Crystal Cathedral sees risky future without church

By Amy Taxin

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Nov. 18 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

But religion experts said the Crystal Cathedral's troubles run far deeper than the loss of the campus and stem from Schuller's retirement, an ill-fated attempt to hand over the ministry to his son and the church's failure to adapt to attract younger worshippers.

On the contrary, some said losing the building will force the ministry to do some much needed soul-searching on how it can remain relevant.

"If they stayed in place, they were doomed to slowly dissolve into nothing over time. And if there's any hope for them at all, it is a kind of rebirth out of these ashes," said Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research.

"That Crystal Cathedral has in fact encapsulated them and held them in a crystal prison," he said.

Moving forward, a key challenge will be shoring up the Crystal Cathedral's finances. The church should emerge with close to $7 million in surplus cash from the sale of the property, according to an attorney for the committee of unsecured creditors. But many congregants question whether the "Hour of Power" program can continue to draw viewers — and donations — without the iconic setting.

"It's virtually impossible to know what will happen to ministry revenue if the campus changes hands to a non-Protestant religious institution," Michael VanderLey, the church's financial adviser, told the bankruptcy court. "It's just a very uncertain set of potential revenues."

In 2008, the church's revenues plummeted amid a decline in donations and ticket sales for holiday pageants. Church officials blamed the recession, but some experts said the church's leadership struggles alienated members.

VanderLey said the decline in revenue appears to be slowing and the church is poised to reel in $3.5 million in December — a key month for revenue — down from $4 million in the same month last year.

But some churchgoers say their ranks are dwindling and will only get smaller once the ministry leaves its beloved building.

These days, the church parking lot is empty when worshippers pull up to attend Sunday services though it was packed just a few years ago, said congregant Rob Ekno, who questioned whether the ministry can survive.

"Anything is possible," he said. "Obviously, we're dealing with a church here, so it's all in God's hands."

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