Teenagers are commonly understood as angry, socially alienated and difficult.
But standing inside the World ShowPlace at Disney’s Epcot theme park, watching the stampede of running, happily shrieking youth descend on the array of Disney characters positioned around the room, it was hard to be cynical about teens.
Over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, some 1,600 middle school and high school youth gathered at Florida’s Walt Disney World for Faith in 3D. Sponsored by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Ministries with Youth, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the weekend was designed to blend Disney “magic” with the divine “mystery” of incarnational discipleship. In keeping with the spirit of the holiday, participants were specifically encouraged to consider King’s vibrant Christian call and witness and how disciples of similar passion, faith and courage might be needed today.
The surprise appearance of Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Pluto and Cinderella among teens gathered for worship exemplifies the mix of whimsy and earnestness
representative of both the event and the age group. The characters were a lighthearted prelude to a 90-minute worship service where, as a benediction, everyone was invited to step outside and gaze at an extravagant fireworks display, giving thanks for the vivid imagination of the God who created and animated each of them to love, serve and care for a broken and beautiful world. Watch a short video of opening worship.
Under the thematic banner “imagine … create … animate,” and through means ranging from the theatrical to the contemplative, participants consistently received the call to live, act and serve as “courageous disciples.” This invitation was pointedly issued by the Rev. Jerry Cannon of C.N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Given the challenge to weave together a sermon that inspired the teenage heart and celebrated the discipleship of Martin Luther King Jr., Cannon began his sermon with an exuberant rehearsal of King’s famous “I am somebody” chant.
In addition to the large group worship services and a morning spent exploring Christian faith alongside other global faith traditions (“ImagiNations”), the event also included interactive worship centers, a pool party, creation stations and, of course, park time. Intermittent texts sent to all participants throughout their free time helped connect groups through games, cheers, challenges and “minute missions.”
While they stood in line and enjoyed rides and other park entertainments, they were invited to also imagine themselves as the eyes, hands and heart of Jesus. Disney World was rendered a fantastic, interactive and inviting “church” classroom for exploring ardent discipleship and King’s life and message as a model of it.
The elements of amusement park magic and imaginative programming allowed the witness of this forebear in the faith to once again become, for the young hearts waiting, animated reality, calling them also to step forward and follow Jesus in God’s beautiful yet broken world.
Editors note: Photographs from Faith in 3D 2012 can be viewed on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Ministries with Youth Facebook page.