May 27, 2011
Megachurch For Sale
What lessons can we learn from the decline of the Crystal Cathedral?
News comes from California today that the Crystal Cathedral is for sale. The megachurch founded and developed by Robert H. Schuller has accumulated so much debt that selling the iconic Southern California facility is the only option.
Some point to Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral as pioneers of the megachurch phenomenon that has swept through American evangelicalism since the 1970s. But that raises a question. Are other megachurches poised to face the same fate as the Crystal Cathedral?
The troubles for the Crystal Cathedral became apparent after Robert Schuller stepped down and handed the ministry to his son, Robert Anthony Schuller. By 2008 factions and disagreements emerged among the church's leaders, and the younger Schuller eventually resigned. His sister, Sheila Schuller Coleman, then took over as the senior pastor, but according to a report in the LA Times, the congregation "has not fully embraced" her.
The difficulty in finding a successor to Robert Schuller has resulted in declining attendance, increasing debt, and now the loss of the church's most valuable (earthly) asset--its property.
But will we see this same narrative unfold in the coming years for other megachurches? Consider that, according to religion researcher and professor James Twitchell, in 1970 there were only 10 megachurches in the US (defined as churches with 2,000+ weekly attenders). By 1980 there were 50. In 1990 the number grew to 250. And by 2005 there were about 1,200.
Most of these mega-ministries were launched and grown by very dynamic Baby Boomer pastors who are drawing close to retirement. The question looming over the megachurches is--how do they transfer leadership to the next generation in a way that maintains the enormous funds and personnel required to run them?
Because so many of these large churches were predicated on the personality and leadership skills of a single dynamic pastor, there is enormous risk to the entire ministry when he departs. Who will fill his shoes? And will people continue to fill the offering plates? While similar questions may be asked in smaller churches when a pastor leaves, the institutional stakes are much higher when the ministry has a $20 million mortgage and hundreds of staff members to employ. Get the succession plan wrong, and it won't just be the ladies' annual brunch committee that suffers.
Robert Schuller and his Crystal Cathedral pre-date the Baby Boomer megachurch trend, and many looked at what he built in Southern California as a model for how to leverage media and business practices to grow a large ministry. But will they also learn from the botched succession plan and decline of the Crystal Cathedral? Time will tell. If they don't we may see many more megachurch facilities with "For Sale" signs in the coming years.