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Jesus Saves… Money?

News & Features | November 1, 2010

America is (in)famous for doing everything bigger; we have bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger portions, bigger people, and…bigger churches? Yes, even churches, those sacred centers of prayer and local community, have been Americanized to become large, corporate entities with congregations measuring in the thousands. This month, one of the most famous megachurches, the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy as it struggles to pay its creditors. The extravagant Cathedral is an architectural landmark in the area; it is built out of 10,000 rectangular panes of reflective glass, fits nearly 3,000 people, and sits next to a 236-foot bell tower made of stainless steel. It is also home to Robert Schuller’s Christian television program The Hour of Power, which is broadcast to millions of viewers across the globe. Many media outlets have made much of its financial collapse with headlines like “Megachurch Has Mega Problems” and “Cracked Crystal,” but is this really a sign of the end of a supersized era?

There are good reasons to think not. Rick Warren’s nearby megachurch in Lake Forest was also facing budget shortfalls but was able to raise $2.4 million in 48 hours, following an emergency appeal to its congregants. There have been few, if any, reports of other megachurches facing financial distress. In fact, it’s rather surprising that the worst recession in recent history has affected megachurches so little. A 2009 study by the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving found that overall, one third of surveyed churches made budget cuts, but that “very large congregations, those with weekly attendance over 1,000 congregants, were the least likely to report decreased total fundraising receipts.” Another survey by the Leadership Network in 2009 found that 96 percent of churches with more than 2,000 in attendance have actually experienced growth.

The Crystal Cathedral’s bankruptcy, then, seems to be an isolated incident caused by internal struggles and poor management rather than a general trend. The well-known Schuller retired as senior pastor and left the show in 2006, and since then, the Cathedral hasn’t been able to find a leader inspiring enough to guide it through the recession. Schuller’s son had a stint as senior pastor for a couple of years, but his style of in-depth theological discussion and scriptural exegesis was apparently too serious for a congregation used to his father’s flashy, simple, optimistic positivism. Since 2008, the elder Schuller, along with his daughter, have been co-leaders, but the inconsistency has led to a nearly 30% drop in church contributions.

If there is anything to learn from the Crystal Cathedral’s situation, it is that like any successful big business, megachurches depend on maintaining a popular brand that appeals to the right demographics. Schuller saw this a generation ago, realizing that unwarranted optimism and mindless self-affirmation blended with a touch of Jesus was exactly what people wanted to hear. In a typical sermon, Schuller preached, “I am somebody. I can do something. I will do something.”

Today, part of the Cathedral’s problem is that its congregation is aging, and it has been unable to reach out to youth as effectively as other churches. Thirty minutes to the South, for instance, Saddleback Church has attracted scores of young members with a brand new $20 million youth facility called “The Refinery” that hosts concerts, movies, and parties. Churches across the country have found, oddly enough, that by focusing on what is utterly unrelated to religion—television shows, pop music, sports—they can get young people who wouldn’t otherwise walk through a church door.
Has religion thus become just another commodity traded in the American marketplace? The most successful churches run themselves like businesses, selling a sense of community more than anything. They develop outreach (read: publicity) campaigns to target key groups like minorities and youth. They create Facebook pages, post to Twitter, and sell iPhone apps to help the devoted always stay connected. Their pastors write books and host radio shows to promote the brand. Saddleback Church has even spread to nine other local “campuses,” turning itself into a kind of chain church. And so these megachurches expand, sometimes to outrageous sizes: Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Texas claims over 40,000 in attendance each week.

The example of these other megachurches, still going strong, speaks to the indomitable spirit of American capitalism and mirrors the recession’s effect on the larger economy. While smaller businesses have teetered on the edge, large corporations have been able to use their immense resources to hold on and in some cases even prosper. Just as the biggest banks have been able to push smaller local ones out of business, megachurches seem to be growing at the expense of their regular-size counterparts.

Many analysts claimed that the recession would mark a turning point in the American lifestyle: no more irresponsible spending, decadent displays of wealth, or irrational exuberance. But the core of the American identity appears to have changed little. Yes, people may not be buying as many flat-screen TVs at the moment, but who really thinks that Americans won’t spring at the chance as soon as they have a little more money in their pockets? It will take more than a Great Recession to do real damage to the bigger-is-better mindset that is behind our passion for big TVs and even bigger churches.

So there may yet be hope for the Crystal Cathedral. Despite their recent financial troubles, services are continuing as usual, and Schuller reports that they are experiencing the best cash flow in ten years. With the right PR expert, some creative advertising, and maybe even a little divine intervention, the Crystal Cathedral may well continue to tower over the California skyline as a symbol of the American way of life. Hallelujah and amen.