Starting with “Toy Story” in 1995 all the way up to their latest production “Inside Out” (which is on track to be possibly their biggest film ever), their success rate has been unprecedented. Even their worst movies (like oh, I don’t know, “Cars” maybe) are still pretty great.
As someone who’s been on the Pixar bandwagon since seeing “Toy Story” in theaters 20 years ago, I’ve seen 3 clear reasons why this movie company has been so incredibly successful connecting with kids from age 5 to 105.
I think if churches put these 3 Pixar practices into place we could be more successful in connecting with our audience as well:
1) Treat Children Like Adults: Pixar movies don’t talk down to kids – they treat them as mature and capable of understanding complex themes.
Instead of just putting in jokes for kids and jokes for adults, Pixar movies do an incredible job treating kids on the same level as adults.
Underneath the colorful surfaces of movies about superheroes and toys and monsters these movies tend to deal with adult concepts and emotions.
I’m not talking subtle sex and poop jokes and pop culture references that lesser animated movies tread in. I mean the real stuff of life like heartbreak and loss and growing up and growing old.
While it may seem like these concepts go over kids’ heads, from my experience I believe young people are capable of processing these ideas.
When I was a youth pastor at a small church we didn’t really have the option of splitting off into middle and high school groups. Instead I had to teach a lesson every week to a group of 6th graders through 12th graders. If you’ve been around teenagers much you know how vast the gap is between those few years.
I learned something fairly quickly though – it was far more productive to talk up to the young kids than to talk down to the older kids. Younger kids are smarter than we give them credit for and from my experience they were often able to grasp at least a basic understanding of difficult biblical concepts.
This is why I think it’s good for kids to sit inside “big church” at least semi-regularly and not always be whisked away to “children’s church”.
When young people sit in on adult services they may not fully grasp every teaching but they are beginning to absorb them.
They are picking up words and ideas. They are learning the rhythms of worship. They are asking mom and dad questions. When they hear teachings again and again they begin to have a foundation of faith and understanding on an adult level.
In much the same way as Jesus, who at 12 years old snuck away from a celebration to go learn in the temple and amazed people with us understanding and answers, kids are capable of understanding more than we typically give them credit for. Churches should embrace this.
2) Speak To The Inner Child In Adults: Another reason Pixar succeeds is because by this point audiences know these cartoon movies aren’t just for kids. Films like “Up” and “Wall-E” and especially “Toy Story 3” tug at the heartstrings and speak to the inner child in all of us. They fill us with childlike wonder and bring us back to the hope and joy of our youth.
I think churches would be well-served to do a little more of that.
At my old church I was often in charge of children’s church. I’ve always been better at connecting with teenagers than I have been with younger kids, so this was a struggle for me.
I did however love doing the children’s sermon.
If you’re not familiar with the children’s sermon, it usually involves all the kids in the church coming up front near the beginning of the service. They sit in front of one of the pastors who usually does a short and simple object lesson.
Though some pastors will tell you it’s a chore to try to come up with these illustrations, I was delighted when it got to be my week on the children’s message rotation.
Taking something from life – be it a toy or a piece of nature or just something sitting on my desk – and trying to relate it to God was one of my favorite challenges. It’s pretty much what I still do to this day on the blog.
And I’m not trying to brag about this, but often times adults in the congregation would come up to me after the service and tell me they got more out of the children’s message than they did the actual sermon.
I don’t think that had anything to do with my speaking skills versus the pastor’s. I think it had to do with the simplicity of the message. Sometimes when we talk to adults we think we have to overcomplicate our message in order to sound more intellectually or theologically mature.
I’d love to see more pastors treat their sermons like children’s messages.
Simplify things. Pick an object. Pick a verse. Make a point. Move along. Make a Pixar-type illustration. Use something that speaks to everyone. Then wrap it up.
Just because your service has always lasted an hour in the past doesn’t mean it always has to in the future. And even if it does that doesn’t mean the preacher has to talk for 25 minutes every week.
I’m not an expert speaker by any means. But one thing I’ve learned from speaking to students for 10 years is to make one point and make it well. (Says the blogger making a 3-point illustration. I’m aware of my hypocrisy here.)
You’re not going to change the world with one sermon or lesson. You don’t have to cram in the entirety of God’s word into one speech.
So instead take a page from the children’s message. If you want an audience to truly remember and connect with what you’re saying then be simple and clear with your message.
3) Keep Showing Up: This final practice actually has more to do with the audience that goes to see Pixar movies than it does the company itself. But one of the keys to Pixar’s success is that the audiences keep showing up.
“Inside Out” had record-setting box office numbers this weekend. That’s because despite a few misfires in Pixar’s recent past (I’m looking at you “Cars 2” and “Monsters University”) the public still has tremendous faith in the Pixar brand.
If people stopped showing up to Pixar movies because of one bad one then they would stop being made. But audiences keep giving Pixar a chance to surprise and entertain and inspire them because of the consistent way they’ve done it before.
We ought to have as much hope in our next church service as we do in the next Pixar movie.
Though our church services are weekly and not yearly like Pixar movies and thus more likely to be disappointing every now and then, we ought to show up week after week hoping and expecting something special.
You will only get out of a church service what you put into it. If we want our church services to have the same power as a Pixar movie than we have to keep showing up and giving them a chance to do so even if they have disappointed us in the past.
The best Pixar movies are the ones that respect children’s intelligence and the ones that speak to an adult’s inner child. Their movies do it better than any others and for that reason audiences keep showing up.
If churches want to connect people with God’s message of love and salvation with the same success I think they’d be well served to follow Pixar’s practices. And I think we as the church body have to keep showing up every week the same way we do to Pixar movies – ready and expecting to be amazed and inspired – in order to give them the chance to do so.
What do you think is the secret to Pixar’s success? Which of these practices would you like to see the church do a better job at putting into place?