If you missed the local Garden Grove news recently, Robert Schuller's mega-church, the Crystal Cathedral, has filed for bankruptcy in Southern California. Apparently their enormous ecclesiastical debt of 43 million U.S. dollars was putting a huge damper on the "positive and encouraging" message that the church had worked so hard to convey to its audience over the years. Their telecast, the "Hour of Power," at one time reached as many as 1.3 million viewers in more than 150 countries worldwide. The 10,000 member fellowship has had to summarily layoff numerous staff members, has had to cancel its "Glory of Easter" pageant that attracts thousands of spectators, and is now in the middle of renegotiating its debt with numerous vendors and lenders.
A bankruptcy filing means that they can legally continue to operate while suspending payments to those whom they owe, even as they obtain legal assistance in reducing their overall debt to creditors. In other words, this ministry borrowed and spent some 43 million dollars in whatever lavish way they wished for decades, but now, even as interest rates are at an unprecedented low, they would prefer not to pay it all back. Small vendors, those family businesses for instance, that provided live animals for their entertainment-driven extravaganzas, will probably never see a dime, and may themselves be forced into bankruptcy.
I understand why we have bankruptcy laws, and I understand their critical role in free markets and the national economy as a business tool to reorganize. But Biblically speaking, shouldn't churches who claim the name of the living God and who are supposed to let their "yes" be "yes" and their "no" be "no," actually pay back their accumulated debts? Call me old fashioned, but if a church signs on the bottom line for money, shouldn't they be obligated in the name of Jesus to pay what they owe to their fellow man? Isn't that part of loving your neighbor as yourself and keeping your word?
But I guess it's appropriate for a church that conducts itself like a secular business and sells a service like a secular business to die the death of a secular business. You have to admire their unflagging and tenacious commitment to at least one business-psychology principle (because it certainly isn't Biblical), "above all else - keep it positive." Sheila Schuller Coleman, Robert Schuller's daughter and the Cathedral's new Sr. Pastor, recently told the press, "Tough times never last, every storm comes to an end. Right now, people need to hear that message more than ever."
That is very positive. But if Sheila's right, then shouldn't this ministry continue to pay its debts with the knowledge that "every storm comes to an end?" If this woman can look her congregation and the press in the eye, and tell them that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, why is she taking legal action to pull the curtain over her lenders? With this upbeat and positive-mentality motto, she should live by her own mantra and tell her bankers the same consistent message, "It's all going to work out for the best, so we will continue to pay our debts just as we promised you."
Well, the problem is, as President John Adams said, "Facts are stubborn things." Robert Schuller built this ministry in the mid 1950s on the foundation of "all things positive," motivational speaking, and perpetual self-esteem. But it turned out to be as bankrupt financially as it was spiritually. It didn't fit the facts of reality.
He continually featured celebrities and worldly heroes behind his pulpit to deliver cheerful but meaningless platitudes to an upper middle class audience addicted to material success. He deliberately ignored human sin and repentance in favor of human potential and inherent goodness. But sadly for him, the Bible never makes such claims, and Jeremiah tells us plainly that the human heart is desperately wicked. Jesus told the rich young ruler that only God is good. And we know from the New Testament that our righteousness comes only by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Mr. Schuller did not preach that message, he did not give the glory to God, and he will not go down in church history as a legitimate and sound Bible teacher. When people needed the substance of scripture he gave them the artificial topping of humanism. And perhaps the saddest part of the story, he spawned countless copycat ministries around the world who made the Word of God an afterthought in their pursuit of big and bright shining churches. The Seeker Movement and the Mega Church movement have each looked to the Crystal Cathedral for inspiration, ideas, and even theology.
American Christians, let us get back to the Bible. The glamor and glitz is fun, the positive and encouraging message feels great, and self-esteem building is addicting. But in the end, it's all bankrupt, both financially as we have seen, and spiritually as we will see, when we stand before that throne.