Every Friday in Sacred Space, Brad Williams explores the place of popular culture in the local church.
There is no part of me that enjoys reading about the woes of Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral. For myself, it is like a period at the end of a sad sentence. The irony of Schuller’s positive thinking preaching has caught up to him and the palace that he built. Schuller’s theology, for the most part, cannot help him now, and his failing can serve as a cautionary tale to us all.
In case you know nothing about Schuller’s teaching, I’ll take a moment to catch you up to speed. Robert Schuller’s teaching is heavily influenced by the idea of improving oneself through self-esteem, which in turn builds one’s ego. This particular part of secular psychology is evident in statements throughout Schuller’s preaching and in his books, especially his Self-Esteem: The New Reformation. In that book, Schuller makes statements like “classical theology has erred in its insistence that theology be ‘God-centered’ and not ‘man-centered‘ ” and that the “master plan of God is designed around the deepest needs of human beings—self-dignity, self-respect, self-worth, self-esteem.”
For Schuller, the power of positive thinking was so important, and the self-esteem of the hearer was so crucial, that he would be bold enough to say, “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.” The culture of self-esteem influenced Schuller so greatly that it overcame the teaching of Scripture, and his teaching in turn affected his local church in disastrous ways.
In case you have not heard, the Crystal Cathedral is in bankruptcy, and because of this, it has sold its property to the Roman Catholic Church. Adding to the financial woes of the Crystal Cathedral, Robert Schuller claims that the church he led into bankruptcy now owes him around $5.5 million for intellectual property that he should have been paid for. Besides the financial ruin, there are an untold number of people whose hearts are broken, and whose faith is shaken, because of the fall of this ministry.
This leads me to what I believe is the true tragedy of Robert Schuller’s self-esteem kind of gospel, and its close cousin, the prosperity gospel. It is completely unable to prepare people for the reality of suffering. In other words, once prosperity has blown away like so much dust in the wind, one’s faith can easily blow away with it. By prosperity, I do not mean only the loss of personal wealth, but also the loss of health, loved ones, job, or even the loss of “identity” through injury or illness.
When suffering comes, and it will come to everyone, even those who love Christ, we need an understanding that we serve a God who has suffered with us, for us, and who will deliver us from suffering in the life to come. To look inward to the self at such times of disaster would be devastating. Positive thinking will not bring back one’s wife, one’s job, one’s wayward child, or one’s shattered finances. In times of devastation, we don’t need to think bigger thoughts about ourselves; we need bigger thoughts about our God.
Another way that Schuller’s teaching handicapped the church was his refusal to deal with sin as sin. If one’s faith is tied to positive thinking, then it is easy to see how doubt would be perceived as negative thinking and therefore unfaithful thinking. So when it came time to borrow more and more money, they just thought positive thoughts, not considering how they would pay the bills. They lived beyond their means, and they did it with a positive attitude. Now the Crystal Cathedral is broke, the congregation is reaping a terrible harvest of heartbreak, and Schuller is trying to squeeze blood from a turnip, hoping to wring $5.5 million out of them so his retirement won’t be endangered.
The power of positive thinking has shattered on the altar of Schuller’s church like so much crystal. There is no real excuse for their massive debt; I read that at its peak “The Hour of Power” broadcast was bringing in $50 million a year. Poor stewardship caused by poor teaching brought about a great fall. And that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it, to me, are those poor people Schuller misled. People who listened to his sermons and thought positive, self-affirming thoughts. Now, those folks are left holding the bag, and the building they worshiped in is gone along with their teacher. I hope that their faith in Christ Jesus is strengthened and not broken, and I hope that a local church that preaches the full counsel of God’s Word can come alongside them and help them sort this mess out.
And what is the cautionary tale for us on the outside looking in? We have to be on our guard not to let the culture creep in on us so much that we deny the fundamentals of the gospel. The church is to build God-esteem, not self-esteem, and the biblical doctrine of sin can build a person up. Because it is the truth. We are sinners in need of a Savior, and what a great Savior that we have! He never fails us, and He never stops loving us, no matter how broken we are.