IN 1980 the Crystal Cathedral – a sort of Disneyworld for Christian evangelicals and a way-over-the-top expression of American excess – was dedicated by Robert H Schuller, once one of the country’s most prominent and influential televangelists.
The Crystal Cathedral – one of America’s largest and most celebrated ecclesiastical buildings – was replete with all the bells and whistles evangelicals in the US craved: livestock, silly costumes, lights, cameras, below-stage elevators, theatre-style seating, an indoor reflecting pool … and one mother of an organ, with 10,000 pipes.
But things have drastically changed. According to this fascinating American Scholar report by Jim Hinch, American evangelicals are outnumbered by people of no professed faith – and in June this year, Schuller’s evangelical Christian ministry, founded almost 60 years ago amid the suburbs of postwar Southern California, conducted its last worship service and filmed its last Hour of Power in the Crystal Cathedral.
Hounded by creditors, the ministry declared bankruptcy in 2010. Last year Schuller resigned from the cathedral’s board, and the building was flogged for $58 million to Orange County’s Catholic diocese, which intends ripping out all the Disneyesque equipment and replacing it with the sort of crap Catholics regard as more palatable: a consecrated altar, bishop’s cathedra, baptismal font, and votive chapels dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe and other saints prominent in immigrant Catholics’ devotional lives. (There is a frightening number of immigrant Catlickers in the vicinity).
The building is scheduled to reopen for Catholic worship in 2016.
The most recent Pew Research Center survey of the nation’s religious attitudes, taken in 2012, found that just 19 percent of Americans identified themselves as white evangelical Protestants – five years earlier, 21 percent of Americans did so. Slightly more (19.6 percent) self-identified as unaffiliated with any religion at all, the first time that group has surpassed evangelicals.
Prominent figures in the evangelical establishment have already begun sounding alarms. In particular, the Barna Group, an evangelical market research organization, has been issuing a steady stream of books and white papers documenting the erosion of support for evangelicalism, especially among young people.
Contributions from worshippers 55 and older now account for almost two-thirds of evangelical churches’ income in the United States. A mere three percent of non-Christian Americans under 30 have a positive impression of evangelical Christianity, according to David Kinnaman, the Barna Group’s president.
That’s down from 25 percent of baby boomers at a similar age. At present rates of attrition, two-thirds of evangelicals in their 20s will abandon church before they turn 30. “It’s the melting of the icebergs,” Kinnaman told Hinch.
Young people’s most common complaint, he said, is that churches are too focused on sexual issues and preoccupied with their own institutional development – in other words, he explained
Christianity no longer looks like Jesus.
A book making the rounds among evangelical pastors these days is called The Great Evangelical Recession. Written by John S Dickerson, a former investigative journalist turned evangelical pastor, it chronicles in unsparing statistical detail how evangelical Christianity is hemorrhaging members, money, and influence. He says:
The United States has shifted into a … post-Christian age. No one disputes this.