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For Others Who Live in “Glass Cathedrals”


For the past week people who follow religious news have been buzzing about the announcement issued out of Garden Grove, California, that the Crystal Cathedral was preparing to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy to protect itself from vendors who were filing liens against the ministry founded in 1955 by Robert Schuller. Reports indicate that the church is presently carrying a debt service that ranges toward $55 million dollars. While many secular journalists have pointed to the family conflict betwixt the senior Schuller and his son as one of the sources of the church’s demise, others in Christian circles have pointed to Schuller’s generous and gracious theology as the primary factor that has weathered the ministry.

I think it’s absolutely heartbreaking anytime a church that flies under the flag of Jesus Christ experiences public shame. Whether it’s sexual misconduct by church leadership or the misappropriation of funds or even the assumption of too much debt, it impacts all of us who serve Christ in the context of a local church. While Christians may be able to clearly distinguish the differences and create adequate distance, the bottom line is that non-church seculars in many ways lump us all together as the “churched.”

Now to my point. As I read several responses and appraisals of the particular story of the Crystal Cathedral, I did not see one that addressed the fact that attractional church is on the demise. By attractional, I mean the approach to church growth that believes that the church’s primary function in the world is to get people to come to it. The church growth movement of the last century gave plenty of appreciation to leaders like Robert Schuller for his innovative methods of attracting people and building attendance. For Schuller, these methods included things like erecting a fabulous house of worship, providing incredible music, presenting celebrities to share personal testimonies, and over the top holiday celebrations. For nearly 50 years these methods attracted people to the church in droves.

I would like to suggest, in deference to those who think otherwise, that a worship band would not have changed anything. Contemporary methods of attraction are still methods of attraction.
This is why I am convinced that the missional church movement is needed today more than ever. Missional Church is not new. In fact it’s a return to the scriptural principles of sending that we see in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The world does not exist for the sake of the church. On the contrary, the church exists for the sake of the world. In my theology, the most important work the church does in the world today happens off campus in places that are desperate for the presence of Christ. The primary role of the church seeks to serve members by preparing them for their God-given, personal mission. Evangelism happens in the community by members who are equipped, not at the conclusion of the sermon at the altar call.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a part of a church that is nothing more than a “glass cathedral,” existing for no other purpose than to get people to routinely attend. Yet the majority of our churches in America today are stuck in that worn approach that we commonly call the Church Growth Movement. They may not have majestic music or aesthetic sanctuaries and the mortgages that come with, but week in and week out they open their doors and wait for the community to come in. These churches offer the same buffet of programs that worked in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, but wonder why the impact is less significant. They may not file for bankruptcy, but decline they will. Sooner than they think.

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