Cracked crystal: mega churches, mega problems
The world’s first mega church, The Crystal Cathedral in California has filed for bankruptcy owing $50 million or more.
According to reporters at the Orange County Register who combed through court documents, creditors include marketing consultants, television production companies, public relations experts and a publishing company.
Others owed money include a wheelchair foundation, a livestock supplier, dry cleaners, a wardrobe supervisor and the bloke who “managed props for pageants”.
Described as a victim of the US economy in general and the Californian economy in particular, commentators say The Crystal Cathedral is only one of many troubled mega churches but the first to file for bankruptcy protection. Others are expected to follow..
The glass tile-covered church that seats 2,736 people in its main “sanctuary” was founded by Rev Robert Schuller and designed by the famous American architect Philip Johnson and no expense was spared. It boasts 10,000 glass tiles and a gigantic organ featuring 15,948 pipes.
It opened in 1980 and has hosted celebrity guests including former USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev, former US Vice President Al Gore and actors Kirk Douglas and Denzel Washington.
You may have recognised it in the final episode of the ninth Simpson’s season. Homer “is dragged nude across the roof” of the cartoon version of the glass church while the congregation looks up horrified and the pastor yells at them to “keep their eyes on God’s floor”.
Schuller started out in the 1950s preaching in a drive in theatre. He owned the power of positive thinking message way back then and long before Rhonda Byrne turned it into a religion of her own via The Secret in 2006.
He tapped into the fresh optimism that characterised the fast growing California of the 1960s and 1970s. He started a hit television show, Hour of Power in 1970 and then moved it onto the main stage at The Crystal Cathedral in 1980 eventually building a viewing audience of 20 million people globally.
A report in the Los Angeles Times today says Schuller “talked more of self-help than sin”.
“As a sort of spiritual Tony Robbins, he became known for the saying, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it,’ and his serenely smiling demeanour seemed to offer assurance that it was true,” the newspaper reports.
I remember catching glimpses of the Rev Schuller in purple robes standing on stage in front of huge red flower pots as I channel surfed as a child in the late 70s on a Sunday morning. Back then channel surfing meant getting up off the couch and walking across to the television.
Schuller ran a hugely successful operation inspiring scores of other evangelical personalities all over America to get their own gigs complete with huge church stages, world tours, great wealth and the power to bend the ear of politicians.
He officially retired in 2006 handing the reins to his son. He took them back in 2008 citing a difference in vision and tried handing things over to his daughter although that doesn’t seem to have worked out too well either.
Whatever his own philosophy, Schuller certainly paved the way for what became known as the wealth ministries of the US.
Also known as “prosperity theology” or the “health-and-wealth gospel”, followers believe that it is God’s will for all Christians to experience earthly prosperity.
I remember visiting family in the US one Christmas and seeing what I considered to be a disturbing television ad from one of the mega churches. They were selling their Christmas “companion” DVD to people who expected to spend the holiday all by themselves. It didn’t seem a very Christian thing to do to profit from these people. Surely they could roster on some of their enormous number of staff to get these parishioners through the lonely holiday season?
I was raised as both a Catholic and a Protestant – my parents were considered a “mix couple” once upon a time – and neither of those church hierarchies are strangers to opulence or property ownership either.
However, I don’t recall them recommending it for the rest of us in sermons. I think that had something to do with it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.
Don’t get me wrong. Christian groups – religious groups of all persuasions actually – do a lot of good in the world. I just find the notion of imbuing a religious leader with God-like power dangerous.
With more mega churches teetering on the brink of financial ruin in the US, perhaps the time of the pastor celebrity-led congregations is fading in that country.
I saw a lovely piece in the New York Times a while back describing the resurgence of small bible groups being held in people’s lounge rooms. The simple service was described as a rejection of all that shouting, singing, lights camera and action.
Saying that, the ailing mega ministries in the US appear quite a contrast to Australia’s own mega churches. They appear to be multiplying and running various community services including branded medical centres. Rumour has it that Hillsong is looking at a site in the Blue Mountains to house its own school.
Maybe one of our mega churches can buy The Crystal Cathedral’s organ – “one of the biggest pipe organs in the world”. It was funded by a $2 million gift but surely it would be a bargain now as the church tries to raise funds.
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