The Crystal Cathedral As the First Domino – Guest Post by The Ex-Reverend

Oil Prices Will Force Changes. If you took the time to click over and read the link, you likely returned wondering the connection between a projected $200/barrel of oil and the Crystal Cathedral. Maybe you wonder just what “first domino” is represented by the potential sale of the once prominent church.

I recently enjoyed a conversation with our City Manager. He remarked how many people leave our area to attend church in various parts of Oklahoma City, Mustang, Yukon and other communities. Now Tim has lived in Tuttle for three years. Astute observation for a relative short-timer.

We have good churches in the Tri-City area. We have churches of nearly every stripe. Maybe folks move “out” to Tuttle but feel a great sense of loyalty to a church of which they have long been a part and so drive away from their new community to attend church. Others may drive because our area is absent a large mega-church. We did more musing at what that means than conclude any specifics as to causes.

But, it was this conversation that brought Jordon’s post to mind. Two-hundered dollar-a-barrel oil will have consequences well beyond Saskatoon. Consider the commensurate price per gallon and many will think twice before making long drives. Which brings me to my second offering from my friend, The Ex-Reverend.

The Ex-Reverend does not write about oil and Schuller’s former church. He does connect the dots by noting that eventually the consumption of what fails to satisfy the hunger of young thinking Christians will force changes in the religious landscape potentially making the Crystal Cathedral the first domino to fall.

Shiny Happy Catholics (With Apologies to Michael Stipe), or Crystal Yard Sale

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Terry Mattingly, the best religion journalist ever, except maybe Mark Pinsky, covers a piece from the L.A. Times about the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings and possible sale of the Crystal Cathedral, that monument to silly Christianity in Orange County. Get Religion tracks religion stories in the mainstream media with an eye to what they get right and mostly wrong. Get Religion’s epigrpah is, “The press…just doesn’t get religion.” Mattingly hammers away on the L.A. Times coverage, rightly excoriating a newspaper that normally does religion news very well.

It’s hard to tell what is happening from the coverage in the Los Angeles Times, which has been stunningly uninterested in any aspect of this story other than family politics and disputes over sexual politics in the music ministry.

Mattingly particularly takes issue with this quote from the Times piece: “Schuller built the Crystal Cathedral as the physical expression of a Space Age ministry that eschewed orthodoxy in favor of a casual worship style and the self-help spirit of ‘possibility thinking.'” His response:

What, pray tell, does it mean that Schuller “eschewed orthodoxy”? In comparison to whom? While it is true that he all but eliminated talk about dark subjects such as sin and repentance, in favor of a kind of positive pop theology, I am not aware that he actually tossed out the major doctrines of basic Christianity. He just saluted them meekly from time to time and then went his own way.

The most interesting part of the story, and I promise to get back to that ambiguous word “orthodoxy,” is that the Diocese of Orange County is considering buying the Cathedral rather than build a new cathedral for the 1.2 million Catholics who live in the diocese. It would save the diocese about 50% off the cost of a new 2500 seat cathedral. I’d call it a fire sale, but Schuller never spoke of hell, unless he was swearing about the shrinking offerings toward the end. Both the Times and Mattingly speak of the irony of the Crystal Cathedral, the domain of shiny, happy Orange County cracker Christianity lite, being sold to Catholics. The Times thinks it’s ironic because the Catholic Church is all about orthodoxy, whereas Schuller wasn’t. Mattingly thinks it’s ironic because it was once the place of doctrine lite and now will be a real cathedral with a bishop and all the trimmings.

I’m not sure it’s ironic, as much as it’s a sign of the times, both in California and in Christianity. The Hispanic population of California, according to the 2010 Census, is about 13.7 million, and that’s not counting the undocumented, many of whom are active Catholics. With Hispanic Christians divided between Catholicism or some form of fundamentalist Christianity (pentecostal or charismatic), it makes perfect sense that the Catholic Church needs a large facility. This one just happened to be for sale. Maybe it’s ironic, but it just seems convenient more than ironic.

As to a sign of the times in the American Church, Schuller’s brand of Christianity was doomed to fail, a point Mattingly highlights, but I’m not sure we agree why. The post-denominational mainline church that Schuller built is an earlier twin of modern, evangelical megachurches, which are post-denominational mainline churches. Schuller’s died first because it started first (and it was sillier, let’s be honest), but the megachurches will eventually go the way of Schuller. This is not a prophecy; all movements in Christianity eventually implode or evolve. The numbers coming out every week about actual church attendance are grim for the church overall. The megachurches are helping this trend in a way they probably don’t even recognize: they serve no purpose. None. (I sort of wanted to bold that so you don’t miss it.) Just as Schuller offered religion for the aesthetically or traditionally religious, megachurches offer religion for the culturally religious but convictionally vapid. Neither leads to redemptive praxis.

I am always pleased to having stunningly bright Christian students in my classes. I have one this semester. I’ll call her Lexy. She used to attend the hydra-headed megachurch that’s based here in Oklahoma City, but available via Internet and huge video screens all over the nation/world. She stopped going six months ago. I asked her why. This is a paraphrase of her answer.

I just didn’t see any reason to go anymore. I was looking for something serious and smart, something that would help me navigate a life of faith, with people who would walk with me, some older, some younger, some my age. It was the same sermons every week, the same simple messages with no depth and no real answers for life. I can get the same information and same mass of people who have no idea who I am by going to the online church. The small groups were a joke, typically run by people who know nothing about the Bible or my life. I just decided that it’s better to be a Christian with my group of friends than be alone in a huge megachurch.

She’s 19. 19, folks. I wish I’d been half as wise as her at 19. Dear megachurches, you’re in trouble. The smart ones have figured you out. You have no intellectual future, and without people like Lexy, you have no hope of maintaining a vibrant tradition, which at least means one that questions your praxis. Your orthodoxy, much like Schuller’s, has been reduced to a set of silly axioms, only differing from his in degree of literalism, neither able, without a meaningful ritualistic tradition combined with deeply intellectual answers, of breathing life and meaning into the practice of the faith. You are the new self-help evangelists; Jesus took care of your past and assures your post-death happiness, but for now, just follow these easy steps. Salvation as forgetting and daydreaming, but not living, and certainly not thinking. Amazing.

Schuller reduced the gospel to palatable parts meant to appeal to people who only wanted to feel good about themselves and their future. Megachurches have managed to take a different road to the same destination. Both make people feel spiritual, which is one step away from people realizing that their chosen brand of vapidity works just as well outside of church (and tithing) so that they can be “spiritual but not religious.”

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.