Thursday, January 13, 2011

What price relevance?

By now, you've no doubt heard about the troubles afflicting the Crystal Cathedral. It is not everyday that a mega-church files for bankruptcy after all. Therefore it's worth noting; not because of the sad details but because of the irony. The decline of the Crystal Cathedral is ironic because of Robert Schuller's well known commitment to make the gospel relevant. Now the state-of-the-art glass monument will stand, for some, as a failure of those efforts. Of course, what Schuller made relevant was not really the gospel. His message was an amalgam of pop-psychology, Norman Vincent Peale(ism), and Christian liturgy.

Christianity Today, which has previously reported on the troubles in the house that Schuller built has included another article, this time with the provocative sub-title: "Why we are better off letting God make the Gospel relevant." It's a good enough article. I am happy to see CT reaching some of these conclusions given the fact that they were all excited about the church growth movement not too long ago.

My quibble with the article is in the following statement:

Some are tempted to hit the man while he is down, but this is unwise. Robert Schuller is not the problem—contemporary evangelicalism is. Schuller was only leading the parade of those who believe they are responsible for making the gospel relevant. The lesson is not that Schuller got it wrong or that his theology is out-of-date; it is not that we just need to find a better, more current point of cultural contact. The lesson is that our attempts to find and exploit a point of cultural contact inevitably end in bankruptcy.
There is a lot right in that paragraph. However, while Schuller is not "the" problem he certainly has been a part of the problem. Evangelicalism is an abstract, an idea. It is people who define it. Robert Schuller was indeed near the front of the sad parade of modern evangelicalism and therefore shares responsibility in its vaudevillian shenanigans.

Also, the problem is not that Schuller's theology is "out-of-date", though, it surely is. His shtick sounds like some 1970's encounter group meeting. However, the real problem with Schuller's theology is that it is woefully lacking in adherence to the full counsel of Scripture. Not least of those elements absent from Schullerism is any mention of sin. For Schuller, sin is simply a failure to love yourself well enough. Plus, any mention of sin will only make people feel bad about themselves. Therefore, Schuller never mentioned it. This however dramatically shrinks the gospel. No sin? No need for grace. God, then, becomes utilitarian. He exists to restore my image of myself, to fill me with great thoughts of who I am. This is no small failure. This is not the Gospel.

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