Recent news reports tell us that Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in California has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Church leaders disclosed that the church is close to $50 million in debt. Some have seen this as the harbinger of the death of the megachurch. Of course, the reality is not that simple.
The Crystal Cathedral is probably unique among others in that category because it has practiced a rather traditional approach to worship albeit on a grand scale. The church has also been embroiled in a leadership transition crisis.
The problems at this one megachurch do not mean that this expression of the church is dying out. In fact, Scott Thumma, an authority on megachurches, says mammoth churches aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
In the CNN blog that reports the Crystal Cathedral’s bankruptcy, Thumma is quoted as saying that most megachurches are holding their own financially amid this “great recession.” He defines a megachurch as a congregation with 2,000 members and above.
“Megachurches, in part, grew because they were adaptive, innovative and resourceful. They, and their leadership, have a great ability to evolve,” says Thumma, co-author of “Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches.“
The blog writer asks the question, “Will megachurches retain their popularity in the future or is some … other kind of church ready to be born?” The answers are “Yes” and “Yes.”
Churches are remarkably resilient institutions that continually reinvent themselves. Several years ago I was a member of a church that “split” – a good Baptist term for the act of one group of church members leaving to start another church for one reason or another.
At least one member of our congregation questioned whether we could survive the loss of the pastor, a couple of other staff ministers and 200 members. I never doubted that we would. In fact, the original church is as strong as it was before the split, and the church that was born out of the division is prospering as well.
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Not only do traditional churches find ways to survive, churches also know how to innovate. A quick Google search will provide information about house churches, organic churches, emerging churches, missional faith communities and new monastic communities among other expressions of the Christian faith. These new forms will exist alongside the traditional county seat church, the neighborhood church and the megachurch.
I would not be surprised if even the Crystal Cathedral finds a way forward. God can and will be worshipped in a variety of expressions of the Christian church in the future, just as God has been worshipped in a variety of ways in the past.
Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro Center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column appeared previously on his blog.