Between lacing children's films with sexual innuendo and offering support to a gay-rights agenda, the Walt Disney Company has hacked off more than a few Christians in recent decades. But the September resignation of CEO Michael Eisner, coupled with the company's impending feature-length foray into Narnia, has helped soften opposition-even convincing the American Family Association to call off its nine-year boycott.
Now, Christians may find reason to move beyond neutrality to qualified support of the global leader in family entertainment: Al Weiss, a top-ranking Disney executive, is planting churches-doctrinally sound ones, and lots of them.
As chairman of the board for newly formed Vision USA, Mr. Weiss aims to raise $300 million over the next 10 years for aggressive church planting in 50 of the country's most influential cities. The project is well underway in Orlando, where several million dollars of grant money will help open eight to 10 churches by the end of the year. Preliminary efforts have also begun in Seattle, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Nashville, Charlotte, New York, and Washington, D.C.
So what do Mr. Weiss' Disney colleagues think of his ecclesiastical endeavors? "For the most part, they don't care," he told WORLD. "The ones that do care have been very supportive and have sent encouraging e-mails." Planting churches has not lowered Mr. Weiss' reputation in the company nor hindered his professional advancement-evidenced by his recent promotion from president of Disney World Resort in Orlando to president of worldwide operations for theme parks and resorts.
Vision USA's basic model for each urban market is simple: Network Christian business leaders with local church-planting experts. Chan Kilgore, pastor of CrossPointe Church in Orlando, has helped locate and train doctrinally conservative pastors. "Our greatest challenge isn't the financial resources. It's finding great men to plant," he told WORLD.
To solve that problem, Mr. Weiss aims to build a large church-planter training facility on 40 acres of donated property in Orlando. Gregg Heinsch, an experienced church planter and former youth pastor at John Piper's Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, will serve as training-center dean.
Each church founded on Vision USA funds must pour 5 percent of its budget back into the project for further local planting efforts. Vision USA president Steve Johnson believes such give-back commitments will create self-sustaining, church-planting networks throughout the country. "This is not a bureaucracy where it's top down," he told WORLD. "We're just trying to empower local movements."
Though affiliated with the Baptist General Conference (BGC), Vision USA has partnered with a range of denominations willing to affirm the Lausanne Covenant, male eldership, and Reformed theology-most recently aligning with Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.
Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and founder of the nondenominational Acts 29 church-planting network, is among a growing list of prominent leaders to join Vision USA, each hoping to combat the roughly 2,500 church deaths in the United States every year. "Church planting is hot right now," he told WORLD. "For years, guys wanted to get out of seminary and go get a church that had a nice salary and would call them pastor. Today, young entrepreneurial guys don't want to take over a church. They want to start one."
The Weiss family has supported that entrepreneurial spirit for decades, dating back to the church-planting efforts of Mr. Weiss' father. Robert Weiss, a retired pastor in the BGC, recently challenged his son to adopt the family's legacy. In accepting that challenge, the leader of the Magic Kingdom has resolved to employ his influence for another kingdom. "I could do this for the rest of my life," said Mr. Weiss, 51.
Whether Vision USA has any impact on perceptions of Disney among Christians is of little consequence to Mr. Weiss. "Disney is a secular company and is not going to do everything the Christian community would like," he said, adding that he has not even considered the potential public-relations boon his church-planting efforts might trigger. "If that's a side benefit, then that's great."