5 Characteristics of a Church Like Pixar

This is the first in a series of new posts called Church Like Pixar. The goal of the series is to help church creatives improve the quality of their ministry.

You can always tell if you’re watching a Pixar movie, right? Over the last fifteen years, our family of six has enjoyed a golden age of film animation.

I’ve been intrigued by their success for years, and in an early  conversation with my St. Andrew colleague Arthur Jones, he asked me a compelling question: What would a “Church Like Pixar” be like?

This question became the focus of a workshop I’ve led now twice, at the International Christian Media Conference in Seoul, South Korea, and at the Worship and Facilities Expo in Dallas.

The premise of the workshop is, if you could look at a local church and say that their creative and storytelling prowess made them a Church Like Pixar, what would you be talking about?

Continuing a long-standing tradition on this blog of lists of five, I came up with a list of 5 key characteristics I would expect to find in such a church:


Pixar is technically outstanding.

I attended the Annenberg School of Communication, which is a graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. While there I got a job in a computer lab that worked on an U.S. Dept of Defense contract. I worked on Silicon Graphics computers. My job was to convert computer animated clips of tanks to video.

It was early animated stuff, pre-Jurassic Park, and down the hall from the ENIAC machine, which is generally acknowledged as the first functioning modern computer. The lab had a contract with the U.S. Army, and I had to convert the lab’s tank animations into video and convert to 3/4″ videocassette tape in order to send off for review. It was cool, totally nerd stuff.

That was 1992. Three years later, Toy Story appeared.

It’s hard to capture the magnitude of difference between my colleagues’ crude animations and the fluidity of Woody and Buzz.

Toy Story was the first full length computer animated movie. Before Pixar, no one would have ever put “computer animation” and “beautiful” in the same sentence.

Pixar changed the thinking about what is technically possible.


Pixar understands what makes for a compelling story.

But technical achievement alone doesn’t make a great film. Pixar understands what makes for a compelling story. Otherwise, everyone would love Jar Jar Binks.

It’s legendary among the creative community now that the original Woody was kind of a jerk. In the early stages of the movie’s development, Woody’s character was dark and mean. He was jealous, bossed the other toys around and was not likeable. When the mock up of the movie was shown to Disney, they shut down production

Woody had to be recast, and his new personality saved the film. Pixar worked the story over and over until they got it right.

Hollywood is great at making technically proficient films that are unwatchable. Pixar understands there’s more to it than technology.


Pixar films are loved universally.

Prior to Pixar, almost every kid film or show could be divided into two categories:

On one hand, you have Barney the purple dinosuar. I knew the actor who played Barney, which was shot in Dallas. His name is David Joyner. He played the body, not the voice. David is a great guy, but watching Barney made you want to break your television. Young parents now have no idea. (Another one was Teletubbies – Lord, what was that?!)

Those shows were so bad for us adults and so fun for the kids because some really smart psychologists had figured out what young children enjoy watching, and they produced shows for their audience.

That was one kind of kid show mostly produced by public television and other networks focused on child development. The other kind were films like Shrek.

Shrek is a kid film full of adult innuendo. Not sure? Don’t ever ask an Australian to pronounce Lord Farquaad.

Before Pixar, Hollywood thought of kid movies as babysitting, so they’d sass it up for a wink and a laugh, and make disguised adult movies.

Pixar understands its audience isn’t just kids.


Pixar Is a dual innovator.

In his book To Pixar and Beyond, former Pixar CFO Lawrence Levy notes that what they did was unique because they had innovated in two different fields: computer animation and storytelling.

In my 20s, I was part of a team that helped to develop the field of visual technology in worship at my church, Ginghamsburg. We innovated in the same two areas – technology and storytelling. I wrote a book about the experience, called The Wired Church.

The book did well, but the downside to the book is that it put emphasis on technological innovation over storytelling. It was never just about the technology. You have to be technically excellent, of course, but that’s not enough.

Just as it was hard for Pixar to do what they did, it was hard for us at my first church, and has been hard ever since. it’s the combination of technology and storytelling that made what we did special, and the same is true for Pixar.


Pixar invites everyone to the room.

Pixar is known for company-wide reviews of the “dailies” – new, draft segments of a film in production. Daily screenings are a celebration at Pixar, where everyone comes to the theatre together. In his book Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull recounts a core Pixar philosophy when he says,

Good ideas come from everywhere in the organization.

Consider this list. Now, name five action steps for your ministry, one from each concept. How can you improve your creative environment by focusing on each of these areas?


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).