It might be that the phenomenon of the megachurch, which began in the 1980s, will be characterized by historians as a blimp on the screen that fell as suddenly as it rose. The munificence in the edifices may, it turn out, be more about the humans in charge than God.
When I was growing up outside the Bible belt, there were no megachurches in my hometown. I did not meet an evangelical Christian until I met my dorm roommate in my first year of college. I can still remember how institutional that dorm room smelled on my first night at college. Even the air-conditioning smelt institutional. Of course, I was easy prey for my roommate’s conversion-oriented friends in the dorm until I figured out that the easiest way to get rid of them was to pray for them in their presence (they would come in while I was doing homework). They were so certain that they could not be wrong it was futile to argue with them. Turning their methods on them was something they simply could not tolerate. Looking back, I suspect that they felt humiliated. Me praying for them? Of course, it had to be sincere, so I suppose they did give me a glimpse into their world. It was like after the first frost suddenly the mosquitos are gone. I didn’t give the pests another thought as they managed to find other things with which to occupy themselves.
Decades later, I learned that a shopping center in my hometown had been purchased by an evangelical megachurch. The church was still renting space to some of the businesses—even having a coffee shop operate in the church—no money-changers though. Even so, when an ordained Baptist minister who worked as the protestant chaplain in the local Catholic hospital and attended the megachurch as a lay person read the rationale by the “powers that be” for purchasing the shopping center and wrote a letter pointing to some flaws, he was rebuffed. So he left with very hurt feelings at how the lead pastor had treated him. That same lead pastor or his council also asked a woman who had two autistic kids not to come back because “we are about Jesus, not autism.” Apparently her private conversations in the hallway about her kids and been reported. The irony is that the pastor and his board were undoubtedly convinced that they were operating as God’s faithful stewards. The local culture of ignorance that can’t be wrong and an excessive desire to control was ensconced at the “top” of one of the local megachurches. Another megachurch, which humbly calls itself First, and its celeb tv/preaching pastor were raking in the dividends in increasing membership.
Part of the problem with megachurches may be the fixation on the single-person type of leadership. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit did not go through a chief disciple and onto the others. Rather, the picture after Jesus’s death is that of a group disciples. This, rather than a celeb pastor, is the format of leadership that fits best with a bunch of people following Jesus’s teachings. To be sure, hero-worship is a risk, but churches need not be so susceptible as they are.
In short, fixating on a lead pastor for anything more than a few good sermons a month risks not only celebrity, but also hero-worship. The megachurch size (and structure) magnifies this risk because how human nature handles such earthly power. If it seems that I am beating up on pastors here, my claim is that anyone would be susceptible to the power that goes with single-person leadership (or even a tight council or board—a dominant coalition) in a megachurch. More people and more money stretches human nature, even if it thinks it is directed primarily to God. The sheer power of denial is noteworthy yet seldom noticed in action.
In March 2012, Robert Schuller’s daughter, the Rev. Sheila Schuller Coleman, announced at the Crystal Cathedral that none of her family members, including her father or herself, would have nothing further to do with the church. More accurately, the Shullers were forced out. The board of the Crystal Cathedral’s “Hour of Power” television program had gained control of the local church, hand had forced out Robert Schuller and his family bit by bit since the founder retired in 2005. To be sure, Robert Schuller had been involved in more conflict than with his board. He got into it with his son after turning the pulpit over to him. Then came the tussle with the “Hour of Power” board over $350,000 in claimed back payments, a lifetime housing benefit, intellectual-property claims, and alleged copyright infringement by the board. Additionally, Schuller objected to the “Hour of Power” board using the power it had from the funds obtained from the television show to control the local church.
Beyond even the question of whether Robert Schuller was too obsessed with getting still more wealth to be a minister devoted to God, the real problem revolved around power-struggles, first between Robert and his son and then with the “Hour of Power” board. Even regarding his daughter moving her ministry to a new location, Robert and his wife said they would not be “moving with her to the new location.” There is something very odd about that. At the very least, we might be looking at a highly dysfunctional family. In religious terms, little humility or love can exist in on-going power-struggles. So much emphasis on single-person leadership may play into the conflict because the single person tends to assume psychological ownership of what is actually a group of people.
In business, the entrepreneur or founder tends to do well in the idea stage but must ultimately give way to managers once the business has hit cruising altitude. In shipping, a specialized captain takes the ship out of the dock and into open water, then hands the wheel over to the “regular” captain and goes back to shore. In religion, founders are inevitably replaced by managers or disciples. For the founder to hold on too long, or for a disciple to be recognized (artificially) as distinct and far above the others is a problem that can be traced to the single-person format of leadership. Where there is much power, the format can engender much abuse.
Elizabeth Grannis NYT
About a century before the downfall of the Schuller clan at the Crystal Cathedral, Elizabeth Bartlett Grannis, a humanitarian and social reformer, was labeled a “disturber of the peace” at the First church Disciples of Christ in New York City—the church where she attended faithfully for fifty years in spite of losing her membership. Her crime was that she had informally adopted a black girl and brought her to church. It also didn’t help that she was an advocate for the women’s movement when the pastor was being accused of making unwanted advances on women—and men.
In 1904, Pastor Denham was arrested and charged with indecent exposure. After being acquitted of the charges, Denham took the offensive in joining with Grannis’s critics to void her membership in the church. Although being in the women’s movement Grannis objected to Benham’s treatment of the women he exposed himself to, the primary cause of the opposition to her was racist in nature. Denham merely facilitated the opposition because it was convenient for him to remove Grannis, whether in retaliation or to remove her as a possible threat in the future. Oddly, it was not until Denham was discovered to have taking a trip across Canada with a woman other than his wife that the congregation decided to let him go. The damage had already been done, however, with respect to Grannis’s membership.
It would not be until 2012 that Grannis’s membership was posthumously restored. The social reformer had died in the 1920s, so it is unlikely she felt much vindication at the announcement in 2012. It was not as though that was the point, however. The decision to “right a wrong” doubtless made the current pastor and his flock feel better about themselves—as if they were patting themselves on the back for having corrected for an injustice in the congregation’s history. I think the sad truth is that the time for making up for the wrong and vindicating an innocent woman had long since passed with Grannis’s own passing.
Were Elizabeth Grannis’s “restoration” in 2012 to have any real significance, the congregation would have had to realize that putting so much power in one-person leadership had played a role and yet was still the case—meaning that other cases of abuse could manifest. It was easy for the pastor at the time, John Payne, to write in his book that Grannis “was an out-spoken social activist who acted on her convictions in ways that today would be encouraged and celebrated. Largely because of her actions, the congregation can claim to have been interracial for more than a century.” I’m not sure how much contrition can live among such self-congratulation. Moreover, I don’t see Payne coming to terms with the question of the power of his office—the same one that had allowed a man to prey on men and women sexually while scapegoating a brave and compassionate woman. Indeed, Payne could even be labeled an opportunist—as was his predecessor—wearing sheep’s clothing.
I rather suspect that were I a member of Payne’s congregation, Payne and his cadre there would deem me a “disturber of the peace” for my criticism even as they congratulated themselves on their enlightened view of Grannis. “But she didn’t piss us off,” they would doubtless say if they were honest. It is easy to restore a foe of others; there is no progress in that. It is far more difficult to love thy enemies. Payne would certainly view me as a threat and use the power of his office to remove me, even if in the name of peace—peace on his terms. It would be no coincidence that my vindication would be allowed only a century or more after my passing, and yet I would be said to be restored. What use is a restoration if the person is not alive to enjoy it? When not even a vindication is permitted within the person’s lifetime, the restoration itself can be viewed as passive aggression on top of the original outright hostility.
Nobody stops to examine the dangers in looking to one person—giving him or her so much power in religion. Instead, all too often, the religious institutions take on lives of their own, as do their offices, which are intrinsically oriented to their own enrichment even if under the subterfuge of selflessly serving God. In 2012, it was in the interest of the Disciples of Christ congregation to “save” Elizabeth Grannis because it and its pastor are the beneficiaries. Pastors like Payne artfully position themselves to reap the benefits rather than atone for a predecessor’s injustices. A sitting pastor is not apt to cede anything concerning the authority of his office. In short, the posthumous exoneration of Elizabeth Grannis is too convenient to be real or authentic, and it was too late to be valid. All too often, a congregation deigns to forgive the foes of past members (without atoning in their stead) while persecuting its own irritating consciences without any sense of hypocrisy.
There are cracks in God’s crystal cathedral because the edifice is more about us than anything eternal. Our munificence is ultimate for ourselves—or at the very least suspiciously convenient. The megachurches reflect the corporate world at the turn of the twenty-first century, and the hero-worship of the “populist” pastors feeds off the weaknesses of human nature. Neither phenomenon is very close to anything Jesus knew or founded, but I suppose that is beside the point for those people who are running those institutions in Jesus’s name. I would rather see faithful people in the back pews running the mighty, rather than vice versa, but that would be to apply Jesus’s teachings to the Churches whose self-appointed authorities already claim to be “visioning” in service to God rather than themselves.
The problem for us concerning the dominant coalitions that run our churches is actually all too close to home: that of how to wrest power from the powerful who love earthly power too much to give it up for God even as they preach in God’s name. Many pastors are determined to protect their power—God being a subterfuge—and their flocks are utterly blind to the danger because they are too ensconced in the single-person leadership celeb. Meanwhile, neither the birds of prey nor their flocks can be wrong, which keeps the dysfunction going as a self-sustaining closed system beyond correction. In the end, it is self-idolatrous pride that fuels the sickness wherein we make ourselves gods on earth on account of our earthly power. It is amazing how easy it is for a pastor such as Schuller or Denham, or any number of local celebs, to keep people focused on the illusion of selflessness that operates in the subterfuge of the selfless servant. In actuality, true servant leadership is not nearly so convenient and it is easily given up rather than so arduously fought over as if its earthly power were an entitlement for life. True life is something else altogether.
Ian Lovett, “Family Opts to Abandon Megachurch It Founded,” The New York Times, March 12, 2012.http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/12/us/robert-schuller-family-cuts-ties-to-crystal-cathedral.html
David Dunlap, “86 Years After Her Death, A Church Exile’s Work Is Vindicated,” The New York Times, March 12, 2012.
Tamara Audi, “Crystal Cathedral’s Schullers Resign,” The Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2012.