Thursday, October 21, 2010

A winnowing of Southern California's holy men

While the Saddleback Church is reaching new heights of prosperity, others in the area are not on an upward trend.  Earlier we found faith healer Benny Hinn asking for two million dollars in donations to keep his operations running.  Now the OC's original megachurch, the Crystal Cathedral, has filed for bankruptcy, declaring a $36 million mortgage and at least $7 million in other debt.  Some are blaming the turn in fortunes on an inability to move with the times, which is ironic considering this church's innovative origins. 

The story begins in 1955, when Robert Schuller, a 34 year-old midwestern minister living in Orange County, opened a church in a former drive-in theater.  Rather than preach about sin and condemnation, he stressed a positive message, meant to inspire and give hope.  While not at the level as the prosperity churches of decades later (prayer will help you win the lottery), Schuller did present an attitude that anything is possible (prayer will help you work to achieve your goals).  The positivity, and the recognition of the emerging car culture, propelled the church's expansion.  The message went even further with the "Hour of Power", a weekly television sermon that began in 1970.  The result was the Crystal Cathedral, built from 1977 to 1980. The 1980's and 1990's were the good years for the church, but then things began to slide, with a lot of the blame going to the aging look of the service and the television show:
Schuller and family "stayed with the organ when everyone had gone to the rock 'n' roll band. He stayed with the robes when everyone else was reinventing themselves as bishops. In a time when most megachurces are going multisite and to smaller venues, he kept building bigger buildings," Thumma said.  [Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at the Hartford Institute of Religion Research]
The rise and fall of these churches further underscores the message that religion is a human, and not a divine, enterprise.  Whether Rick Warren is more correct than Robert Schuller concerning the divine is irrelevant, what is important is their ability to market.  These churches are commercial feel-good enterprises, and the recognition of this would clear up a lot of problems (i.e., people under the impression they have the real truth).

1 comment:

  1. Very insightful. The fact that the American church has been able to constantly change and evolve has been a key to its survival and growth. And the fact that there are so many different varieties of the Christian church has meant that would-be adherents can pick and choose and shop around for a church that conforms to their own personal tastes (with little concern for "eternal verities"). Not only have the worship style and music genres changed, though. The message from the pulpit itself evolves, as well, to please those in the pews. For example, in an era when divorce is common in the U.S., the biblical injunctions against it are no longer emphasized (lest there be a drop-off in tithes and offerings, no doubt). So much for the claim that "God is the same yesterday, today, and forever." Seems like he alters his message in response to the polls.

    One added note. If anyone remembers Robert Schuller's pompous sermon delivery style, made famous by his TV Program "The Hour of Power," they'll understand perfectly the meaning of the sarcastic description once familiar to seminarians: "The Stained Glass Voice."