17 December 2010
Cracking our Crystal Cathedrals
Adapting Ministry to Culture
“I think it's true that any congregation has to figure out how its style of ministry affects more than one generation." - Wes Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary for the Reformed Church in America
A couple of friends recently flagged The Schullers: A tale of two churches by Nicole Santa Cruz in the LA Times. It is a cautionary tale about what happens when a church ceases to adapt its ministry to changing times. In particular, it is about how the Crystal Cathedral, a church that once captured and even helped to shape the zeitgeist of American Christianity and culture, fell so out of touch with culture that it has now declared bankruptcy.
Before there was a Crystal Cathedral, Robert Schuller was holding worship in a drive-in movie theatre. “He catered to the parents of the baby boomers, many of whom were transplants from the Midwest looking to live out the American Dream in Southern California.” That ministry grew into the Crystal Cathedral, whose ministry peaked during the televangelism boom of the 1980’s. Televangelism is a dirty word today, but say what you will, it was the culture of the day, and the Crystal Cathedral was right on it. It was opulent, optimistic, and centered on a theology of glory. But then, even as attendance and revenue declined, the church continued in the same way and continued to spend. It followed the same model of ministry, continued building, and staged more opulent productions. Even as the world was turning - and longing for something else.
In a move that is at once a break with and a reclaiming of his grandfather’s legacy the grandson of Robert Schuller, Bobby, has started a new small church three blocks away from the Crystal Cathedral in an American Legion Hall.
“Bobby’s church, The Gathering, takes a low-key approach to worship. Sunday's services aren't in an opulent church. Young band members open the service, and it's intimate — people don paper name tags and shake hands. All of these elements represent a "post-boomer" style of worship popular with 20- to 40-year-old Christians.” ... “Volunteers set up for the service each Sunday and take down the chairs and tables that afternoon. When the work is done, they all go out for pizza. More than 90% of church funds go toward social justice issues such as homelessness and domestic violence.”
“I wanted a church for my generation,” he said.
For those of us in traditional ministry settings, this is a great lesson about what happens when we cease to change and fall out of touch with our culture - that is, the longings of people’s hearts. Even the biggest and most successful ministries must change with the times. For those of us on the cutting edge, it is a reminder that all ministries, no matter how new and on the pulse of culture, will at some point, need to do the same.
Sometimes we have to be willing to crack open the crystal cathedrals we build, whether they be buildings, programs, or our assumptions - which oftentimes become monuments to a particular time rather than to God - so that something new can emerge.