Monday, October 25, 2010

A Personal Reflection on the Crystal Cathedral Bankruptcy

Many people heard last week that the famed Crystal Cathedral, home of Hour of Powerfiled for bankruptcy last week. There was also an interesting article in the New York Times about it this weekend.

Many readers of this blog and most of my friends know I was intimately involved with the Cathedral for a few years until about 1.5-2 years ago. When I moved back to Southern California from Berkeley, I visited the Cathedral, a few weeks before a new service, aimed at my age group, was about to start. I remember conversations we had about what to name the new service (later being called The Gathering).

At the beginning, we were a small blip on the radar of a major ministry, getting less than 20 people per week, mostly in their 20s. By the time we left the Cathedral campus, we were getting 150-200 people per week, literally of all races and ages. As an elder for The Gathering and later as a formal staff member, hired through the Cathedral, I saw support from the larger ministry wax and wane. Some supported us, some not so much.

Never the less, The Gathering and the Cathedral were close and dear to my heart. I was the third generation in my family to be touched by the message. I began receiving the daily email devotionals my first semester at Berkeley, which helped get me through some very difficult times before I found a church community. When my grandma died, she was cremated, and my grandpa bought a brick in the new building in her memory, so essentially her memorial site is there. My wife and I had our first kiss and got engaged in the prayer chapel on campus. We got married in one of the gardens and had our reception in the building where my grandma's memorial is.

I build deep, long-lasting friendships, not the least was Bobby (Robert V.) Schuller, grandson of Robert H., and son of Robert A., and founder/pastor of The Gathering. He married Laci and I, and I still consider him to be one of my best friends.

So 2.5 years ago, when everything started really falling apart, the failure of the Crystal Cathedral Ministries (CCM as it's known there) was not just some abstract, impersonal event. In fact, it was particularly difficult, as I knew about most of it months before it became public, requiring me to say nothing to anyone. This was hard because not only was I seeing one of my best friends and his family personally suffering, but I also felt betrayed. My family and I had invested years of time, prayer, effort, love, money, and service to this ministry to see it disregard the local congregation.

Let me backup here and fill in the gaps. CCM was formerly known as Garden Grove Community Church until the Cathedral building was built in the early 80s. The Hour of Power (known as HOP around the campus) began before the Cathedral was created and was an outgrowth of the local congregation. It was a unique, creative ministry of evangelism.

What I discovered in my time at the Cathedral is that CCM was not the priority. HOP was. Working with the internet department to simply create a website for The Gathering became a marketing nightmare. As we tried to emphasize different ministries, we were told they didn't think those should be given space on the page, as Bobby's sermons were more important (this was not Bobby's view at all).

When Robert became senior pastor of CCM/HOP, we at The Gathering had high hopes for re-orientation to emphasize mission and revitalization of an important message that desperately needed repackaging. Robert and his executive pastor, Jim Poit, were incredibly supportive of The Gathering. In fact, both frequently showed up quietly to enjoy The Gathering community without the pomp, circumstance, and attention they would receive at the Cathedral.

Robert attempted to make some significant, positive changes to the structure of CCM/HOP, and we at The Gathering did everything we could to support it. In fact, he took many of our ideas and applied them to the larger ministry (some bragging here--I started a podcast of messages from The Gathering. Robert told me he loved and idea and sought out how to do it for HOP).

The continued changes Robert proposed created increasing tension, particularly between CCM and HOP. CCM is technically the local congregation, part of the Reformed Church of America denomination. HOP is the television show. It's a separate, non-profit, non-denominational organization. My understanding is that the Cathedral grounds and buildings are actually owned by HOP. Robert was trying to build up the (literally) dying CCM congregation and help everyone feel more connected to one another and "owning" the church community.

However, the HOP machine was too strong. As a few people said, the tail was wagging the dog. The decision to oust Robert had nothing to do with him preaching from Scripture more (an oft-repeated rumor that is simply false). It had more to do with marketing and politics.

The PR machine went into full gear through the publicly-emerging tension within the CCM/HOP and Schuller family. As Robert says in the aforementioned NYT article, the financial problems began long before the economy went bad due to decisions for marketing rather than for the local congregation. Yes, the economy made it worse, but it has continually been blamed for the financial woes.

Anyone who spoke with actual members of CCM or read the public forums for CCM and HOP could easily see that emotional, spiritual, and financial support dropped because of the lack of support of the people in favor of the marketing for HOP.

It was around this time that The Gathering decided to separate from the Cathedral completely. It was not the only reason--we had been discussing it for a few years prior. However, by the time Robert was gone, there was no reason to stay.

I felt hurt and betrayed by people I had previously personally trusted. I honestly hoped for CCM to implode under the obesity of HOP. Over time, as I attempted to heal, some people who decided to still fight for CCM told me about changes they were trying to make there. Ironically, they were precisely the changes Robert attempted to implement.

I was hopeful that CCM could turn around and really get revitalized. I have an abundance of wonderful memories from there. However, hearing about the bankruptcy and the PR-based explanations with lack of any real responsibility, I have little hope again for those changes. The marketing machine still seems to rule. And that is tragic.

The tragedy of this transition over the past several years has severely clouded my perspective of and experience in church organizations. I'm very skeptical of churches that hold secrets, particularly related to finances and organizational hierarchy. I think the importance of committee governance is of utmost importance. I greatly dislike marketing (even though it's a useful thing). I'm also inclined to de-emphasize performance and large-scale elements of churches in favor of building community.

In fact, I have questioned whether any large church community can actually work in a healthy, God-honoring, spiritually-beneficial way.

In many ways, I think I've grown from the Cathedral's struggles. I do hope and pray that things can be fixed. Such a public tragedy does not just paint a negative picture of CCM/HOP-like ministries in a negative light impersonally, but it actually emotionally and spiritually injures people.

I believe what is needed is an honest acceptance of responsibility and humility. We all make mistakes. And the larger we are, the bigger those mistakes often are. The CCM/HOP problems are not unique and frankly not as bad as many. How they handle it makes all the difference, just as with individual people's conflicts.

Update 10/30/10: This is a very good video from Nightline addressing the bankruptcy.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Selfish Gospel @9MarksOnline @nextchristians @christianaudio @caReviewers

The latest book I got to review for christianaudio's reviewer program (meaning I received a complimentary copy) was Greg Gilbert's What is the Gospel? This book is actually part of a series from 9marks, going in-depth about what that organization considers to be the nine marks of a healthy church, as argued by Mark Dever.

I actually finished this audiobook over a week ago, but I didn't feel any urge to get a review out quickly because I really didn't care for the book. I was also trying to figure out good ways to positively engage with it.

The purpose of this tome is to answer the question of the title: What is the Gospel? Gilbert makes the excellent point that Christians are fragmented in our definitions of what the Gospel is. While I see that (generally) more as an element of different people emphasizing different aspects of the Gospel, Gilbert seems to almost take offense that there is not a simple, unified definition. His writing seems to question the salvation of people who do not understand the Gospel in the same way he does of Penal Substitutionary Atonement as paramount.

He begins the book by arguing that the Gospel is larger than most people make it to be, a statement with which I agree. However, he quickly simplifies it to issues of salvation. I find it somewhat interesting that his book was offered to review at the same time as The Next Christians, which I loved. The latter does a much better job at explaining how the Gospel is much more than simply salvation from Hell.

In any case, I think I found some of the reasons I had problems with Gilbert's text. First of all, he states that as Christians, we value the Bible as infallible and inerrant, thus taking a literal view. This is a big theological assertion, as the majority of Christendom does not view Scripture as both infallible and inerrant. This is an example of how Gilbert implies that if one does not interpret Scripture the same way he does, that individual is not actually a Christian. There are people who take this view. I am not one of them and feel very strongly about this.

This approach to Scripture shapes all of his interpretations, which is where my problems begin. With a literal view, people often approach the Bible from a "plain meaning" perspective, assuming they understand it from a simple reading. Therefore, explanation is not often needed. Gilbert exemplifies this approach by providing evidence for his statements by simply stating, "see Revelation," without additional explanation.

While he makes some good points about the Gospel, this approach of simply citing Scripture without providing his interpretation of it makes his arguments unsupported, in my view. Further, I simply disagree with his reading of many elements of Scripture because I do not approach the Bible as inerrant.

I believe many other things should be considered to help us understand the Bible, including tradition, intuition, science, etc. These things should not supersede the Bible, but they are relevant, as the Bible is not always clear. Gilbert, however, argues that relying on tradition, intuition, etc. for truths, leads to unanswered questions. And he indicates that unanswered questions are unacceptable. This is an area with which I strongly disagree. I think God gives us many unanswered questions, and that is not a problem. In fact, it creates a rich space for growth. And ironically, Gilbert uses the Bible the same way the people he criticizes use tradition and intuition--just accepting what they have been told and not critically engaging it to find Truth.

One of the things Gilbert frequently says is that the Good News of the Bible is that we can be rescued (I agree). However, he says, that unless we know we need to be rescued, it's not good news. So we need to emphasize the sinful, wicked nature of people to point out how depraved they are. I disagree with this. Most people I know actually know very well how much they need help. They don't need others reminding them. That just makes things worse. And sometimes the way we find out we need help is by getting the help and getting out of the situation.

In any case, Gilbert seems to emphasize how we need to know how the Gospel is Good News for me. Not for other people. For me. There's a selfish feel to it, in my opinion. In many ways, he presents what Gabe Lyons describes in The Next Christians as a view of doing good for the most people rather than for all people. Jesus and the Gospel definitely focus on emphasizing good for all people, not just a few. While only a few may take advantage of it, they do not only offer it to those few.

So therefore, cultural change is a powerful thing that is very holy and central to the Gospel. Gilbert argues that cultural transformation is not part of the Gospel. However, the way he describes it seems to be more related to Lyons' description of cultural Christians, those who take Christ in-name-only and look like the culture. In contrast, the restorers are people who are deeply connected to Christ and want to restore the world and the culture to God's hope and dream for the world in a way that will benefit all people. That's a powerful and True Gospel.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Restoration Christianity @nextchristians @christianaudio @caReviewers

I recently had the privilege of receiving a complimentary copy of Gabe Lyons' The Next Christians from christianaudio's reviewer program.

Lyons addresses the common perception that Christianity is dying. Taking a sort of sociological perspective, he describes the shift of the Christian environment over the past century, particularly in the United States. He also discusses two primary types of Christian engagement with the culture. The first group is Separatists, who set themselves apart from the culture and have little engagement with it. They focus on faith, not works. One the other extreme are the Cultural Christians, who blend into the cultural landscape, and their faith is more of tradition and heritage than a life. They focus on works, not faith.

Then he describes an emerging type: the Restorationists. These Christians emphasize both faith and works, seeing a faith lifestyle as very different from the surrounding culture, but also seeing living within the culture as critical. As Lyons states, the goal of a Restoration mindset is to make the world "as it ought to be."

While Lyons presents the information in the book in a sort of descriptive sociological framing, he is, in fact, presenting a more prescriptive argument. In other words, he is not being objective, noting trends from the outside, but rather, he is part of the restorationist movement and truly advocating for that position.

He make this argument well. The stories he tells from his own life and those of others shows the great potential for creativity to bring restoration to a fallen world. The fact that he is the narrator for his own audiobook adds additional credibility. I also appreciate this book because it truly presents an incarnational view of Christianity, emphasizing that we are God's hands and feet exactly where we're at.

In the spirit of my blog, too, he does a nice job of deconstructing some (recent) traditional trends in Christianity of separatism and cultural Christianity. However, he does not leave the reader (or listener) with a deconstructed mess of a faith (or lack thereof). He truly provides a reconstruction through the restorationist lens. This provides a clear and newfound sense of hope and purpose.

If you are not satisfied with the way church organizations and Christians have engaged the world, but know there is still something to your faith, I highly recommend this book. It can be challenging to those who have lived the more separatist or cultural lifestyles. However, he finds strengths in each of the traditions and demonstrated how their goals were honorable. Yet there is a better way. Therefore, Lyons nicely appreciates and respects multiple perspectives and traditions, not denouncing them, but rather showing their weaknesses and how to move to something greater.

Such challenges are good when followed with encouragement. Lyons' tome really is more of an encouragement than an indictment, and I think that is a blessing.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Psychology & Spirituality Column @sandalschurch

I've started a new column on my church's blog. The first post is in honor of Mental Illness Awareness Week. The focus of the column will be on psychology and spirituality and be an opportunity for people to ask questions about psychology in order to de-mystify the field.

Let me know what you think and if you have any ideas!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Learning from the Children @ERBks

This review originally appeared on the Englewood Review of Books and was made possible by a complimentary copy from the publisher.

As a child psychologist with a particular passion and speciality in spirituality, particularly spiritual formation, I was very excited to review Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May’s Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey. This book discusses the results from multiple projects exploring childhood Christian spirituality. Before thinking it may be boring, allow me to assure you that it’s not. While it could definitely be used in an academic setting (the publishing house emphasizes that), it really is meant for laity, not academics.

I recently began a spirituality group as part of my organization’s child partial hospitalization program for psychiatric problems. This book was helpful in developing some activities to initiate discussion on spiritual topics. However, it really is meant for a parents and church-based ministries rather than therapists. And it is focused on Christian spirituality. So if you’re looking for ways to explore the spirituality of atheist children, this book is probably not what you’re looking for (although I would also argue it’s techniques could be altered for the appropriate spiritual context).

Stonehouse and May begin their tome by beautifully introducing their passion for developing child spirituality and discussing their research methodology. It’s detailed enough to moderately satisfy those of us with a critical eye on methodology (their more detailed appendix helps), but does not get bogged down in academic technicalities so as to lose readers of the intended audience. They then wisely move into beginning to tell some of the stories of kids’ responses to various prompts. I think it was wise for them to begin this way because it emphasizes that children can and do talk about deep spiritual concepts… when given the opportunity. I can vouch for this in the groups I have run. In fact, as I discussed on my blog, I think children are just as sophisticated as many adults. What often seems to happen is that we, as a society, do not develop children’s spiritualities, so as adults, we are essentially stunted at the childhood developmental level.

Stonehouse and May do not make this argument, but I saw continued evidence for this as I read the stories. The child participants are often more willing to ask questions than most adults. They are also able to more vibrantly verbalize their experiences with God and Christ. In fact, their desire to truly be with God far surpasses the desire of most adults I know (including myself).

From this foundation, they continue to tell stories, weaving in various techniques to stimulate spiritual discussion and also challenge children to grow. These are the techniques that are both useful for research and are incredibly practical for use in homes, churches, youth groups, schools, etc. At the core of many of the practices is a concept of reflective engagement, the idea of letting the children meditate and contemplate spiritual ideas for themselves. Some are done with others, some individually. While some people may think children may not be able to do this, Stonehouse and May’s anecdotes passionately prove otherwise.

While this book is intended to help people develop children’s spirituality, I think it has just as much potential (if not more potential) to help form adult’s spirituality. In fact, several of the reflective engagement practices are conducted with the whole family or in dialogue with adults. It is meant to let everyone experience God together, in a true corporate worship experience. And then seeing the innocent and pure love of Christ cannot not affect the adult hearts that have been hardened by cynicism, pain, and suffering. Truly, we will learn from the children.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Transforming Story @matt_litton @TyndaleHouse @AdamSab

In honor of the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, Matt Litton released The Mockingbird Parables: Transforming Lives Through the Power of Story. This review was made possible through a complimentary copy of the book from Tyndale.

While Mockingbird was not a particular favorite of mine, I was intrigued by Litton's use of a novel to explore spiritual truths. Litton defines parables as "simply stories, and stories are not only a powerful way to deliver meaning--stories are the voice of humanity" (p. 9).

This is a welcome and accurate definition of parable in a world where we hear so much theology and spirituality in terms of discrete "facts," truths, and assertions. Litton's work emphasizes how these truths become so much truer and powerful through the parable of story.

The reader does not need to be familiar with the original novel to benefit from the book. I read Mockingbird in high school and remember only pieces of it. Litton provides enough summary to make his points. And he elaborates on the text remarkably. This book truly is a devotional that not only helps the reader understand the original better, but also God and the Christian life.

His writing style is effective and easy to read. One could read it through very quickly. However, I think a substantial amount of the meaning would be lost. This is a book that going through slowly can really make it into a very effective devotional.

Frankly, it is a more powerful devotional and theological book than most books of those genres I've read. It makes many abstract concepts real and applicable to daily life. This emphasizes the incarnational tradition of Christianity, which I particularly love. Also taking a "secular" book and gleaning spiritual truths from it is an exemplary way of representing incarnational perspectives. Many of the points Litton makes also evidence this viewpoint in understandable, effective, and biblical ways.

I highly recommend this book for people who love To Kill a Mockingbird, those who love story, and individuals who want to see God in everyday life. It's clearly organized structure also lends itself well to being used with groups.


Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).