Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Rethinking Possibility Thinking

Is it possible?

Can a glass house withstand the stones thrown by people inside it?

After all, the cracks in the foundation of this glass sanctuary are doing enough damage all on their own. Damage caused by the basic flaws in its theological engineering, and damage from the clattering dirge of bad news coming out of Garden Grove, California.

Lately, it seems as though each press release about and from Dr. Robert H. Schuller's Crystal Cathedral ironically chips away at his "possibility thinking" empire, the grand illusion of feel-good fantasies which made him and his glass trophy church renowned worldwide. A philosophy, however, suited for the name of its edifice which, although architecturally stunning, is neither crystal, nor an ecclesiastical cathedral.

A contrived name for, well, a contrived ministry.

The Best You May Ever Feel

Today's television generation may think of Houston's toothy Joel Osteen as the master of sugar-coated spirituality, but in reality, Osteen has taken his cues from Schuller, who honed his craft in the shadow of Norman Vincent Peale. But while Peale and his Marble Collegiate Church in New York City managed to avoid blatant controversy, Schuller and his California Christianity seem to be drowning in it.

The first wave for Schuller came from the on-site suicide of his longtime music director, Johnnie Carl, in 2004. Carl shot himself to death in his office literally minutes before one of the Cathedral's lavish Christmas concerts. Having such a high-profile staffmember take his own life wasn't exactly solid affirmation for Schuller's bubbly "possibility" shtick.

Then came the sudden ouster of Schuller's own son and pulpit protege, Robert A., after only two years. Then came rumors of financial instability, then a rocky bankruptcy filing in 2010 with debt pegged at $50 million, then a proposed sale of the congregation's iconic facilities to developers earlier this year.

This past weekend, reports swirled around Los Angeles about accusations by one of Schuller's granddaughters that he'd been unceremoniously dumped from the board of the very church he'd started back in the 1950's. Some hastily-cobbled clarifications by church board members soon followed, portraying Schuller's new status as simply a transition into a glorified emeritus position that lacks voting power.

Which, despite calling itself a church, has all the telltale fingerprints of a typical corporate takeover, doesn't it?

All Other Ground is Sinking Sand

Suffice it to say that although the Schuller family has tried to insist otherwise, many evangelicals long ago disavowed the Crystal Cathedral of any legitimacy as an orthodox Christocentric ministry. With eye-popping expenditures on multi-million dollar buildings, and questionable budgets propped up by receipts from millions of TV viewers, the whole theology of "possibility thinking" never really passed Biblical muster. At the end of the day, it was all about money, image, and popularity instead of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Schuller was a master salesman, a charismatic entertainer, and an advocate of just about anything that didn't remind people about stuff like sin or holiness.

How can I get away with being as cynical as I am? Simply by considering Schuller's own purpose statement on the Cathedral's website. It gives us all the evidence we need to prove his "ministry's" lack of Biblical integrity:

"To be inspired and motivated through possibility thinking to grow in a loving relationship with Jesus Christ to be the persons God dreams, desires, and designed us to be."

How can I count the many ways this borders on blasphemy? I'll just take three of the easiest problems:

First, Schuller manages to incorporate his brand - possibility thinking - even before mentioning any member of the Trinity. Good marketing, but bad hierarchal ascription, which tells you what's most important to him.

Second, nothing but the power of the Holy Spirit can "inspire and motivate" anybody to grow in their relationship with Christ.

Third, God doesn't dream anything. He creates, ordains, and provides, but He doesn't "dream." He doesn't ponder intangibles, because nothing is intangible with Him. God knows everything that will happen and how it all fits into His sovereign will for His Creation.

Falling in Public

While in a way, I would not be surprised if the slow collapse of Schuller's narcissistic "possibility thinking" actually benefits the advancement of God's Kingdom, it's sad in at least a couple of ways. First, since the Schuller family and their church seem hopelessly dependant on the media, chances seem pretty good that all of their dirty laundry will inevitably be aired for all the world to see. That can't be a good thing - for them, or for anybody else.

Second, on a practical level, it seems a shame for such striking religious buildings - each one architecturally notable, if not significant - to be sold off piecemeal or allowed to deteriorate. In particular, the worship space of the Cathedral itself is surprisingly conducive to majestic adoration of the Trinity when you consider the building was designed by notoriously carnal Philip Johnson. Intended to fully exploit California's famous sunlight, Johnson incorporated soaring spaces, running water, and an indiscernable yet undeniable sacredness about the place. From the inside, you may not be able to identify the denomination, but you know it's not a shopping mall. Although completed in 1980, it still looks fresh and relevant. I've never been myself, but an employer of mine attended a service there once in the 1990's, and while he couldn't (perhaps not surprisingly) remember the day's topic, he could recount being impressed by the building's design.

But then, plenty of grander and more historic churches in cities all over the world have met even worse fates than the Crystal Cathedral's possible slide into obscurity. Indeed, even though a significant portion of Schuller's "ministry" has centered on the buildings themselves, we're reminded that the church is not the bricks and mortar - or, in this case, 10,000 panes of laminated glass - but the people inside.

And, oh yeah - speaking of people, for the Crystal Cathedral, the largest group attending services these days are Pentecostal Hispanics who come to experience Argentina's charismatic Dante Gebel every Sunday afternoon. Perhaps just as Schuller's church was created during the explosion of white Baby Boomers, as suburban Los Angeles becomes browner with Latinos, so will the Crystal Cathedral.  Gebel's congregation, however, is far poorer economically than Schuller's was, providing little financial relief to the church.

Meanwhile, the Schuller family - those who remain at the Cathedral, anyway - appear to be hunkering down for a drawn-out siege. Indeed, at least one son and daughter reportedly don't speak to each other. Former staffers and board members commiserate about church politics to the media. Aging church growth tactics, like overhauling the music department with contemporary gimmicks, are being flung against the walls to see what sticks. The church board tried to suggest that revoking Schuller's vote would give him more time to write and do guest preaching, but who's going to give him much credibility now that the theories he built his life upon are proving to be so much hot air in the dry California sun?

Schuller's eldest daughter, who now is the Cathedral's de-facto head pastor, has said she wants to help her father "finish strong."

But nobody seems willing to admit he probably did that ten years ago.

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