The Myth of Progress


Joel Osteen better pay attention before he ends up in the same ugly mess as the Reverend Robert H. Schuller.

Schuller might soon be yanking a foreclosure notice from the doors of his Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. The empire created by the 84-year-old Reverend has filed for bankruptcy. The ministry is a whopping $43 million in debt and is facing several lawsuits as a result of its financial woes.

The landscape crew and the professional window-washers have all been let-go. Dutiful volunteers are tending the 40-acre mega-complex. Sheila Schuller Coleman blames the bankruptcy on a bad economy. Ms. Schuller Coleman is the current senior pastor. She assumed the job after conducting a hostile take-over against her younger brother, the Rev. Robert A. Schuller, who was their daddy’s pick to succeed him. (Whoever said middle names don’t matter apparently wasn’t part of the Schuller family.)

But long before Wall Street came to a jerking halt, transforming Lehman Brothers from an investment firm into a repentant prayer group, the elder Schuller implemented a bail-out scheme of his own.

Schuller’s plan was fairly simple: To woo investors one only need to build more buildings. Building your way to a better future, it is the American way. When the economy takes a nosedive, build a dam, build a road, build a mega-church. Build it bigger and better than ever before.

“It’s the myth of progress,” Pastor Ken Wytsma recently told his congregation. Wytsma is senior pastor at Antioch Church in Bend, Oregon. This popular resort and recreational community has seen its own share of troubles as a result of a wobbly economy. Bend leads the nation in home depreciation for a metropolitan area – values have dropped 52.5 percent since 2006. “We live under this myth that things should always get better and better, bigger and bigger,” Wytsma said.

It’s a lie. A myth loved by people everywhere, but a lie nonetheless. One that has earned Joel Osteen, like the elder Schuller before him, America’s most-popular pastor status.

“God wants to increase you financially,” Osteen assures the thousands of devotees who attend Lakewood, one of the nation’s largest and wealthiest churches. The Houston, Texas church has an annual budget of more than $80 million.  

God wants to make us bigger and better and richer in everyway, Osteen purports.


Try telling that to Miz Betty. She’s been homeless in Raleigh, N.C., for the past six years. When she was in her 30s Miz Betty was married and raising a family. She never envisioned spending her retirement years in the van she now calls home. But Miz Betty doesn’t blame God for the fix she’s in – it’s purely a money matter.

“I don’t have any,” she says.

Our nation’s veterans are waking up on the streets to the myth of progress that Schuller and Osteen and others like them have been wrongly preaching. According to the Veteran’s Administration over 6,000 women veterans are homeless just like Miz Betty. Women who fought for the freedom to make their lives bigger and better have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan to find that they can’t even get a job washing the 10,000 or so windows at the Crystal Cathedral.

“Things don’t always get bigger or better,” Pastor Wytsma told his flock.  

Sometimes you get cancer and your spouse walks out on you. Sometimes you lose your job and the custody battle. Sometimes you make one wrong investment decision that costs you everything. Sometimes your child or your sibling dies in war. Sometimes you discover that freedom isn’t everything — it may not even be the most important thing.

Sometimes you wake up an old man to discover that empire you spent a lifetime building is simply a glass house and the neighbors are staring while your kids are fighting.

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Will Jesus Buy Me a Double-Wide? ‘cause I need more room for my plasma TV. Zondervan, 2010.

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  • Not much that could be more on point after the above than Rob Bell’s Nooma short film “Rich”.

    Background music lyrics in the lead-in to the flim: At least when you’re weak and your money’s been spent you have some sort of proof you’re still livin’…

    Bell midway through the monlogue: It’s a dangerous thing when we start to think that our world is “the” world.

    The question to be asked and answered daily is this: Who/what is our God/god? No. Really asked and answered. Really.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Or as Wystma said, What you conform to reveals what God/god you’re serving.”

  • I love this post, and your honesty on calling out the prosperity “gospel”. It is setting up so many for devastation.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Yes it is, and in a much more insidious way than many of us realize. Check out my book Will Jesus Buy Me a Double-Wide?

      • Yes I am definitely going to…can’t wait. The title alone is golden.

  • Thanks for speaking truth into what is going on in our culture, Karen. Everyone is susceptible to influence over the lies, and we need to be thinking truth in its place. Sad that Christians not only buy into this, but promote it.

  • Debbie W

    I am reading a bit of Soren Kierkegaard at the moment and he has just finished talking about how we have suffering in this life that come because this world is broken and we think if we get cancer or the economy dies or the spouse bails then it is our cross to bear and we can feel quite ‘honored’ to suffer. He points out these sufferings happen to us yet the suffering of Christ was voluntary and until we volunteer to suffer as we follow Him we have no business calling ourselves disciples – harsh maybe – yet I hear an echo of truth in the word ‘volunteer’. He asks who is willing to sell everything and give up this world for His call, who is willing to be spat on and hated because of Love, who is willing to die because they love like He did. I know his words silence me.

  • Forty years ago I was in intensive Russian language training in Syracuse, NY, in preparation for my eventual work in the USAF Security Service. As part of our nightly homework we listened to recordings of editorial comments aired on Radio Moscow. They were always critical of the West and the USA in particular; but, my goodness, by comparison to today’s talk show invective, they were kind, courteous, downright civil.

    In one segment, there was a whole collection of stories on failings here and there in our system, whether accurate or not. At the end of each little snippet, the radio announcer concluded with the same matter-of-fact statement: V Amerike, eto nazyvaetsya ‘progress’ (In America, this is called ‘progress’.)

    Myth can be a cultural convention for explaining and expounding a great truth or a world view. It can also be, according to Webster, “an ill-founded belief held uncritically esp. by an interested group”.

    Coming out of WWII as victors and the world’s unquestioned industrial power, we’ve had several generations here in the USA for this belief of limitless material wealth and progress to cement itself in our thinking. I remember only too well how prominent Ronald Reagan was as the spokesperson for the General Electric Company that sponsored the weekly TV drama series “The General Electric Theater”. At the end of the show, a dark suited, perfectly coiffed RR would give a pitch for the merits of the company and then always close with the slogan that could melt your evil in-laws’ hearts: At GE, progress is our most important product.

    Progress and wealth became so prevalent that many of us allowed ourselves to think that is was only a sign of Divine providence or reward for our virtue, a true testament to our exceptionalism. With us awash in so much wealth for so long, it was no wonder the mindset came to seriously infect parts of the church. As Apostle Paul writes in Romans, “sin seized an opportunity in the law”. Well, it found one in the gospel, too.

    How rarely did we question whether all this wealth was a limiless gift to be wallowed in or perhaps instead a test to be held at arm’s length and managed for the widow and the orphan among us?

    I commend Thomas Friedman’s new column to the community here for critical evaluation:

    And for all of us who have self identified as a part of Christ’s church, the real opportunities to live as the authentic church are falling all around us like heavy rain. To use Jesus’ own metaphor, the fields have never been so white unto harvest, so filled with opportunities to serve, as they are today.

    Segodnya v Amerike, chto nazyvaetsya ‘progress’? (In America today, what DO we call ‘progress’?) Do we have the ability to think critically about this and to act, both as citizens and as people of faith?

    • Mary Cooke

      Wow! Great discussion on this. One thing I have really appreciated since reading Karen’s blog is the number of thoughtful commentators. In addition to Friedman (whom I read alot), I would recommend Fareed Zakaria’s cover story on Time this week, How to Restore the American Dream,8599,2026776,00.html?artId=2026776?contType=article?chn=us and it does force one to ask just what is the American Dream.

      • Thank you, Mary. I always pay attention to Zakaria also. I’ll be reading his story in depth this evening. Our politicians will only go somewhere useful and necessary when we start doing it ourselves.

    • Steve Taylor

      Roger, to your question,

      – …. . -.– .—-. .-.. .-.. / – …. .. -. -.- / -.– — ..- / .- / -.-. — — — ..- -. .. … – .-.-.-

      Security Service, Ditty Bopper, 1976

      • Steve Taylor

        In English … They’ll think you a Communist.

      • Your AFSC 20231. Mine, 20331. Actually became a 20351, but then they did away with that pro level. Only way you got to go higher was to level 7. Translation: re-up and be a lifer. Didn’t. Dit Dit Dit Dah!