Friday, January 20, 2006

What Message Are They Sending?

While listening to the radio this morning, I came across this article (note: requires Real Player to play) and learned that Crystal Cathedral founding pastor Robert Schuller will be stepping down from his role as Senior Pastor and passing the reigns to his son, Robert A. Schuller (who usually uses his middle initial to distinguish himself from his father, whose middle initial begins with "H"), although the elder Schuller isn't actually retiring, just yet. For more info, you can see the Crystal Cathedral's web page.

The article rightly notes that Schuller's ministry is often criticized by conservatives for its emphasis on "positive thinking," arguing that it waters down the gospel. Despite the dismissal of this idea as "sour grapes" by Craig Detweiler (a professor at Biola who I know personally, and consider to be a generally responsible apologist for progressive Christianity) in the radio article, I have some sympathies with the concern that Schuller's teaching emphasizes the good sides of Christianity while giving little attention to the dangers of sin and the need for repentance. In fact, it seems to me that Schuller reduces sin to a loss of self-esteem, rather than an act of disobedience to God. (For example, see this quote from Schuller's book Self Esteem: The New Reformation: "Sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem." [p. 14]). Although Schuller has not come to this philosophy lightly, and has well-reasoned beliefs that have led him to this position, I simply cannot bring myself to agree with him.

However, I found myself more bothered by the fact that the article paid no attention to criticism from more liberal Christians. I, myself, have long been bothered by the sheer opulence displayed by the building that cost over $20 million dollars to build. Not to mention the elaborate and costly shows produced every year for Christmas and Easter.

To be fair, the ministry has long since paid the cost of building the Crystal Cathedral. In fact, the cost of building the Cathedral was paid for before the Cathedral even opened, and the congregation holds no debt. In addition, the television ministry, "Hour of Power," itself takes in over $50 million dollars every year. And I'm well aware of quite a few ministries that have been funded by this income. I do not know of any terrible tales of waste or fraud. And I must remind myself that it's "not a sin to be rich," provided that one uses one's resources responsibly.

But I'm still concerned about the message that such a wealthy congregation sends. I'm concerned that an unhealthy value is placed on having lots of money, and that the health of a ministry is measured by the size of the congregation (which, in this case, is over 9,500 members). I'm troubled by the fact that the Cathedral stands in the middle of one of the richest areas of Southern California (Garden Grove, in Orange County), which historically has a terrible track record of advocating against programs that would provide aid to those less fortunate. Even if the members of Schuller's congregation themselves are more generous (and I have no reason to suggest that they are not), I'm concerned that this generosity hasn't spread to the greater community. Instead of being driven to greater activism on behalf of the poor, they see the value of having great wealth themselves. I'm convinced that this is not the message that God would have us send as Christians.

3 comments:

  1. I'm also concerned about the nepotism that is obviously at work in the selection of a successor.

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  2. The thought crossed my mind, as well, but I figured it was of lesser concern. Having said that, and leaving the actual nepotism aside, I think it's a really bad idea to be pastor of a church you've grown up in, as Robert A. has certainly done here.

    I'm mildly surprised the RCA (Reformed Church of America, not the makers of electronics!) is allowing such a thing, but I'm well aware that the Crystal Cathedral is considered the "black sheep" of that denomination.

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  3. I should make clear that I'm well aware that the current Crystal Cathedral has only existed for about 25 years, and that Robert A. was born in 1954, so he didn't "grow up" in this church in the sense of having been a child there. He did grow up in Garden Grove, however, and did indeed "grow up" with his father at Garden Grove Community Church, which is what later became the Crystal Cathedral, so the main point stands.

    It's probably also worth noting that Robert A. was ordained at about the same time that the Cathedral was built, and although he founded the Rancho Capistrano Community Church shortly after his ordination in 1980, and served there for 17 years, he's been connected to the Crystal Cathedral again for the past 5 years, and is obviously pretty closely related to it, anyway.

    My denomination, the PC(USA), explicity forbids Associate Pastors from succeeding the Senior Pastor they served under. While I'm not sure if Robert A. is categorized as an Associate, he's obviously so closely connected (and has been for forever) that I'd have thought those rules would apply. But maybe the RCA doesn't work that way....

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