Thursday, April 16, 2020

Mark T. Mulder and Gerardo Martí's "The Glass Church"

Mark T. Mulder is Professor of Sociology at Calvin College. He is the author of Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departure (2015) and co-author of Latino Protestants in America: Growing and Diverse (2017).

Gerardo Martí is L. Richardson King Professor of Sociology at Davidson College. He is author of A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church (2005), Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church (2008), Worship across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation (2012), and co-author of The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (2014) and Latino Protestants in America: Growing and Diverse (2017).

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, The Glass Church: Robert H. Schuller, the Crystal Cathedral, and the Strain of Megachurch Ministry, and reported the following:
The page 99 test applied to The Glass Church captures a cumulative, book length argument mid-stream. While the page does not summarize the growing narrative of how a powerful, 50-year megachurch ministry abruptly crumbled, the page does feature a crucial component contributing to the ministry’s success.

The Crystal Cathedral, completed in 1980, was one of the largest and most significant megachurches in America—before declaring bankruptcy in 2010.

Founded in a drive-in theater by pastor and Hour of Power televangelist Robert H. Schuller, the church continually expanded, dollar by dollar, building by building, through a combination of receiving bigger tithes and taking on much bigger loans. Schuller believed he had cracked the code to church growth, establishing a Leadership Institute and publishing book after book with his principles of management, which included preaching his Theology of Self-Esteem and advocating his brand of Possibility Thinking derived from the positive thinking of his mentor, Norman Vincent Peale. But in actuality, Schuller depended on a synchronization of major donations and audacious debt schemes that eventually shattered his glass church.

By the time the reader arrives five chapters into the book to page 99, much of the foundation for Schuller’s megachurch ministry has been established. Among the most important is the intentional alignment made by the pastor between his message and his audience. The conservatism of Orange County combined patriotism with a strident anticommunism such that “…a milieu of conservative Christian culture in Southern California that identified anticommunism as an in-group adhesive had already coalesced by the time Schuller strode to the top of the concession stand at the Orange Drive-in.” Schuller’s charisma was less a unique invention of a magnetic personality and more of a cultivated resonance with an emerging Christian libertarianism.

Throughout the text, the reader knows the humble beginnings of the ministry, its spectacular growth, and its shocking implosion. Schuller’s charisma rallied his followers to contribute to the rising capital flows of his church, building greater capacity in expectation of growing a loyal constituency who would, in turn, contribute their own tithes and offerings to offset the debt taken on to draw them in. Ultimately, the precarious balance of constituency, charisma, and capital fell out of sync, leading to the spectacular collapse of the seemingly impenetrable stability.

This careful analysis of the relationship between Schuller’s charismatic leadership and its interdependence with precarious flows of capital provides not only insight to behind-the-scenes management of ambitious religious organizations but also a caution to the leaders who have emulated Schuller’s philosophy of management, whether they recognize his influence or not.
Learn more about The Glass Church at the Rutgers University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue