(Editor’s note: ABP is pleased to announce the addition of prominent Baptist historian and author Bill Leonard to our team of regular contributors. He will write a bi-weekly column offering his perspective on developments in American Christianity. Leonard retired this summer as founding dean of the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. He continues to teach full-time as professor of church history and Baptist studies in the divinity school and professor of religion in the university’s religion department. Previous commentaries by Leonard that have appeared in ABP include Baptists (Cooperative and uncooperative) face the future, a two-part series based on a presentation at a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leadership retreat, and Southern Baptists face the future – and an identity crisis, an analysis of trends confronting the Southern Baptist Convention.)
By Bill Leonard
After all, Robert Schuller is one of the country’s best-known and most publicly identifiable preachers. His sermons resounded for years across the nation and around the world through the “Hour of Power,” a syndicated program that The New York Times calls the country’s “longest-running religious television broadcast.” The church and the broadcast will continue — but with major cutbacks in staff and ministry programs.
What went wrong? Is this a sign of hard times to come for other mega-congregations? Or is it a case of a “family business” gone sour? Both questions are worth some reflection. The Crystal Cathedral was one of the country’s first modern megachurches — led by a charismatic founder/pastor, its first services were conducted on a drive-in movie property, an early seeker-sensitive device for reaching the unchurched. (Worshipers can still join the services from their cars.) Schuller’s aggressive evangelism was centered in his theology of “Possibility Thinking,” creative use of media, celebrity performances at worship, a signature building by renowned architect Philip Johnson and a lab for church-growth methodology. “Possibility Thinking” viewed sin as a consequence of a poor self-image and redemption as a fulfillment of God’s intended plan for every person.
Yet the church was also a family business, with multiple members of the Schuller family employed throughout. Now in his 84th year, founder Schuller has been unable (or unwilling) to pass on pastoral leadership to a second generation — especially to his chosen heir, son Robert A. Schuller, whom he installed, then removed, as senior pastor when he judged that the son was not equal to the task. The younger Schuller is now “planting” a new church in California. His sister, Sheila Schuller Coleman, is currently the senior minister. Now she must confront the creditors, presiding over staff layoffs and sales of whatever property can be relinquished. And continue to preach the gospel.
Are there lessons here for American Protestants in general and megachurches in particular? Maybe or maybe not. Perhaps the second generation simply could not sustain the necessary charismatic quality of a megachurch pastoral office. That is a difficulty for almost all huge congregations gathered around a popular founder/pastor. Joel Osteen, by contrast, assumed leadership of Houston’s Lakewood Church after the death of his father and carried it to new heights.
Perhaps in the Schullers’ case the founder/father could not let it go. Likewise, reports indicate that the church overbuilt, adding debts for at least one new facility for which they did not have the resources. All churches, especially mega-ones, are prone to that kind of overreach, especially when coupled with an economic downturn nationwide. Indeed, it appears that revenues raised through the “Hour of Power,” long a staple for the church and the program, have dropped considerably over the last few years.
Then there is the competition. The Crystal Cathedral’s home in Orange County, Calif., is fertile ground for a variety of megachurches, not the least of which is Saddleback (Baptist) Church, where the internationally known Rick Warren is pastor. Whatever else the Crystal Cathedral situation may indicate, it surely shows that megachurches can peak and that those who live by marketing techniques can decline by them as well, especially when the market changes. Churches that cannot pass on identity to a new generation cannot survive.
Clearly, demographics, economic downturns, disengaging constituencies, and competing mega-congregations no doubt contributed to the church’s decline and fall. At the very least, the bankruptcy of the Crystal Cathedral is a sobering reminder that all ecclesial models are vulnerable in the brave new world of permanent transition impacting religious institutions in postmodern America.