One of those “aha!” moments appeared on a recent visit to Walt Disney World. Yes, there are some things the church can learn from Disney. It is a small world, after all.
This wasn’t just an ordinary visit to Disney, though. About 20 of us were part of a conference group organized by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship pastors Jay Lynn and David Woody. We spent three days hearing from Disney insiders and experiencing the park from behind the scenes.
Among dozens of tips we gleaned on hospitality and customer service (things Disney does better than anyone), one stood out as the most important. And it is so simple that any church could benefit from it.
The idea is to understand the difference between transactions and interactions — and to strive to create more interactions than transactions.
Here’s what this means: At Disney World, a transaction happens when someone walks up to the popcorn seller and hands over money for a box of popcorn. An interaction happens when the popcorn seller engages the guest in a brief conversation about where they’re from, why they’re visiting, what characters they hope to see that day. Interactions are more powerful than transactions and make people feel engaged.
And sometimes interactions happen when transactions don’t. The classic Disney World illustration of the principle is the story of the popcorn seller who one day noticed two adult women near the entrance to the park taking photos of each other. The well-trained Disney cast member asked if they would like her to take their photo together, an offer they gladly accepted. Months later, Disney World received a letter from one of the women, who wanted to express her gratitude to the popcorn seller. What that cast member did not know was that the two sisters had been on their last visit to the park because one of them was terminally ill. The photo the popcorn seller took that day was the last photo of the sisters together, and it was used at the funeral.
A cast member who could have been content to stand at a popcorn stand and make simple transactions all day became a hero by seeking out meaningful interactions.
Another simple example from Disney is how they use guest buttons. When guests enter the park, they may pick up free buttons to wear that say things like, “First-time Guest” or “Happy Birthday” or “Graduation.” These are not just freebies but also cues for interactions. When a Disney cast member — whether a performer or a line attendant — sees someone wearing a button, they have an immediate conversation starter.
Too often the church focuses on transactions at the expense of interactions. Beginning with our inherited revivalistic fervor for conversions, we settle for counting baptisms rather than investing in making disciples. And in the busyness of Sundays and Wednesdays, we too often rush past moments that could be interactions because we’ve got to get to our scheduled transactions. Our staff and volunteers are trained and enlisted to do specific tasks, but do they see themselves as part of a larger mission they all share in common?
What is the common vision that unites Sunday school teachers, clergy, receptionists, child care workers, choir members and youth camp chaperones at your church? Are they popcorn sellers or impromptu photographers who happen to sell popcorn?
Disney didn’t invent this concept, of course. And it shouldn’t be new to the church, either. Jesus was the master of interactions much more than transactions. Think of the woman at the well, the 10 lepers, the rich young ruler, the feeding of the 5,000, the Transfiguration and pretty much ever other story told in the Gospels.
Maybe Disney has emulated the interaction model of Jesus better than the church has.