The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California (the Orange County suburbs of Ls Angeles), is generally considered to be the original "mega church." It was founded in 1955 by Robert Schuller, a Reformed pastor. Originally, he planted a church in these growing suburbs by purchasing a drive-in theater and holding services in which people drove in and used the little speakers that hung on their car windows. Ushers moved around in golf carts to take the offering and pass out materials. In the 1960s this was a significant innovation for Evangelical churches and was copied many places for some years before drive-in theater faded from the general culture. When the Crystal Cathedral was first constructed its glass wall design was developed to allow the large drive-in attendance to see into the church and participate from their cars.
In the 1980s Schuller built the largest television ministry in America. The Hour of Power had more than two million viewers on Sunday mornings. He continued to have an average attendance of 10,000 on the 40-acre campus. He built a high-rise Prayer Tower that is still one of the tallest buildings in these flat, southern California suburbs. He retired in 2006 and since that time his son and daughter have engaged in a succession war which has depleted attendance and support. Of course, the demographics of suburban Orange County were also changing and today there is a larger attendance a the Spanish-language service each Sunday at the Crystal Cathedral than there is at the English-language service.
The Catholic Diocese of Orange as offered $50 million to purchase the entire facilities. This is enough to pay off all the debts of the Reformed congregation and leave them with a small fund. The board is meeting today to consider this and other offers (all of which would change the campus to something other than a church) in preparation for a bankruptcy court hearing on Monday (August 1). The Catholic spokesman has said that minimal changes would be made in the interior of the church to equip it for Catholic worship, but the exterior would be unchanged. There is evidently a disagreement among the current congregational leaders as to whether it is better to sell it to the Catholics or let it become a non-religious facility, with some hope that they might be able to sell most of the 40 acres and retain rental of the church building itself.
What Can We Learn?
The major weakness of the mega church model is the way in which is engages the market model of ministry, although that is also its major strength. Borders built a chain of large bookstores and now it is going bankrupt largely because it did not quickly enough understand and utilize new technology (E-books). This is the way of a competitive market context. Some economists call it "creative destruction," meaning that enterprises grow by feeding off each other. If we are going to use the same strategies in the cause of Christ, then we can only expect the same kind of change and loss. It is the price we pay for church growth in this model. The nagging question is whether this is really church growth and how would Christ relate to this situation. There are contrasting approaches such as Simple Church and community-based ministries that focus on smaller, more human-sized "organic" ministry models.