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Telling Powerful Stories Through Church Design

I can’t believe that once upon a time, a maverick pastor made the connection between destination design and church architecture, and hired me, placing me on a holy roller-coaster ride around the world and back several times. Even more impressively, he understood the nuanced difference between the multidisciplinary approach and paradigm involved with creating destinations that connect people through story in space, which is called attractional design, versus the waning model of the attractional church.


Phil Hettema, a fellow Disney alumnus and spatial storyteller who has partnered with Steven Spielberg to allow visitors to “ride the movies,” recently earned a lifetime achievement award for our industry. In his acceptance speech, he said, “Our industry has often been accused of creating fake worlds, and we seem to be living in a world of fake news and alternative facts, but when we tell our stories with quality and integrity, they’re powerful and they can change lives.”


I believe the church has an obligation to take the storytelling lead in our culture—to tell the powerful story of God’s love with quality and integrity so that people’s lives will be transformed through the hearing.


Let’s break this down.


Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California brings the story of the old west to life with realistic sets and live characters.


Powerful stories are told with quality.

When Walt Disney first thought of Disneyland, his idea for a wholesome and high-quality park was in direct response to the shabby and unsafe carnivals of the day. He dreamed of a place that could tell stories of unwavering quality in three dimensions.

As Christians, we’re called to create destinations and opportunities to welcome others in, to care for their needs and to express God’s story with excellence. Unfortunately, we sometimes become comfortable with mediocrity. Thankfully, Paul reminds us that mediocrity is not an option because, “It is the Lord Christ [we] are serving” (Col. 3:24).


The way we communicate the story, whether through media, architecture, design or the spoken word, must reflect our wholehearted desire to honor God with our gifts and resources. We should do so by paying close attention to how we convey meaning throughout our buildings, directional signs and teaching spaces. That doesn’t mean writing John 3:16 on the walls in calligraphy. It means being creative and intentional while constantly improving the quality of experience we provide those who visit or call our churches “home.”


In Disneyland’s new Frontierland set, minor details like Wanted Posters and lights in windows weave a story of a community that appears to be alive and well.


Powerful stories are told with integrity.

Perhaps the church’s most important role is to be stewards of truth. The truth is found at the first light of creation, at the empty grave and in the freedom we share as Christians. Tragically, integrity with regard to the truth sometimes takes a back seat.


When theme park designers talk about storytelling integrity, they’re talking about expressing the universal truths that all humanity shares: good triumphs over evil, love conquers hate, churros taste better than turkey legs (just making sure you’re paying attention). They recognize that their fictional stories have to speak to these universal truths, otherwise guests will see through the illusion and begin to disbelieve.


As leaders in the church, we must be vigilant in expressing God’s story with integrity. “In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned,” Paul wrote to Titus, “so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us” (Titus 2:7–8).


The world is looking for reasons to disbelieve the story the church is telling. Therefore express the truth with unyielding integrity so that even those who seek to condemn us may be won over.


Families enjoy the garden setting at Mosaic Church in Winter Park, Florida, which tells the church’s story of creation and redemption for their surrounding community.


Powerful stories change lives.

At amusement parks, stories told with quality and integrity have the power to invoke smiles and laughter, create lasting memories—and sometimes trigger a little motion sickness.


The story told by the church is infinitely more powerful. This story has healed the sick and raised the dead. It has set prisoners and addicts free. It has repaired broken marriages and reconciled sworn enemies. It has redeemed sinners and will ultimately redeem the whole world.


Let us commit to telling this story well, with quality and integrity, never compromising the truth. Because as we do, the story will change lives both now and forever.


Mel McGowan is cofounder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios. He is a leading master planner and designer of churches in America.


Article originally published in Outreach Magazine, July 2018