I saw Pluto just a few minutes earlier. Now I happen upon Wonderland’s Alice, chatting away with a clerk at the Tea Caddy in Epcot’s United Kingdom. Of course she’s in character—Alice, I mean—talking about her tea party experience with the March Hare and the Mad Hatter. As for the tea clerk, it’s complicated. Disney calls her a “Cast Member,” and her store is “on stage”—the parts of Walt Disney World that are visible to “guests” like me. But she’s from Bristol and her English accent is real. She plays herself, or at least a cheery, especially English version of herself. Her conversation is no more scripted than it is for retail clerks anywhere else in America, though perhaps with more discussion about Bristol.
Shortly after Alice scampers away, a man engages the clerk in conversation. It turns out her mum is coming for a visit soon. He asks her how long it’s been since she’s seen her mum, how long she’s been at Epcot, how long it’ll be before she heads back to the UK. He asks if she’s been homesick. (She is, she says with a very large smile.) The conversation ends with no reference to his large and prominent nametag: “Steven. Cast Member Church.” He’ll be back, sometimes to chat, more often to prayer-walk quietly with half a dozen or so other members of his small but growing church plant. He’s not there to evangelize; he respects both the Cast Member’s time and Disney’s rules against “solicitation.” Even if the clerk were a Cast Member Church member, he wouldn’t pray with her. “That could get them in trouble and the church in trouble,” he explains. He’s there, for now, simply to be present.
“Prayer walking gets you to love your mission field,” Steven Barr tells me. “Mostly we pray that God would give us eyes to see what he sees, ears to hear what he hears, hearts to feel what he feels.”
If there’s one thing he thinks all church planters should do, it’s to walk their mission field as often as they can. For Barr, that’s not Orlando. It’s not even Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake. It’s Disney World.
Yes, Barr knows what you’re thinking: Walking your mission field doesn’t sound so bad if your mission field is Walt Disney World.
“People are nice about it, but a lot of them don’t understand,” he says as we walk past the giant Spaceship Earth sphere. “People think we’re just going to play at Disney World. Fortunately, the EFCA [Evangelical Free Church in America] understands.” For the past seven years, Cast Member Church has been an official EFCA congregation—not a parachurch outreach ministry, but a church.
“So are there people from Universal Studios at your church, too?” I ask.
“Uni-what?” Barr smiles. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I only know Disney.”
Cast Member Church is truly a church for Disney Cast Members. It’s not a church to attend on vacation. It’s not a church for Disney fans in Central Florida. It’s a church for a certain kind of employee from one company.
Once a pastor asked Barr, “Are you saying that just Disney workers can come to your church and everyone else can go to hell?” No, Barr told him. It’s your job to keep everyone else out of hell.
Cast Member Church is part of a growing trend of microchurches, deeply targeted smaller congregations that place a high value on mission and on reaching distinct communities “where they are,” often defined by interest areas or demographics: cowboy churches, art churches, dementia-friendly churches. (See “Carving Out a Niche for Micro-Congregations” in CT’s recent special issue for pastors.)
In past decades, Christians generally reached out to specialized interest groups through parachurch ministries or, more recently, church-based outreach efforts aimed at drawing people into a larger church community. Think of how the entrepreneurial spirit of ministries like Athletes in Action or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the 1950s and ’60s was seen in the boom of church-based sports ministries during the megachurch era. (One recent study found that 91 of the 100 largest churches in America had specific sports ministries, representing 78 different sports, from ballet to scuba.) These days, it’s increasingly common to see that energy channeled into launching congregations like soccer church. These churches may be networked or connected to other church bodies, but they exist as communities on their own. They’re not designed to send enthusiasts to a larger “home” church; they are the home church.
“Microchurches have been a good challenge for us,” says Glen Schrieber, the EFCA southeast district superintendent. He’s in charge of church planting, pastoral care, church health, and diversity initiatives for the denomination’s southern churches, including Cast Member Church. “Those of us in church planting should always be grappling with what church is. What’s your ecclesiology? What are those irreducible marks of a church that you’re trying to hit? For some microchurches, it would be a stretch.”
But Barr’s vision for a church targeting Disney World employees wasn’t a tough call, Schrieber says. “It wasn’t a stretch in that in our church plants you have a target you’re going for. You look at the demographics and you do what you need to do to reach that audience. His just happens to be one of the most iconic in the world. The stretch is the iconic nature of where he’s at.”
It’s not just iconic; it’s huge. Walt Disney World has almost 70,000 employees—a population about the size of Canton, Ohio. It’s the largest single-site employer in the country. At 40 square miles, it’s about as big as Miami or San Francisco. So Cast Member Church is fishing in a massive lake.
It’s not fishing alone. Orlando-based Cru has had a full-time staff team at Walt Disney World for more than a decade. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship launched a chapter earlier this year. (Both campus ministries are heavily focused on members of Disney’s college internship program, who also make up a majority of Cast Member Church.)
Mosaic Church, a large church based in Winter Garden and affiliated with the Acts 29 network, launched a Disney World campus in 2012. It has been meeting Sunday nights for the past six years at the Holiday Inn at Disney Springs, but next month will be moving to a permanent church building in a former India Pentecostal Church. Danny Conner, community life pastor of Mosaic’s Disney World location, says the church has a regular attendance of about 150—about a third of which are long-term members, a third are new to the church, and a third are there for the first time.
“We’ve wondered if we have more newcomers every week than any other church,” says Conner, who has had multiple stints as a Cast Member at Shanghai Disney and Walt Disney World and still works part time in guest relations. “That’s not a statement about how great we are. That’s just the nature of who we’re trying to reach.” Indeed, the metrics you use to identify “long-termers” get weird when you’re targeting Cast Members, whose average time at Disney World is between six months and a year.
“The question we’ve had to wrestle with is what does it mean to pour into a discipleship base that is going to leave almost immediately,” Conner says. “We feel like we hit a new generational mark every nine months.” Another key challenge is how to rent space and pay for pastoral staff with such a young, high-turnover congregation that’s barely earning minimum wage. In Mosaic’s case, they lean heavily on their main campus in Winter Garden to close the financial gap. Cast Member Church, meanwhile, is supported by other area churches and by Barr’s consulting work.
Conner, Barr, and others I talked to say there’s a culture of cooperation between the churches around Disney World, including several that are less focused on reaching Disney employees as such. Cru has been especially important to that unity as it has directed Disney College Program workers to local churches—and each congregation has developed its own vibe. Celebration Community Church, for example, is more family oriented and multigenerational, and you won’t hear Disney mentioned much. Mosaic is intentional about reaching Disney employees, but is wary about being a “Disney church.”
“We talk about having a mission perspective and not an identity perspective,” Conner says. “We tell our teachers not to use a Disney reference unless they’d use it for another audience. Even so, I have friends who are Cast Members who would never come to Mosaic@WDW because they have enough Disney in their lives.”
Mosaic’s approach also fits with his own experience, he says. “The pixie dust runs out. It makes magic happen, but magic is fleeting.” His wife, Alison, once got hired into Disney’s entertainment. It was a dream job in an insanely competitive role. “Within months she hit the wall and started thinking, ‘There has got to be more to life than this,’” Conner says. “She walked into a break room and announced, ‘Does anyone here go to church? I’m asking and I don’t know why.’” A friend invited her to Mosaic.
“We do want Cast Members to think as Cast Members how they can view their workspace as an opportunity to be a gospel voice and gospel presence,” he says. “But if you’re constantly talking about Disney, the risk is that people hit the point where they have enough.”
Cast Member Church’s Steven Barr is familiar with Cast Members losing their pixie dust, too. But when he sees it happen, his response is generally to help people transition out of Disney and to find a church that isn’t quite so Disneyfied. Because Barr and Cast Member Church love the mouse. Its materials literally invoke the Peter Pan line when describing it as a “family of faith, trust, and a little bit of pixie dust.”
At a church leaders’ meeting at the Disney Springs Starbucks, Barr is sketching out his evangelistic methodology (literally sketching it: He carries a yellow legal pad and is constantly drawing diagrams to illustrate his points.). He talks about getting people to understand that they are a “child of the king, which means we are princes and princesses. We should glory in that identity.” He talks about Disneyland artist Charles Boyer’s famous riff on Norman Rockwell self-portrait, where Mickey Mouse looks into the mirror and sees Walt Disney. “Mickey sees his creator in the mirror: God’s desire is that when people look at you, they see him.” Don’t debate people if they’re skeptical, he says. “If they say, ‘I don’t believe that,’ just respond, ‘That’s okay, just imagine with me for a minute that it’s true.’ Disney [Cast Members] love imagination.” One of the biggest challenges in people understanding the gospel, Barr says, is the challenge in many Disney movies: the absence of a loving father.
At the same meeting, one of the other church leaders recounts how a conversation with a stranger at a restaurant started with a mildly heated conversation about Disney casting Halle Bailey as Ariel the mermaid and ended with the guy rededicating his life to Jesus.
Cast Member Church meets in a rented hotel space the first Friday of each a month for its “praise and wonder,” where it makes sure it hits those “irreducible marks of a church” Schreiber mentioned: communion, baptisms, a period of extended worship, a sermon based on Scripture. But more frequently, the church gathers in small groups at Starbucks or Disney lodges at 10 p.m., after shifts end. The church calls these “CommuniDs”—the “D” stands for “discipleship,” Barr tells me with a wink. (The church is careful to stay on the legal side of intellectual property law. Disney doesn’t own the term “cast member,” for example, and the church’s website bears a prominent disclaimer that the congregation is “not recognized, endorsed, or supported by The Walt Disney Company or any of its subsidiaries.”)
“I love Disney because I love the people at Disney,” Barr says. But also he really loves Disney. “Once you get mouse blood into your system, there’s a desire to stay connected to it.”
When Barr worked as a Cast Member in 1991, playing keyboards in one of Disney World’s shows (“back when the music was live,” he says wistfully), he saw it as a stepping stone, not as a career. “I idolized Barry Manilow,” he says. “My main dream was that I wanted to be Barry Manilow.” Like many Christian keyboardists who wanted to be Barry Manilow, he ended up a worship pastor.
It was an eclectic, ecumenical run. Barr grew up Methodist, had his first vocational music position at a Reformed Church in America congregation, and his first music pastorship in a Brethren church. Oak Hills Church of Christ brought him on in 2003 when Max Lucado and the elders of the San Antonio congregation decided to buck their denomination and begin using musical instruments in worship. He later became a writer and producer of Spanish worship music, writing hits like “Al Rey” and “Solo Por Tu Sangre” for Marcos Witt as the Latin worship powerhouse began working at Lakewood Church in Houston.
By age 50, whatever pixie dust Barr had found in leading worship was starting to wear off. He began to feel a call to church planting and started planning a church in San Antonio for artists and other creatives. “I felt a real call to minister to misfits,” he says. But “the church landed with a thud. The key was just not turning in the locks.” Finally, the pastors on his church plant advisory team said, “You love doing this, you’ve got a great vision for it—and you’re always quoting Walt Disney. Why aren’t you doing this at Disney?”
He says it took about a year to convince his wife, Lucia, a first-generation immigrant from Oaxaca, to plant at Disney. But eventually the family was ready. Lucia is now a Cast Member Coordinator in Disney World’s Epcot and leads Cast Member Church’s Spanish CommuniD.
“I love vision and strategy. I had the most impressive plan,” he says. “But Disney had changed. And God took my plan and crumpled it up.”
One big mistake, Barr says, was building programs that depended on long-term members. “I really wanted it to be Cast Member Church, and for all leaders to be Cast Members.” That didn’t work well with the rhythms of Disney employment, it turned out. Now his leaders include the former team chaplain for the Carolina Panthers, a longtime Cru missionary, and a Latina engineer.
One area Barr is still wrestling with is his sense that Cast Member Church is supposed to be for Disney employees, not just Walt Disney World employees. Almost all the hard-won wisdom in church planting over the last few decades has been focused on geography: how to reach a city, or a neighborhood, or a slice of a neighborhood. Barr keeps bumping into questions of how much of that wisdom translates well into reaching employees of one specific company.
“The original vision was to have a Cast Member Church in every Disney park in the world,” he says. “God gave us the vision and started opening the door, but I kicked the door down.” Cast Member Church–Anaheim, the first plant outside Orlando, closed in 2016. “We’ll do it again, but on God’s time frame.” First, he says, he needs to better understand how to plant in a Disneyland culture, not just a Disney World culture. “Disneyland is a job for a lot of people, and there are so many parks, so maybe they’re moving between working at Knott’s Berry Farm and Disney and have a lot going on in their life unrelated to Disney. But Disney World is more of a destination—the brightest doers and dreamers come from all over the world to work here, and the Cast Member community is incredibly tight.”
So for now, he says, “We see Walt Disney World as our city. We want to see it prosper. Not everything is great here. But we want to be here like Daniel serving in the palace, working to help it thrive for the right reasons. Or another example: see Disney like Paul saw Rome, as the place where all roads lead from. We want to be good citizens without compromise.”
Between the youthfulness of his congregation and the influence Disney is having on the world, Barr says, “We’re planting a church in the future: This is what things will look like 10 years in the future.”
Cast Member Church could very well be a harbinger of a future trend in church plants focused on employees of specific companies. Evangelical churches have long been good at reading cultural trends, and it stands to reason that future church planters will both confront and adapt to what Atlantic writer Derek Thompson and others have identified as the growing American religion of workism.
“The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production,” Thompson wrote in a February article that immediately went viral. “They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community.”
Where wealth once meant less time at the office, Thompson noted, it now means more. “The best-educated and highest-earning Americans, who can have whatever they want, have chosen the office for the same reason that devout Christians attend church on Sundays: It’s where they feel most themselves.” But it’s not just the rich: Almost every American teen (95%) across household income levels now says that finding a job or career they enjoy would be extremely or very important to them as an adult. The number is significantly higher than the 81% who said that about “helping others in need.” Only half said “having a lot of money” would be important. And only 39% thought having children would be important.
A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found a massive corresponding shift in American values. Two decades ago, Americans of various ages overwhelmingly said that patriotism, hard work, belief in God, and having children were the values most important to them. “Hard work” remains strong, but the other three values have dropped dramatically, especially among millennials.
For their part, many millennials are buying into the “work 80 hours a week for us because we’re changing the world” rhetoric popularized by Silicon Valley. But even those skeptical of it are working their tails off. As Anne Helen Petersen put it in a popular Buzzfeed article earlier this year: “We put up with companies treating us poorly because we don’t see another option. We don’t quit. We internalize that we’re not striving hard enough. And we get a second gig.”
Meanwhile, an increasing number of studies are looking at the interplay between consumer brands and religion. One recent peer-reviewed study found that people who don’t strongly identify with religion—America’s fastest-growing religious demographic—are heavily likely to find identity among consumer brands. They are, for example, far less likely to buy generic painkillers. In a separate study, the same research team found that “when brands are a highly salient tool for self-expression, individuals are less likely to report and demonstrate strong religious commitment.”
It’s all summed up in the promise of Qualtrics, an “experience management” company sold to software giant SAP last year for $8 billion. Its users, the company said, would “learn how to turn customers into fanatics. Employees into ambassadors. Products into obsessions. And brands into religions.”
It’s hardly news to anyone who has sat through a sermon on the Ten Commandments that consumer brands and workaholism can become idolatrous. Consumer brands and corporate marketing have always made religious-sounding promises. But as businesses more directly position themselves with inspirational “change the world” messaging, and as secular Americans become more susceptible to those messages, how will churches respond?
Perhaps there will be some repeat of the way churches responded to “company towns” a century ago. In the 1880s, when George Pullman built his planned community south of Chicago for his 8,600 railroad workers, he built one large church in the center of the town—and didn’t allow any others. The problem was filling it: Pullman wanted the church to avoid all doctrinal controversies, but the Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian, and Methodist workers were disinterested in putting their denominational doctrines aside for the sake of company unity. So the church sat empty.
It didn’t bother Pullman much. He reportedly said that the church “was not intended so much for the moral and spiritual welfare of the people as it was for the completion of the artistic effect of the scene.”
(In a similar manner, Disney World does have an official church building: Epcot’s Norway pavilion has a replica of a 800-year-old stave church, purely for aesthetic purposes. When it opened in 1988, the exhibit inside focused on Olaf II, Norway’s patron saint. Now, with Disney owning the Marvel films, the church’s interior focuses on the stories of Thor, Loki, and other Norse pagan gods.)
Eventually, at least 15 churches independent of the company formed in Pullman for the workers, with varying attitudes toward the business and its founder. A Catholic priest denounced George Pullman as “a man who ruled, crushed and oppressed by the force of money.” A Presbyterian pastor (renting the large central church) praised Pullman using the text, “Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels and hast crowned him with glory and honor,” saying that, “Surely it would seem as if Mr. Pullman had done his part” and would be praised by Christ for not burying his talent. Another pastor encouraged workers to strike, calling the Pullman business “a hollow mockery, a sham.”
The same story can be told of other company towns. As Liston Pope’s Millhands and Preachers tells it, Gastonia, North Carolina, saw “uptown” churches populated by textile mill managers as laborers flocked to churches out of town. When workers went on strike in 1929, pastors generally took predictable sides.
Churches taking sides on company disputes and corporations’ values will no doubt continue well into the future. (They already pretty famously have weighed in on the Walt Disney Company itself: The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, formally boycotted the business between 1997 and 2005 for its perceived promotion of a gay agenda.) But will the future see more church plants specifically focused on workers of one particular business?
Some already exist—think of churches on military bases, for example. And some churches, like several in Silicon Valley, specialize in specific kinds of workers that may work for a variety of companies.
Mosaic’s Danny Conner thinks churches and campuses like his will be rare. “I expect there to be more churches targeting industries, but I don’t know that there will be a lot more targeting specific corporations.” Walt Disney World is the largest single-site employer in the country, he says. Disney is also the largest single-site employer in California, but he doesn’t think a church as focused as Mosaic would work there. “Redeemer Church in Burbank has a lot of animators and corporate people from Disney, but even there you also have lots of folks from Dreamworks and Nickelodeon, and other people.”
The EFCA’s Glen Schrieber agrees that it’d be an uphill battle, but church planting usually is. “It wouldn’t surprise me” to see other employee-focused church plants, he said. “It’d have to be at a large scale, and it’d have to have that kind of culture that Cast Members have. I can see where others would want to try it. Our goal with the Evangelical Free Church is to have all kinds of churches for all kinds of people. My thing is: Go for it. Steve and other church planters are our research and development department.” The lesson may be less What can we learn about planting business-facing churches from Cast Member Church? than What can we learn about church from Cast Member Church facing its business?
In fact, it seems like the questions arising around Cast Member Church are the ones that American churches are struggling with in general.
Is a church still a church if it’s so demographically focused? Cast Member Church is fairly narrow—the “homogenous unit principle” of church growth theory at its extreme: Apart from the core leadership, almost everyone is within five years in age. Most of them live in the same apartment complexes. And of course they all work for the same boss. How similar can a congregation be before running afoul of Paul’s warning to the Corinthians that they should not all be one body part?
Schrieber says it’s tricky to balance the desire to “have all kinds of churches for all kinds of people” with a desire to have every church find diversity beyond the denomination’s white, middle-class roots. “I want to see our pastors wrestle with that issue,” he says. “Cast Member [Church] has an incredible amount of diversity within their community.” In fact, with its focus on international college program interns, there are dozens of nationalities represented. “You think about Paul going into a city and planting with a few. Are they all Philippians? Yes. Does he want there to be all kinds of people within that Philippian church? Yes.”
To continue the metaphor, the other big question Cast Member Church prompts is: How much does Paul want the Philippian church to love being in Philippi? Barr’s enthusiasm for Disney culture has raised eyebrows of some fellow pastors. “Christians tend to be harder on us than the gay community here is,” he says.) But he’s the first to admit that Disney corporate values and Christian values don’t always mesh well. And his use of Disney reference points seems much more “missional” than, say, a church putting an American flag in its sanctuary or singing a patriotic hymn as a way of connecting to the surrounding culture.
Barr acknowledges that it’s important to stay on guard even as one stays enthusiastic. Eugene Peterson is one of his pastoral heroes, as he is for so many church leaders. But he holds a special place in Barr’s heart: Peterson, a curmudgeon when it came to combining church leadership with principles from business leadership, proudly sported a Mickey Mouse tattoo.
In fact, one of the only times Barr has had to exercise church discipline—one of those “irreducible marks of a church”—was over syncretism. A CommuniD, he says, ended up becoming just a Star Wars fan club. (Disney purchased the Star Wars franchise in 2012 and opened a Star Wars-themed section at Disney World in August.) “They stopped talking about the lessons and just started talking about similarities between Jedi religion and Christianity and stuff like that,” he says. After trying to get the group back on track a few times, he gave them an ultimatum. “Guys, this is about becoming disciples of Jesus, not about becoming Jedis.” The leader, he said, responded that he’d rather talk about Star Wars. “I said they’d have to stop being part of our church to do that. So they left and started down … a thing,” he says, cautiously. “It just fell apart.” He pauses. “I’m accountable for that. I’m the one leading in a context where the Disney influence is always turned up to 11. I’m trying to help [Cast Members] learn to turn down the noise. It’s the same way you learn to hear the Father’s voice.”
The difficulty in being a “Disney church,” it turns out, is basically the same as the difficulty in being an “American church,” or serving in any other kind of context.
“We’re in this company like we’re in the world,” Barr says. “In it and trying not to be of it. There’s so much potential here that can be used for gospel purposes. We’re like secret agents wanting to capture what needs to be captured.” He smiles, then gives a serious look. “Make clear I’m talking about a spiritual metaphor. I don’t want Disney thinking there’s going to be a riot on Main Street USA.” So, Mickey, be clear: No riot. But he sure would like to see a revival there, with the Dixieland Jazz Band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Ted Olsen is editorial director of Christianity Today and stuck around Epcot after reporting for this story to go on Soarin’.
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