- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Rex Humbard — the televangelist whose ministry once reached more parts of the globe than any other religious program — died Sept. 21 in South Florida at age 88. Mr. Humbard founded the nondenominational Cathedral of Tomorrow, which eventually included a futuristic worship building and a 23-story office tower.

The 5,000-seat Cathedral — near Akron, Ohio — featured a hydraulic stage, a cross covered with thousands of red, white and blue light bulbs, velvet drapes, state-of-the-art sound technology, and facilities for television production.

I actually visited the Cathedral in 1962, during a Midwest tour by our college choir. I recall the organist showing us the whiz-bang stops on her electronic keyboard and rolling her eyes at our Wesleyan unhipness. (We didn’t know the modern tunes she was used to playing.)

By all accounts, Mr. Humbard was an exemplary man with a heart for people and true zeal for the Gospel. He started preaching in the post-World War II era, quickly realizing TV’s potential. His Sunday services were first televised in 1953. By the 1970s, he was known worldwide. His syndicated program reached more than 600 stations.

While unscarred by the kinds of behavioral scandals that engulfed evangelists James Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, Mr. Humbard overreached, financially. Internal disputes and huge borrowing wrecked his ministry. Federal and state regulators complained that millions of dollars in notes the ministry had sold to supporters violated securities laws. Mr. Humbard was forced out in 1982. Thereafter, the congregation dwindled to as few as 75 people. In 1994, evangelist Ernest Angley bought the Cathedral building and complex.

The Cathedral was a megachurch before the term was coined. Its dynamic preaching and high-quality music brought large crowds to the Akron facility, producing a cachet of success and quality that drew money, admiration, and imitation. Other ministers dreamed of multimillion-dollar budgets, private jets and conferences where listeners would hang on their every word.

The Cathedral model is a fixture today. Megachurch gurus like Bill Hybels (Willow Creek Church) and Rick Warren (Saddleback Church) write books and counsel the great and the near-great. Their churches gross millions. Legions of followers think they can do no wrong. Rick Warren’s best-selling book, “The Purpose-Driven Life,” has more currency in some churches than the Bible. Politicians seek his counsel on problems like worldwide AIDS and global warming, as though he really knows how to solve them. It is a heady time to be a megachurch leader.

But fame and fortune can be fleeting — particularly when they rest on a single man’s leadership. The Cathedral’s fate warns what can happen when leaders forget that a church is not really about growth and bigness. Mr. Humbard tried to leverage growth by borrowing instead of trusting God (and God’s people) for the funds to build the ministry. That attempt failed.

This error is easy to make when a leader of a huge ministry believes he has a private line to God. Ministry officials who see the danger in this conceit establish “accountability boards” to check the Top Banana’s adventurism. (The Billy Graham Ministries modeled this successfully.) But in some ministries the head guy handpicks the board’s members. Saying “No” to his vision can result in board members being invited to serve elsewhere. Jim Bakker’s ministry crashed when he ignored his accountability system. In the Cathedral’s case, oversight was lacking that might have reined in overly ambitious plans.

The Cathedral of Tomorrow was an early mega-ministry based on the idea of a church service being a “really big show”. An international television network carrying the Cathedral’s church “spectacle” generated millions in donations. That became the model for today’s mega-churches.

Friends of ours attend a megachurch whose annual budget exceeds $30 million. Its services feature “praise” music performed by high-quality musicians. (The congregation can sing along, but participation is optional.) Preaching is top-drawer. The gigantic facility’s foyer includes Starbucks Coffee. Membership exceeds 20,000. So much money is pouring in that the church is establishing satellite churches linked to the “mother church” by a coordinated message. The church has become its own denomination, accountable to no one and linked to no historical body of theological thought — except as the pastor chooses. This is risky for any church.

Megachurch success stories are tres American. We love seeing an enterprise start small and grow big and successful. But a church is not a business and it’s not entertainment — or shouldn’t be. Almost inevitably, when a church (or ministry) gets too big, and too rich, its leaders either overreach or forget their purpose. Without vigilance and correction, the ministry can fragment into squabbling factions. Members and donations melt away, as in the Cathedral’s sad saga. Many people attend megachurches for the bigness and the aura of success. They don’t stick around when the aura starts slipping.

My view — based on a lifetime in the Church — is that churches are not meant to become vast enterprises with mega-budgets and gigantic campuses resembling convention centers. (OK — the Starbucks Coffee is cool.). Pastors are not meant to be remote “executives”. And worship services are not meant to be spectacles watched by thousands who don’t know anyone in the seats around them.

A church should be a body of believers who know and minister to each other. The pastor looks after his people’s spiritual needs. The body looks after temporal needs and helps the community. The Gospel is preached; the scriptures are studied.

The megachurch is a modern construct based on marketing principles — as though church is a commodity, like entertainment. Packaging — not content — is primary. That works for a time, but eventually the package is opened. Often, that’s the beginning of the end. The Cathedral wasn’t a real church, as in personal ministry to people. It only looked like one on TV.

The Rev. Humbard did a lot of good things with his life. He preached the Gospel faithfully, which deserves respect. But the Cathedral and all the rest of it — well, nobody’s perfect.

WOODY ZIMMERMAN

Author of a weekly column, “At Large,” in the Atlantic Highlands Herald, (www.ahherald.com).


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