What Walt Disney can teach us about Sunday School

I have a miniature carousel horse that sits on my office desk.  It is a constant reminder of a story I once heard about Walt Disney.  He loved carnival rides as a child.  His favorite one was the carousel.  He reflected on an experience he had as a very young man that, unknown to him at the  moment, would change his life (and probably make a big impact on yours, too). From a book on the leadership secrets of Disney, here is a quick paraphrase of the event:

When a carnival came to town one day, Disney waited in line to ride the carousel.  He could hardly wait to take his turn and ride the it!  He gave the attendant his ticket and quickly mounted one of the carousel horses. To Walt Disney’s dismay, he had picked a horse that was broken.  The horse didn’t “jump” like the rest of the horses.  He was very disappointed.  If that wasn’t enough, he realized the paint was chipped in many places; some people had even carved their initials into the horse.

This was not the experience he had hoped for…and it certainly wasn’t the experience he’d payed for.  Little did Walt Disney know it, but this experience would be the catalyst for his dream of a theme park where excellence would be the norm.  Walt’s motto for Disneyland became “All horses jump, no chipped paint.” It was a challenge to each and every employee to create an experience for guests that was nothing short of excellent.  What does Walt’s “All horses jump, no chipped paint” motto have to do with your Sunday School?  Everything.

In his classic book The Frog in the Kettle, George Barna noted that “Local churches must take a  hard look at their performance and dedicate themselves to excellence in all they do.  In today’s marketplace, people are critical and unforgiving.  They have high expectations, and they give an organization only one chance to impress.  In this type of environment, a church would be better off doing a few things with excellence rather than many things merely adequately.” Excellence matters.

You might be wondering what excellence looks like in your Bible teaching ministry.  I’d like to first  suggest a definition of excellence:  “Excellence is an attention to the detail.” Think about that for a moment.  If you pay attention to details, excellence will happen.  Excellence is in the small things.  Take care of those and you’ll have an excellent Sunday School.

Here are some ways your group can aim for excellence:

  1. Wear name tags – Nametags help people get to know one another, and they “level the playing field” so that guests can call people by name. Nametags help people fit in, and anything that reduces awkward experiences for guests is a good thing.
  2. Provide extra chairs – nothing says “we weren’t expecting you” more than not having enough chairs. If guests have to stand around while someone from your group runs around looking for additional chairs, you probably just lost them.
  3. Provide guests with Personal Study Guides (PSGs) – Give each guest their own copy of the PSG your class uses, and build an expectation that guests will return the following Sunday. Even if they don’t, you’ve given them the gift of God’s Word and a way for them to self-feed and study for themselves until they come back to visit your group again.
  4. Use a variety of teaching methods – If your group members know what to expect, it’s time to change things up.  Move beyond lecture and use other teaching methods to help learners actively engage in Bible study. There are 8 learning approaches you can use (I’ll write another post on those).
  5. Fast follow-up – Once a guest visits your group, don’t delay in making contact. Contact by a church member is several times more effective than contact by church staff (guests will expect a contact from church staff, but contact from a church member is a welcome surprise).
  6. Start and end on time – It may seem like a little thing, but it’s important to be respectful of people’s time.  Watch the clock and manage your group’s time. Respect those who arrive on time by starting on time.
  7. Fellowship regularly – Be sure to get together regularly outside of the classroom. Monthly fellowships and quarterly ministry projects help people build relationships beyond the kind they do during your group’s Bible study. And when your group gets together, always – always invite your guests to the party.

These are small things, but excellence is in the details.  Think about more ways you can create a culture in which “All horses jump, no chipped paint” in your Bible teaching ministry.

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4 thoughts on “What Walt Disney can teach us about Sunday School

  1. Ken Braddy,

    You hit the ball out of the park on this one! Or also, in your area of interest, you just got a hole-in-one. Well presented with the word picture you painted from Wallt Disney, :All horses jump, no chipped paint.”
    Enjoy reading your regular posts.

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