The Release of Disney Infinity 3.0 Begins the Season of Star Wars Mania

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When Disney purchased Lucasfilm and the rights to the Star Wars franchise for $4 billion dollars in 2012, many assumed Disney would focus on reviving the Star Wars franchise by producing another round of movies. But this was only part of the plan. What Disney really wanted was the characters and the stories. For characters and stories have always put the magic in Disney.

Disney’s first cultural icon, Mickey Mouse, became the template upon which all future characters would be built. In 1928 he starred in Steamboat Willie, the first animated film to use synchronized music and sound effects. As the movie captured the imagination of popular culture, Walt Disney did what he did best — he teamed up with merchandisers to put Mickey Mouse in every house in America. Along with stuffed animals, Mickey appeared on pencils, in books, on children’s clothes, pillows, and sheets. Soon he had his own syndicated cartoon in the newspaper. But nothing said he had arrived better than the release of the iconic Mickey Mouse Watch, which sold over 11,000 units on its first day, a record for its time. But that was just the start. By the 1950s Mickey had his own television show, the Mickey Mouse Club, and a starting role in his own theme park, Disneyland, in California.

So when Disney purchased Star Wars, the production of movies was only one piece of the franchise pie. From now till the release of Star Wars VII The Force Awakens on December 18, 2015, a whole series of video games, animated TV shows, and books will be released to build momentum toward the opening of the movie.

Disney has even created a slogan and website called “Star Wars A Force For Change,” which promises to harness “the strength of Star Wars and its global fandom to empower people to come together to make a positive impact on the world around them.”

With the release of the video game Disney Infinity 3.0 Star Wars, Disney takes its popular toy-to-life video game to another level.  Included in the starter pack is the first of three Star Wars play sets that capture the breadth of the Star Wars story.  The starter pack comes with Twilight of the Republic, in which Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano battle during the latter years of the Clone Wars (episodes 1 – 3). The intergalactic adventure takes the characters to four planets, during which they battle droids as they try to save the republic from the separatists.

At the end of September the next play set, The Rise Against the Empire, will be released. Here gamers will be immersed in the original Star Wars movie universe (episodes  4-6) as they get to be Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia fighting against the Galactic Empire.  Then in December, in conjunction with the release of the newest movie, The Force Awakens play set will feature two new characters, Finn and Rey, that will allow gamers to play the in world of episode 7.

But this is only part of the story.  More than 100 playable characters will be included in the series, which at $14.99 a pop is quite an investment, along with the $64.99 starter pack and the $35.99 you pay for each additional play set.  Disney knows it will hard to resist the desire to play as Darth Vader, Yoda, Chewbacca, and Han Solo in a Star Wars experience that puts the gamer in the midst of the action.

Beyond the play sets, Disney Infinity also includes the groundbreaking Toy Box that allows gamers to create their own worlds using Star Wars images.  But more than that, in the Toy Box, Yoda can also hang out with Elsa from Frozen or Woody from Toy Story or Hulkbuster from Marvel’s universe of characters.

While it’s easy to see this as an attempt to separate parents from their hard-earned money, not to be lost is Disney’s profound understanding of the appeal of Star Wars to grandparents, parents, and children alike.  For Stars Wars is not only an intergalactic adventure, it also is an intergenerational cultural experience that started in 1977.

People in their fifties and sixties can easily remember their first experience of the release of episodes 4 – 6, when “let the force be with you” became part of the cultural lexicon of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Those in their thirties and forties became immersed in the story in the 1980s and 1990s with the advent of Video Tapes and DVDs that allowed them as kids to watch the movies over and over again in their home theaters.  In 1999, the series got new life with the release of episodes 1 – 3, which introduced the series to a whole new generation.  Now with Disney Infinity 3.0, the grandchildren and children of Star Wars fans have the opportunity to be caught up in the story in a totally new way.  Not only will they be able to watch the movies, toy-to-life video gaming allows them to become the characters as they interact in the Star Wars universe.

With the release of Disney Infinity 3.0, Disney has redefined the Star Wars experience.  Rather than buying a particular game, it becomes its own game system, which can be played on any gaming platform from the Wii U to the PS4, from the Xbox One to the PC.  If you have a grandchild or child, don’t be surprised if you find yourself investing in Disney Infinity 3.0, because deep down, you know if you have it, you’ll get to play it too.

Questions for church leaders:

  • How do Bible stories and characters become an intergenerational experience?
  • How will you handle the cultural phenomenon of all things Star Wars that will reach its zenith right before Christmas?
  • Will you ignore it?  Reference it in your preaching? Create a study?

 

The Problem with “Nones”

Over the years, the Christian community has been very creative in the terms it uses to categorize people who are not coming to church. “Unbelievers” was in vogue in the 1960s and 1970s. These were the people who did not believe in Jesus. The church’s job was to convince them to believe by using tracts like the “Four Spiritual Laws” to change their minds. In the 1980s and 1990s, the term “seekers” was used to describe people who did not come to church but were interested in spirituality of some kind. So churches created seeker services that did not expect attendees to do anything but listen to a band play contemporary music, watch video clips, and listen to a message with fill-in-the-blank outlines. The goal was to help people become seekers of Jesus.

Now the people who do not affiliate with a particular faith tradition or go to church are called the “nones.”   According to Pew Research Center’s recently released study on America’s Changing Religious Landscape, which reported on the rapid decrease in people who are part of mainline Protestant churches, the number of the religiously unaffiliated adults, the so-called “nones,” has increased by 19 million people since 2007. Now there are approximately 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S., which makes them larger then Catholics or mainline Protestants. While 11% of older adults are in this category, more than 36% of young adults do not participate in a religious faith community.

The most damning finding from the survey is that while 85% of adults were raised as Christians, a quarter of these no longer claim a religious affiliation. Former Christians now represent 19% of the U.S. population. This is in contrast to mainline Protestants, who have declined from 18% of the population to 11% since 2007.

In my mind, the use of the term “nones” is a convenient term that lets the church off the hook. We can say they aren’t coming to our churches because they have lost their faith or because they don’t believe in anything. I believe that “the nones” is a pejorative term to use for a group of people who don’t buy into our notion of what it means to follow Jesus. For those us who are steeped in the theology of John Wesley, the idea that someone is a “none” is completely foreign to the concept of prevenient grace (before a person knows Jesus, God’s grace is present in his or her life).

I think people have turned away from the church because of “us.” Maybe they have chosen not to participate in church life because they are not interested in our unrelenting debates about who is “in” and who is “out.” Instead of finding our houses of worship places of grace, they have encountered toxic personalities they do not want their children to emulate. Could it be they can better live out their faith without having to put up with people whose goal in life is to get rid of the pastor who doesn’t measure up? Or maybe they refuse to listen to preaching that constantly judges them and their friends’ lifestyles as being sinful and unchristian.

In all the articles that have tried to shed light on this issue, the one by Reba Riley on “Losing My Religion: America’s ‘Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome” hit me the hardest.  She says, “I see thousands of stories of brokenness. I see the millions of people who crash into religion when they go looking for God. I see people so tired of being spiritually bruised that they give up on faith altogether.”

She brings home a point that is often lost in the desire to fix blames. “People who leave or are left by their faith lose a lot more than a place to go on Sunday morning. They lose relationships with family and friends, social status, tribal approval, self-esteem.  They lose their God, their identity, their certainty, their gravity.”

This week, I have been hanging out with Paul Moon, the founding pastor of BrokenBuilders, a United Methodist Church birthed in Manhattan six years ago. The church now has three sites and six worship services. The primary attenders are young adults, the group that is missing from the vast majority of our churches. The Rev. Moon says the number one goal for the church is to create safe communities. Rather than launch worship services or small groups, the starting point at BrokenBuilders is creating space for community to form. People who gather in these spaces can be anything: Buddhist, Muslim, agnostic, gamers, or Christian. It doesn’t matter. As people identify shared interests, they may start a yoga class, launch a theatre group, or create a worship experience.

The leader’s role is not to create a program or run people through a series of Bible classes. Instead it is to pray constantly and to give room for the Holy Spirit to touch peoples’ lives. Moon says, “We should acknowledge we don’t have any influence over young people in their culture. Our role is to ask the Holy Spirit to come and work in their lives. We are called to create space for people to experience the grace of Jesus. Transformation is not our goal; it is a byproduct of our experience with God.”

So as we grapple with a growing population of young people who have left the church or who have never been part of the church, perhaps prayer and seeking God’s wisdom is the place to start — not with rollouts of new programs or initiatives to reach the “nones,” but with humility and a self-awareness that causes us to take stock of our own attitudes, actions, and words that hurt, damage, and destroy people’s faith in God. It could be that a lot more of us than would care to admit are very close to joining America’s fastest growing religious group.