I came upon an interesting religious news item today. It seems that one very famous church in America has gone bankrupt, and is up for sale. The cash-strapped church is now trying to get out of debt by selling off the renowned glass structure, the Crystal Cathedral. A Roman Catholic diocese has made a $50 million cash offer to buy the place.
Here is how one press report covers this story: “The Diocese of Orange said its proposal could pull the megachurch, which was founded more than 50 years ago by pioneering televangelist Rev. Robert H. Schuller, out of bankruptcy by the end of the year. The Crystal Cathedral is trying to sell the property and lease back portions of it for use for services to help erase a $36 million mortgage and settle nearly $10 million in unsecured debt. The church has been plagued by financial troubles after a disastrous leadership transition and a devastating slump in donations.
“The church is also mulling several other offers. A real estate investment firm offered $46 million, as did Chapman University, which is considering building a medical school on the sprawling campus. A Norco-based church, My Father’s House Church International, also made a $50 million offer for the property, which includes the famous glass-spired church designed by architect Philip Johnson.”
The church certainly seems to be in quite a pickle, at least in terms of money. But the point I wish to stress here is that long before this financial bankruptcy occurred, a more sinister and destructive spiritual and theological bankruptcy occurred at this church.
Robert Schuller is famous for his upbeat, positive message. In an effort to be trendy, relevant, and appeal to the secular masses, he decided to only offer a positive, happy message. Thus he simply would not speak on any of the negative themes found in Scripture.
So he of course has refused to talk about sin. He has been more concerned about people’s self-esteem. He wants us all to think positively, and he is quite unhappy with the biblical notion of sin. In 1982 he said this: “Sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem”.
Or as he put it in 1985: “I don’t think anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality and, hence, counterproductive to the evangelism enterprise than the often crude, uncouth, and unchristian strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.”
In this he stands in the tradition of other positive thinking advocates such as Norman Vincent Peale. Peale wrote his influential and best-selling book, The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952. Like Schuller, his views are a far cry from that of Scripture. Indeed, the book was so opposed to biblical thinking that it prompted Adlai Stevenson to quip, “Paul I find appealing, Peale I find appalling”.
Such anti-sin thinking has been a hallmark of liberal theology for several centuries now. New England was greatly influenced by liberal theology. The very unbiblical Unitarianism was mainly the religion of the elite in New England in recent times, so critics joked that Unitarian preaching was limited to “the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston”.
Robert Schuller has also been very concerned about the power of words. He urges his followers not to allow negative confessions to proceed from their lips: “Never verbalize a negative emotion out loud” he says. Instead, focus on “possibility thinking”: “Two of the most profane words we do not permit in our homes are the words, ‘I can’t.’ Verbalize those negative words, and you surrender yourself to their negative, hypnotic power. They’ll destroy you. By contrast, affirm, ‘I can!’ It’s astounding what miracles you can accomplish”.
Of course there are plenty of other influential advocates of positive thinking. Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller are just two of many. But much of the modern positive confession teaching can be traced back to the preaching and teaching of these two men. As an example, consider some of the chapter titles of one of Peale’s books: “Pre-condition Your Mind to Success”; “No More Failure for You”; “The Wonderful Law of Abundance”; “Better Health Through Positive Thinking”; “Learn to Live with the Spiritual Forces Around You”; etc.
As for Schuller, the title of one of his books pretty well summarizes the approach he takes: Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (1982). Such unbiblical sentiments have been critiqued by many. For example, David Wells in his important 1993 volume, No Place For Truth has a chapter on “Self-Piety”.
His remarks are biting but accurate: “In another age, Robert Schuller’s ministry … might well have been viewed not as Christian ministry at all, but as comedy. Would it not be possible to view him as providing a biting parody of American self-absorption?…
“But Schuller is no comic. He earnestly wants us to believe all of this, and many do. When he makes these pronouncements, he attracts a large and devoted Christian following. What is his appeal? The answer, it would seem, is that Schuller is adroitly, if unconsciously, riding the stream of modernity.”
He explains the differences between the individualism of the Reformation and the individualism of the Enlightenment. “If the genesis of modern individualism lies in the idea of the dignity of the individual, the genesis of modern humanism lies in the failure to acknowledge the companion reality of human depravity.”
People like Schuller fail to understand that by eliminating the bad news of the gospel – the message of the Fall, sin, and judgment – they also eliminate the good news of the gospel. If we are not sinners we have no need of a saviour. If we are basically decent people, there was no reason why Jesus had to come and die on a cross.
A gospel reflecting the spirit of the age instead of timeless biblical truth is doomed to fail. Such an anaemic gospel will titillate the masses for a while, but it will never keep them really satisfied. It can’t. Only the Word of Life can. Only a whole gospel for a whole people will suffice.
So the outward financial bankruptcy of this once great structure is a fitting symbol of the inward spiritual bankruptcy of this church. Such will always be the case. Only a living gospel featuring a living Christ who deals with the living reality of sin and selfishness can set people free and radically transform lives.
Away with all the crystal cathedrals of our age, and back to the risen Christ in the fellowship of true believers who put Christ and His Word above all else, including the latest fads and trends. That eternal Christ is the one the world needs. That is the one we must faithfully represent.