Considering that Robert Schuller pioneered the current megachurch movement, the recent bankruptcy of the Crystal Cathedral is no small issue. Are we getting a glimpse into the near future for those megachurches that have followed Schuller’s paradigm for ministry? Just what is the current state of the megachurch movement? If the Crystal Cathedral is any gauge of what is to come, what might we learn from the current bankruptcy of the granddaddy of all megachurches in this country?
If you read the news article1, you will notice that the Crystal Cathedral explains away their current financial meltdown by blaming the hard economic times people are facing. Sheila Schuller states that the message people need to hear right now is that “tough times never last; every storm will come to an end.” Really? Is that the message we need “right now”? So this situation has nothing to do with the leadership’s reckless spending, amassing a debt of over forty-three million dollars? It is, by implication, the people’s fault, because their “storms” are preventing them from funding what apparently has become a major corporate enterprise, no longer able to line the pockets of those who built the empire. Who is primarily facing the tough times Schuller is talking about?
Schuller’s answer in blaming the current economic “storm” cannot be separated from his message, and that is precisely the problem. Their faulty answer is bound up with their faulty message. Robert Schuller has been preaching a “New Reformation” of self-esteem for years. “To be born again means that we must be changed from a negative to a positive self-image—from inferiority to self-esteem, from fear to love,” writes Schuller. He is the grandfather of the current prosperity, positive-thinking paradigm that has infiltrated this country. Think positive! God wants to pour out material blessing upon you. And how many rising stars have emulated this iconic hero of the American church?
For the past two decades, Schuller has redefined the Christian message to build what is before us today, a spectacular crystal kingdom driven by a correlating message of glory now. But the tide of prosperity, economically speaking, was bound to end at some point, and now the message just doesn’t work. There will always be business cycles; there will be periods of peak and trough, and people need to think through the consequences of their actions in the present cycle, anticipating that which is to come. Taking these economic principles into account, what happens when the church’s message is something, for instance, that only fits into the business cycle of expansion or peak? What becomes of the periods of trough? The message is not designed to provide an answer. This is exactly what is happening to the megachurch movement—it has provided a theology of glory in the present that only fits at the proper moment in a given business cycle. Is it any coincidence that we have seen this megachurch phenomenon rise at just the right moment in American history, the moment of unprecedented expansion and peak? The movement is roughly thirty-five years old. So now that we have peaked, economically, what does this mean for our megachurch gurus? Their message will crumble along with the economy.
So think of the scenario. Schuller has promised prosperity, wealth, and positive happiness, and how does such prosperity transfer to forty-three million dollars of debt? Is it not appropriate to be reminded that true and false prophets are measured by the fulfillment of their message (Deut. 18:22)? Sure, such a message has been great for earthly-minded churchgoers until the sufferings that accompany this present evil age have failed to be overcome with what Schuller has been offering as the solution. In other words, what happens when my hour of trial has failed to be overcome by a promised “hour of power”? You have been set up for a huge fall.
The greatest tragedy here is not that Schuller’s message fails to provide happiness amidst periods of economic trough and hardship, but that his message fails to provide an answer to the misery of man. In redefining our problem, Schuller has redefined the solution, and we are left with the wholesale abandonment of anything that can legitimately be called Christian. Schuller’s message cannot fit into the Bible’s gospel of a crucified savior impaled on the cross to save sinners from death. If our problem is merely a bad attitude, of what purpose is it to proclaim that Christ “humbled himself” in assuming our human nature, “suffered” throughout his whole life, and “endured,” in body and soul, the wrath of God to atone for our “sin”?
The fact remains that this present age is characterized by tribulation and suffering because of sin. But a real answer has been provided in the announcement of Christ’s sufferings in the sinner’s place. This truth does not compel Christians to force the final realization and glory of God’s promises in the now, but rather, as the saints patiently wait, they are given deep consolation knowing that “the sufferings of Christ” abound in them (2 Cor. 1:5). Understanding this truth allows us, in times of great trial, sorrow, and turmoil, to fix our eyes upon the one who endured the cross in our place, knowing that the glory will come in the new heavens and new earth where righteousness shall dwell. To want glory now becomes a denial of the very thing that defines us as the body of Christ, a people characterized by suffering, tribulation, trials and tests in the wilderness, that the Spirit of glory may rest upon us in our weaknesses.
So what should we learn from the bankruptcy of the pioneer of the prosperity megachurch movement? As the first domino has been tipped, we shouldn’t be surprised if the rest begin to fall. It’s easy to squawk at times like this. My question goes something like this: Why does the Lord allow such chicanery to go on, and why not put a stop to this mockery right away? While I may not have an answer to this, I am reminded of what Jesus said should be my great concern. In Jesus’ day, a tower had fallen and killed several people. The multitudes thought that this must have occurred because these people were really bad sinners. Why didn’t that tower fall down on them sooner, they thought. Any correlation? Jesus’ answer is one to consider: “And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish’” (Luke 13:2–3). Jesus called people to look at the plank in their own eyes.
Since judgment begins in the house of God, it should cause all of those in positions of church leadership, including me, to evaluate seriously if there is any tampering with the ministry of Christ beyond his design, and repent if so. Further still, we should all be reminded that the Lord has promised to free his people from cruel shepherds who refuse to “heal the sick, bind up the broken and bring back what has been driven away”(Ezek. 34:4ff). We would do well to remember that God’s message of salvation came in the past through those who were in weakness, fear, and in much trembling, that the recipient’s faith would not be in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God—a power not merely by the hour, but one that remains forever.
Rev. Christopher J. Gordon is the pastor of the United Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington.