at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. He was playing on the beach in the evening when the animal snatched him and dragged him under the water. The father tried to rescue the boy but came away only with scars. This was not God trying to make a point about the false values of the Magic Kingdom. It was simply a fallen world acting according to its nature. The time has not yet come for the wolf to live with the lamb and the leopard to lie down with the goat (Isa. 11:6). The lion and the alligator are still wild and untamed. So is the world in which we must make our way. It is a world of grave and terrible beauty, but also one which is liable to turn on us at any moment. We pass through this world like pilgrims en route to another place. It is still God’s world. That is true. But it is not our home. Like the patriarchs, the world in which we long to live is one that we must welcome “from a distance” (Heb. 11:13).

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The counterpoint between my experience in the Magic Kingdom and this terrible tragedy left me deeply saddened and wondering if Disney’s whole project isn’t something of an exercise in over-realized eschatology—trying to prematurely force the kingdom of God to come now, on our schedule and on our terms. I think the same is often true of the church. I fear that we use the language of the kingdom too glibly in our day. We employ rhetoric which over-promises for the present and then under-delivers. We give the impression that those who come to us will find fulfillment, meaning, and ultimate happiness from systems, methods, places, and people that will never be able to provide those things. In this regard, the hollow feeling we have upon leaving the Magic Kingdom is probably a good thing. It serves as a kind of signpost. The journey is not over. The best is yet to come.

John Koessler serves on the faculty of Moody Bible Institute. His latest book is The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap (IVP).