By Mel McGowan
im·ag·i·neer \iˌmajəˈnir\ v: 1 : to implement creative ideas into practical form 2 : one who implements creative ideas into practical form
Imagine the impact we could make in the world if the body of Christ recaptured Jesus’ reputation as the greatest storyteller ever known.
Imagine if we became truly effective at helping people understand how God is writing them into his story and history.
Imagine if we understood how to tell stories beyond the pulpit.
Imagine if God’s will was done on earth as it is in Heaven, with whatever piece of God’s creation he has given us stewardship over, starting with our backyard, our neighborhood, our church, our city, and then the world.
I was blessed to spend a decade at the Walt Disney Company, where I learned the art and the craft of telling stories in three dimensions, which Walt Disney called imagineering. During that decade I helped redeem 1,100 acres of Anaheim, California, by transforming a gritty “commercial-recreation zone” consisting of motels you could rent by the hour (for prostitutes) or by the month (for homeless families) into the Anaheim Resort—a “Garden in the City”—around Walt Disney’s original park. In my journey from the Magic Kingdom to God’s kingdom, I have been honored to serve and learn from hundreds of Christian church leaders who understand the power of story to form and transform.
Pastors are storytellers, in the classic tradition of oral storytellers—Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. counted among them. I have always resonated with Walt Disney because neither of us was blessed with this particular gift. Disney, arguably the greatest storyteller of the 20th century, was a Midwestern farm boy who never finished high school and who struggled to mitigate his Midwestern drawl so that American television audiences could understand him. But Disney never allowed his personal, financial, and cultural limitations to hinder him. He was self-aware and smart enough to surround himself with skilled artists, accountants, and architects to help him tell these stories to the largest audience possible. In a similar way, I have found my niche in serving causes and leaders of companies by telling stories in three dimensions:
- Strategic storytelling (branding): This is the process of articulating a tribe’s unique DNA, collective personality, identity, and passion.
- Digital storytelling (media): Today’s storytellers convey their stories via apps, websites, social media, virtual reality, and augmented reality.
- Spatial storytelling (environments): Form follows function, but form also follows fiction. Spaces tell stories, and the integrated disciplines of imagineering include architecture, interior design, environmental graphics, set design, master planning, and multiple engineering disciplines.
The Church’s Image Problem
At one time the church led culture in three-dimensional storytelling. Stained glass windows were the multimedia extravaganzas of their day. Flying buttresses and soaring architectural spaces immersed church visitors into God’s story and lifted spirits. Churches sponsored many of the greatest works of art, music, science, and architecture ever created.
This is no longer the case.
The church is steward of the “greatest story ever told,” but it has an image problem, as documented by the Barna Group in unChristian, a book that highlights the contrasting perception of the person of Jesus and the church in America. Hypocritical, uncaring, and judgmental are character traits often written into the stories being told and perceived by those outside church walls on Sunday morning.
I live in America, which increasingly feels like the post-Christian Europe in which I grew up. Several renowned film studios and notable filmmakers seem to dominate global storytelling today. Apple founder Steve Jobs said, “The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come and Disney has a monopoly on the storyteller business. You know what? . . . I am going to be the next storyteller.”
God gave me a passion for helping the church tell a better story. At the start of the new millenium, I found kindred spirits in leaders such as Jud Wilhite, Mike Foster, and Gene Appel with whom to share that passion. We have found stories around the world where God is writing his story today through his church—and the church is still God’s “Plan A” for restoring and redeeming the world. I look forward to sharing stories of leaders who “dared to imagine” and then brought those dreams into reality.
Mel McGowan is cofounder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios. He is a leading master planner and designer of churches in America.