Landmark OC Megachurch Declares Bankruptcy

The Rev. Robert Schueller’s Crystal Cathedral, a landmark of 1980s televangelist glitz and home of the world famous Hour of Power, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing a $36 million mortgage and $7 million in other debts.

Schueller, who grew up an Iowa farmboy, began his ministry in Orange County, California, in 1955, convening his first services at the Orange Drive-in Theater. In 1957, Schueller invited pop psychologist Vincent Norman Peale to speak, minting the brand of accentuate-the-positive-preaching that propelled him to the heights of his success in the 1980s. In those years, they bussed Orange County public school kids like me on field trips to the Crystal Cathedral, so we could gaze up in wonder at row-upon-row of glass ceiling panes, each one of them bearing a little metal plaque inscribed with the name of a donor. But times have changed in the OC, and the money, youth (at least the white youth) and positivity have all moved south, away from the Cathedral and right into the heart of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church territory. Nor has there been a successful transition from Schueller to a next generation of Cathedral leadership. In the last year, church revenues have dropped 30%, 140 employees have been laid off, and its opulent Easter pageant (which once drew hundreds of thousands) was cancelled. Considering the fact that they still haven’t paid the lady who loaned them the camels for last year’s Christmas pageant, it’s safe to say that the Cathedral may cancel the 2010 Glory of Christmas production as well.

Is it any wonder that some of the most progressive, sustainable developments in 21st-century Southern California religion are now happening without conventional church or synagogue real estate? I’m thinking, for example, about the IKAR Jewish community of Los Angeles, which convenes services and social gatherings in an eclectic mix of spaces from spas to parks to community centers across town. I’ve even heard that my home denomination, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is experimenting with a modular meeting house designed to grow (and collapse) to meet the growing (or shrinking) needs of populations around the world.

Q: What’s a religious community without a building?

A: A movement.

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