It was discouraging to read recently about the demise of the Carols by Candlelight service in Coffs Harbour, the major city in my region of northern NSW. Not just because it is one of the few times the Church can pull such a crowd to hear its message, but because it appears from the reports that it had become too much of a financial burden on the organisers.
There were several sponsors, including the local Council, but the total sponsorship pool (which was considerable if my maths is correct) still fell short of what the organisers deemed was necessary for such an event.
The same day the local newspaper reported this (in fact on the same page, just to highlight the irony) local organisers of the inaugural CoastOut festival were going full steam ahead with the organisation of their event, which begins today, and which also had plenty of sponsors (again, the local council) but which was not having any such financial problems.
It is difficult not to see this as symbolic of the shift in public attitudes to both Christianity and homosexuality.1 We don’t want to be a nation known for its faith, we want to be known for diversity and tolerance. There is sponsorship money available for what is basically a regional three day mardi gras, but not a Carol's service.
All this got me thinking: perhaps it’s time the Church stopped trying to out do the world with its presentations. Have we stretched ourselves to breaking point by constantly lifting the standard (and therefore the cost) of our activities?
What is actually wrong with holding a low-budget outdoor program which fits well within our financial constraints? Is it simply that the standard of our performance will suffer by comparison to that of a secular equivalent and we don’t like that?
I have a feeling our motivation can sometimes be less than Biblical. I think many times we are too concerned with doing things as well, if not better, than the world. America is where this kind of thinking goes overboard.
I would like to be able to declare that I have no interest in slick presentations, but that’s simply not true. I try to do everything as professionally as I can, but many churches today are on a whole different stratosphere.
Take Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral: the straw which broke the camel’s back was last year’s Glory of Christmas show. This was no Sunday School presentation with a few kids waving to grandparents as they sang Away in a Manger. The budget for this was in the millions and it broke the bank.
The list of creditors waiting to be paid for this is staggering: $56,000 for live animals, $20,000 for props, $10,000 on wardrobe and $11,000 for dry cleaning. For one Christmas pageant!
None of this prevented the church from going ahead with its Glory of Easter pageant this year; a show which would have made Walt Disney weep with joy.
Behind the world’s most indulgent pageants, there is a long line of creditors at the door of Crystal Cathedral, some whose functions I can’t even understand; 500 in all. They include a Media Services Agency who is owed $350,000, another “promotional” media company who is owed just under $400,000 and a management group which is owed $360,000. $7 million dollars of unpaid bills in all.
Furthermore, Crystal Cathedral’s mortgage is now $36 million which is proving difficult to service given the GFC which is hitting the offering plate hard.
The figures are hard to take in, but one statement made by Board member (and Schuller’s son in law) Jim Penner stood out from the others. He announced that one immediate step the church had taken to remedy the situation, was to operate with an all volunteer choir.
“We used to have quite a few paid singers in there and people in our congregation have stepped up and their volunteering their services to be in the choir,” Penner said.
No wonder they are in the mess they are in. A paid choir? We’re not talking about their pageants now, but the regular Sunday morning church service.
What ever happened to ordinary Christians serving in the place where their gifting is best suited whether they are professional or not? They are called upon only when the leadership plunges the church into bankruptcy.
Senior Pastor, Sheila Schuller Coleman, made a video message to the church’s supporters in which she promised not to let go of her famous father’s positive thinking outlook.
"It was actually heartbreaking to be very honest and open with all of you. Yet dad has taught me and raised me to believe that every challenge, every setback is an opportunity," she said.
The truly sad part of all this is that Sheila only became senior Pastor after the resignation of her brother, Robert Jnr, following a disagreement with his father and the church’s board.
In 2008, the board, with Schuller senior’s blessing, made Penner producer of the Hour of Power TV show. Within months Schuller Jnr was told his sermons were "not anointed" and were not good enough for the broadcast.
"By October, they said they had to have other preachers in the pulpit on Sunday morning. So I was allowed to preach any time other than Sunday morning. So with that, I resigned," the younger Schuller said.
How sad. Because of showbiz, a father & son were estranged and are only now repairing their relationship.
Let’s be clear: there was no suggestion Schuller Jnr was not gifted for preaching, but that he was not suited to television.2 Since when did that become the criterion for placing someone in the pulpit? They video tape their Sunday service, Schuller Jnr is no good for TV, therefore he should preach some other time. What a way to direct the affairs of the Church.
I run a small Carol's service each year and one of my responsibilities is to keep it under budget. I have varying success at this from year to year, mostly based on the weather. The events of the past week are a reminder to me of where my priorities should lie.
We do these things because we want to preach the gospel and if I have to downsize the program to fit the budget, then so be it. Perhaps fewer people will attend. So what? Perhaps someone will say another show was better. So what?
Perhaps one day this will become one of those programs our church will drop. That’s OK too because programs come & go, but they are replaced with new ways of preaching the same gospel.
Think of the possibilities.
1. I am well aware of the divergence of opinion over Carol's services and Christmas in general amongst Christians. My point here is that as far as our secular neighbours are concerned, this is a 'Christian' event and they willingly come to it knowing that and expecting to hear at least some of the Christmas story from the Bible.
2. I am not here analyzing the content of Schuller Junior's preaching, which I would have a few problems with to be honest. My point is that in their opinion he was gifted by God for preaching, but not suitable for television. They have created a new criterion for Christian ministry.