In an interesting coincidence, right on top of the troubles of Rev. Eddie Long, the “bishop” of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, today we have news that Orange County’s Crystal Cathedral filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The two mega-churches are more than a generation or two apart in developing. Rev. Robert Schuller built the “Crystal Cathedral” starting in 1955 with a rented drive-in movie parking lot. The “Hour of Power” and the power of positive thinking came next. Schuller’s kingdom grew alongside the explosive prosperity of Orange County itself.
Rev. Eddie Long started working with his congregation in 1987, taking it from 300 to 18,000 people in a decade. Although the two ministries have many things in common (pastoral personality cult, prosperity in newly-developing suburbs, vision and ambition in innovation) their troubles now have differences that couldn’t be more black and white.
Long is and serves a megachurch community which is African-American. He is seen as a character-builder and an ethnic pride beacon at a time when upper-middle class African-Americans were settling in upscale suburbs out of Atlanta. As Long’s kingdom expanded, he moved his congregation from Decatur out to a 240-acre campus in Lithonia that boasts a gym and spa, school, bookstore and 10,000-seat “cathedral.” Although he is mentioned with some derogatory comments about the “prosperity gospel” preachers (Joel Osteen in Texas comes to mind), Long was preaching and promoting the better material life to a class of people who have suffered at the bottom of society for generations.
The cross sure looks tiny in this “cathedral”
What is bringing Long to his knees in 2010 is, in part, his own success and ego which built it. He is being sued by four young African American men in his own flock who say he seduced them, with gifts and personal attention, into homosexual acts. Never mind the fact that he has received a $3 million salary and drives a Bentley provided by the church, Long has a lot of explaining to do about the sex thing.
The Schuller enterprise grew up two generations earlier on the strength of its leader’s charismatic personality. As big as the Crystal Cathedral is, it is not large enough for the human ego. Although the elder Robert Schuller was not accused of any sexual impropriety, his overreaching dream in the middle of fast-expanding Orange County are catching up with his successor now. Reuters reported last night that Crystal Cathedral Ministries has debts somewhere near $50 million (others say as high as $100 million)—$36 million of it in the mortgage for their glass box. Although it claims 20 million viewers for its broadcasts, Senior Minister Sheila Schuller Coleman presides over a congregation of a mere 3,000 members where revenues fell 27% in recent years. (Another source says 10,000 members; hmm?) The Daily News reports,
“Church spokesman John Charles said the church owes about $7.5 million to a host of vendors for services such as advertising and providing the use of live animals for Easter and Christmas services. The church was negotiating a payment plan with vendors but several chose to file lawsuits, the church said in a statement.”
Financially, the Cathedral is rethinking the way it operates, according to Huffington Post
, Now, the church is avoiding credit entirely and spends only the roughly $2 million it receives each month in donations and revenue, [Jim] Penner said. The church still hopes to pay all of the vendors back in full, he said. “What we’re doing now is we’re trying to walk what we preach, we’re paying cash for things as we go,” he said. [Penner is an assistant pastor and executive producer of the "Hour of Power."]
But whatever the bankruptcy protection will mean, ego issues still get in the way. As the New York Times
explained last July, Robert Schuller, Sr., finally re-retired at age 83, two years after he had kicked out his son, Robert Schuller Jr. that most said had been groomed to take over for his father. A family feud that should never have happened, except that both the Schuller family and the Christian kingdom that it built can’t conceive of their church without the Schuller name at the top. So daughter Sheila Schuller Coleman will finally be senior pastor, after a year of sharing the limelight with her father, and
Robert Sr. remains as the chairman of the CC’s board of directors or consistory.The Los Angeles Times story
has a more revealing look at this. While many say the CC’s troubles are due to the recession, two other factors also loom large. One is the conflict of leadership—the power and ego struggle at the top—and the other is the aging of the congregation. Will other mega-churches start to shrivel when the generation that enthusiastically built them up begin to age and die off?Pam’s House Blend
(“An Online Magazine in the Reality-Based Community”), by the way, has posts about Schuller and the CC’s attitude about homosexuality. One of them this morning is worth putting here: by: willyed @ Tue Oct 19, 2010 at 09:06:39 AM CDT“Whatever happened… To churches where the pastor knew and had an actual personal relationship with everyone there? Since salvation is a person matter that does not require a church, the reason you have church is to help people be good Christians and good people in general, to support them, and correct them when they stray from the path. How can this be accomplished in a giant stadium environment where nobody knows who you are. I suspect that if Christ was walking around today he would be horrified by these industrial worship centers.”
Here’s my bottom line: using the terms “bishop” and “cathedral” always makes me chuckle when they are self-styled. Rev. Schuller Sr. decided his church was big enough to qualify as a “cathedral.” Rev. Eddie Long allows or encourages his people to call him “bishop.” The terms have a fairly precise meaning among Christians, but neither of these qualifies. A cathedral
is where the bishop sits, or presides. A bishop
is an overseer, a person in authority over many churches, not one stadium or giant glass box (a glass elephant?). But the very nature of these mega-ministries is that they are independent of all the rest of the Christian world. Schuller is nominally in the Reformed Church of America, but hardly answers to its guidance or authority. The RCA has no bishops and no cathedrals. I can’t help wondering, if the CC still has ties with the RCA, why no one in the parent denomination tried to put the brakes on the CC’s high-spending ways decades ago.And there is no central authority
among Baptists churches: local congregation can set the standards for ordination and ministry. Another megachurch, Saddleback Church in southern Orange County, is also a Southern Baptist Convention church: its pastor Rick Warren answers to no one except the community he has built himself. There are differences between Southern Baptist and Missionary Baptist, mostly not of interest except to insiders, which you can sort out here
—Pastor Dan Hooper