One of the pressures that kids pastors face from parents, leaders, or themselves, and sometimes it’s all three, is to be like Disney. I have often looked at how Disney engages kids as inspiration in engaging the kids I lead. I have had people suggest kindly to me that we take a look at how Disney does things. I even went to Disney and have sent staff members to Disney for inspiration for ministry. The older I get and the longer I do kids ministry, the more I realize that Walt’s idea of child formation was wrong, and Mr. Rogers was right. (Editorial note I am not a Disney hater, I have taken the required pilgrimage to Orlando with my family.)
When you look at the aesthetics of the two kingdoms they both built, they reflect how each saw the world. Walt’s world was a perfect version of what our world should look like. His world is shiny songs playing everywhere. Every restaurant serves chicken strips and hotdogs. Never any dust, never chipped paint. Excellence and creativity abound. Fred’s world was simple, even plain. His puppets showed wear, and his set grew old along with Fred. Two worlds trying to reach the same kids.
The two kingdoms they built were the result of two visions of the world. Walt created a world that was an escape from the real world. Fred lived in a neighborhood and showed kids how to navigate through the real world.
Walt built a fantasy world. Fred lived in a neighborhood.
There is nothing wrong with fantasy. Kids need fairy stories. Tolkien and Lewis were both shaped by fairy stories. They have different takes as to the ontological value of stories. Tolkien believed that fairy stories were reflective of God in that they were an example of sub-creation. Lewis thought that you could smuggle truth in fairy stories and steal past the watchful dragons that would not give faith a hearing. In this debate, I side more with Lewis. Fairy tales are more valuable in helping us escape this world, not for the escape alone but to show us what is broken and how to fix our world. Fairy stores should not be only an escape but should contain truth that entertains our minds but be filled with truth that changes our hearts.
Walt’s world, on the whole, is an escape from reality, sustained by entertainment. You enter the park, and you enter the world as it should be – no trash on the ground, no gum on the sidewalk, and no tears in any eye. It’s perfect. It plays to our right desire for a better world. It reminds us in miniature form that our world, the real world is a shadow, and our heart longs for a perfect world free of sin and pain.
Fred’s world had fantasy elements in it. But Fred never lied. He said we are going to the land of makebelieve. His fiction was grounded in reality and founded in faith. Fred lived in a neighborhood like you and me. His set was old, his puppets were tired, but he connected with kids in a way few others have. Mr. Rogers had friends come by who struggled with difficult issues like divorce, physical disability, and even race. He didn’t create an alternate universe by which he could escape reality. He lived in a house and told kids when makebelieve was happening. He used fairy stories to smuggle truth.
Walt Entertained Kids. Fred Empowered Kids.
Walt’s world is all about connecting kids to fun to entertain them. This is a trap I fell into early in my years of children’s ministry. For years I would ask kids if they had fun at the end of the service. I wanted the church to be an escape for kids from the difficulties of home and school. The problem with entertaining kids is you have to out create yourself every week. Kids go to Disney once to a few times a year max. They come to church once to a few times a month. Entertainment may bring them, but we don’t have the budget, creativity, and time to create programs for kids that rival or compete with Disney’s magic.
What Fred did was different. He didn’t distract kids from the pain and questions that were making them sad or scared. He looked in the camera and spoke from his heart to theirs. He did this because he remembered what it was like to be a child once. He wasn’t trying to force kids to grow up and act older than who they were. He was interested in helping kids understand that we grow, learn, and love in families, communities, and neighborhoods. It isn’t castles and clouds that make us forget our problems for a day. It’s the embodiment of being in a particular time and a particular place.
Kids don’t need to be entertained as much as they need to be loved and listened to. Anyone can put on a video and walk away. Anyone can create an event that is non stop excitement, and I think the church has gotten really good at production values and excellence. What we need to get better at is remembering that we were kids once. At telling kids the truth. At listening to kids and looking at them in the face when they are speaking to us. Kids like Disney, but they live in neighborhoods.
Walt was more concerned about your experience. Fred was more concerned with who you are becoming.
Walt was concerned with how his park made you feel. There is close attention to sights, sounds, and smells. Fred was more concerned with who you are becoming. In his now-famous interview with Mr. Rogers in Esquire Magazine, Tom Junod said of Fred that “There was an energy to him, however, a fearlessness, an unashamed insistence on intimacy.” This is the problem with entertainment; it leads to a consumer-driven faith where we show up and get our money’s worth. The production values are high, and we expect nothing less—excellence matters. God is a God of creativity and excellence we tell our selves. Yet when God sent his son into the world, he did so in such an ordinary way. He sent him in a way that most people missed Him because they were looking for a conquering King, not a helpless baby.
Fred’s idea was different. He was not driven by flash but by substance. He was not about entertainment. He was about incarnation. He showed us that loving your neighbor well matters. We must be more obsessed with who our kids are becoming, not just how we can get more kids coming. Who our kids are becoming will force us to lead different to love different to focus on things that don’t just take their mind off their pain. But instead, point them to the one who can destroy their pain with the power of his love.
Mr. Rogers was not against big things; he just knew that they came from small beginnings. “He wanted to tell children that what starts out little can sometimes become big, and so that could devote themselves to little dreams without feeling bad about them.” Mr. Rogers reminds us as kids ministry workers as parents of kids that presence trumps production value. To show up. Listen. Insist on intimacy. Tell your kids the truth; they like to be told. Remember that you were a kid once. Most of all, remember that God was a kid once.