Wednesday, July 06, 2011


"Jesus is the one you fit into your life and around your schedule and your plans; the one you call upon whenever you’re in trouble or need a favor, the one you add to your life so you can feel better about yourself… a kind of therapeutic Jesus."

Crystal Cathedral
Robert Schuler is an aging example of a movement in Christianity that started in the 70s, driven more by marketing and demographics than Biblical fundamentals. His church was started by visiting neighborhoods and talking to people, asking what they'd like a church to be. Then he started up a church based on this survey and some demographical information he was able to obtain.

The church grew rapidly and eventually was so wealthy it bought a huge campus in the Los Angeles area and the Crystal Cathedral was built. A huge glass and steel structure, this building doesn't look anything like a church and especially not a cathedral, and that was on purpose. The old had to go, inviting in the new, with buildings and settings and ideas that rejected how Christianity had been doing things for centuries.

People were uncomfortable with church buildings, it made them feel guilty and reminded them of judgmental people. People didn't like having to join churches, it made them feel pressured to take part and pay tithes. Schuller did away with many of these things, setting a trend for later organizations such as the Willow Creek church in Chicago and other megachurches around the country.

It was huge, with thousands of people taking part each Sunday. The ministry grew, with radio and television programs, books, lectures, and so on. Schuller's message was less guilt and grace than personal improvement, emphasizing good self esteem and rejecting messages of sin, wrath, hell, and punishment for love, how to get along with neighbors and bosses, and relationships.

Pastors like Joel Osteen follow this model which is more Oprah than Christ, building gigantic congregations with essentially self help motivational lectures rather than sermons. They pack em in, and fill huge auditoriums which share only a slight resemblance to a church. These worship services are more comfortable than comforting, and never leave you feeling too guilty, just enough to feel like you've changed or gotten better so you can feel good about yourself.

Throwing yourself at the foot of the cross and pleading forgiveness from God is gauche and tacky, these churches are more interested in building you up and making you feel good about yourself, with self-help tips straight out of any TV talk show.

Except... they aren't doing so well lately. The Crystal Cathedral and the campus in LA are up for sale. Schuller's ministry is bankrupt, and he's been pushed aside to a non-voting position in the board. $50 million in debt, the church has been struggling as the son of Robert Schuller has rejected much of his father's therapeutic feel-good religiousness for more orthodox Christianity.

The truth is, as even the megachurches admitted in the 90s, while they get big, they aren't actually growing Christianity as a whole. Attendance at churches and self-identification as Christian is declining in America, and while an individual church like Lakewood can have thousands of people ever Sunday, they are a rotating group of different people.

Because the churches so deemphasize membership and participation beyond showing up a few times a week, people come, maybe drop a buck in the plate, and go home without becoming a part of the church. And they're so vast, you can't really know many people. You might get to know a few folks who sit in the same area as you each week, but no one else. And the people attending move on after a while, when it gets boring to hear the same thing and never grow.

In the end, churches need to decide what their greatest priority is: glorifying God and being true to His word... or packing in lots of people. Because what your main goal is will define and shape everything else you do. Its not that having a big church doesn't glorify God or cannot be true to the Bible, 10th Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania is huge and does both, for example. Its that if your central, driving goal is to get people instead of to glorify God and obey Him, then that's what you're going to work toward.

Packing in seats and tailoring what you do doesn't change lives or turn the world upside down, the gospel does. And while pragmatism might be effective in the short term, in time it grows wearying and empty.

1 comment:

eric said...

It's also a problem for many of the small churches in our community. Their membership has aged considerably and attendance has dropped. One of the side effects of this is that the churches are much more predatorial than they used to be about trying to capture members from other congregations, which has become such a contentious issue that the major Baptist and major Methodist church in town generally won't help out with traditional community events if the other's congregation is going to be involved. A classic case of "too many chiefs and not enough indians".

A good friend of mine has been trying for 8 years to grow the membership in their sub-100 member nondenominational (but extremely Biblically centered) church without much luck, and has finally decided to just try to find a pastor job in a larger community.
We had talked about it and I asked him why he felt such a burning need to grow the church instead of just focusing on their existing membership, and he said, "Because if you look at the average age of the members in our church, it's going to be a third smaller in 10 years. I don't want to just stay here and watch the church die."
Outside of some pretty commercial Vacation Bible School programs for kids, he's fought the urge to try 'gimmicky' things to drive membership. He's active in the community and people who know his family are impressed with them, but that doesn't seem to be enough to drag 'em in the door on Sunday morning.

I don't know what the answer is, and of course I contribute to the problem by not taking my family to church (as I told my friend, not because I think the church is "full of hypocrites", but because attending any of the local evangelical churches while holding my beliefs about Christ would make me the biggest hypocrite there).
Even though I'm not interested in attending them and I often think they pick the wrong issues to focus on, I would hate to see traditional 'old school' churches die out in America.