The Los Angeles Times reported that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange will purchase the Crystal Cathedral, the Orange County megachurch founded by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller. The diocese will modify the building and eventually consecrate it as a Roman Catholic cathedral.
While the story is newsworthy in many respects, it makes we wonder about the future of other Protestant megachurches. The phrase that keeps coming to mind is, “What goes up must come down.” Will other celebrity-pastor-centered congregations collapse when their leaders retire, or is there strength in the organizations that will enable them to endure? What about Saddleback? Or Willow Creek? Or Lakewood? Or Oak Hills? Are these churches flashes in the pan, historically speaking? In the coming decades, it will be interesting to watch what happens to churches that have experienced rapid growth. My hunch is that in the future there will be more painful stories like the Crystal Cathedral’s.
The symbolism of the Crystal Cathedral’s sale is also stark: A Protestant stronghold is brought to its knees and is eventually bought out by none other than a group of Roman Catholics. Maybe we shouldn’t make too much out of the apparent Protestant decline and the Catholic ascendancy in Southern California; but maybe we shouldn’t automatically discount it either.
The comparison that keeps coming to mind is the tortoise and the hare. I’m certainly not endorsing the Roman church, because it still has its significant, systemic deficiencies. But in this case, they are the tortoise, steadily and slowly running the long distance race. And, on the other hand, the Crystal Cathedral represents the hare, impatiently bolting ahead, clamoring for influence and numbers, only to run out of steam before the race is finished. To its credit–and as a lesson for evangelical Protestants–the Roman Catholic Church tends to be driven by stable forces like tradition, doctrine, and the offices (rather than the personalities) of the church hierarchy. Hare-like megachurches and megachurch wannabes, on the other hand, tend to be driven by transient forces like programs, personalities, and trends. Let the hares beware!
UPDATE: Another warning against ambition built on personalities…