Almost five decades ago, a storyteller named Walt Disney took what he had learned about the intersection of story and space and “imagineered” a Disney World roughly the same size as San Francisco and twice the size of Manhattan in the swamps of central Florida. He envisioned a city-sized environment where people could step in to stories and imagine a new future. This vision inspired me as a 12-year-old to want to become a Disney Imagineer and architect connecting people and places around the world.
In recent years, this central Florida swampland has become the world’s top human tourist magnet, drawing 66 million annual visitors and launching a new global marketing campaign dubbed “Orlando—the Never-Ending Story.”
After a decade at Disney, I discovered that the power of story and space has formed and transformed people ever since prehistoric man gathered around fire. But contemporary church design has forgotten much of what has been learned over the millennia. Last year I had the privilege of meeting another great storyteller, South African-born Renaut van der Riet, lead pastor of the 12-year-old Mosaic Church, which has several sites outside of Orlando, including the only church that meets at the Walt Disney World Resort.
Early on, Mosaic Church decided that they would always serve at the cost of surviving and never survive at the cost of serving. They served in thousands of little and big ways: fixing cars for single moms, paying bills for families in need, making meals for those in trouble, helping people move, and serving with local organizations involved in social justice issues. Globally, they served in the Republic of Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Kenya, Brazil, Ethiopia, China and Cambodia.
Closer to home, the church has a huge heart for the people of Disney after learning it is very hard for employees to be consistently connected with Mosaic because of the rhythms of entertainment and service. So in February 2012, they launched a Walt Disney World Campus as a place where crew members could have an authentic experience with God on their schedule and in their context.
In Florida’s historic Winter Garden, down the street from their former campus at the Winter Garden Theater, van der Riet launched Axum Coffee, a cause-oriented coffee chain, with the dream of creating a place about people in the community coming together around a cause. All profits are given away in hope of changing the world one cup of coffee at a time. The business is named for Axum, Ethiopia, the church’s first partner community where it invested in clean water, orphan support, medical care and education.
Van der Riet, an Acts 29 church planter, shares, “In the early days of Mosaic Church, we never really dreamt about becoming large. We dreamt about being loud, about being a force of transformation locally and globally. Over the past 12 years, we have actually seen this happen.”
When their fledgling tribe of 50 moved into their existing building, van der Riet thought that they had found a permanent home to grow into the story that God had for them. However, just four years after doubling their building size—and despite launching multiple campuses—they are busting at the seams with more than 2,000 “ambassadors of redemption.”
“Being in the backyard of Walt Disney World, we knew that our physical spaces for gathering adults and kids needed to tell a story, not just reflect a random theme chosen by some committee,” says Mosaic Executive Pastor Phil Taylor. “When I tell our people that a former Disney Imagineer is shaping the look, feel and experience of our new building, that really means something to our people since so many of them work for Disney or in a related field.”
Even before they had formally acquired the 78,000-square-foot, big-box store in a retail center that will be their new global base of operations, we had a chance to distill their story in a visioning workshop. We discovered a “big idea” that invites visitors to step into the story of God’s ongoing work through reverberating re-creation in this redemption of the lost vision of Eden, which was a seminal image of the historic founding of Winter Garden. From a design perspective, this meant bringing the outdoors in, juxtaposing order and chaos, and layering rhythmic patterns and surprising touches that incorporate nature, whimsy and life breaking through.
Visitors entering in will be drawn toward a contemporary interpretation of a Tree of Life that disguises an existing column, while relational seating areas are clustered beneath “garden architecture” representing abstractions of arbors and trellises.
“Mosaic has entered a new chapter in its story,” van der Reit says. “As we continue to be obsessed with the gospel and equip the saints to live on mission for the kingdom, we have seen more and more people enter the story who desire deeply to be transformed by the gospel. The design team listened to us, and then they came up with a design that reflected our DNA so well. When I show people the concept drawings, they respond, ‘Yes, that feels like us at our best.’ I can’t wait to welcome our city into this new space as a catalyst for fearless world change.”
Mel McGowan, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is the co-founder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios, a multidisciplinary design firm focused on storytelling from branding to building.