ImageI saw a recent news item about the death of Rex Humbard, the televangelist whose ministry once reached more parts of the globe than any other religious program. [1] The Rev. Humbard died on September 21 at a South Florida hospital near his home in Lantana at age 88. He founded the non-denominational Cathedral of Tomorrow ministry, which eventually included a $4 million building of the same name and a 23-story office tower. The 5,000-seat, futuristic Cathedral – located 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 system technology, and complete facilities for television production.

The Rev. Humbard’s death drew my attention because I actually visited the Cathedral in the 1960s, during a Midwest tour by our college choir. I recall the organist showing us all the whiz-bang stops on her electronic keyboard and rolling her eyes at our stodgy, Wesleyan un-hipness. We recognized none of the modern tunes she was used to playing for services. (We were young people, but we were already musical old fogies singing Bach and other old stuff.)

By all accounts, the Rev. Humbard was an exemplary man with a heart for people and a true zeal for the Gospel. He started his ministry in the post-war era, along with contemporaries Billy Graham and Oral Roberts. Ahead of many, he realized the potential of the new medium of TV. His Sunday services were first televised in 1953. By the 1970s he was known to millions, worldwide. His syndicated program eventually reached more than 600 stations.

The Rev. Humbard’s life and ministry were never scarred by the kinds of behavioral scandals that plagued evangelists James Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart in the 1980s. But financial overreach hurt the Humbard organization. Internal disputes and extensive borrowing damaged the ministry irreparably and caused its demise. In the 1970s Mr. Humbard attracted the scrutiny of federal and state regulators who charged that the millions of dollars worth of notes he had sold to ministry supporters violated securities laws. The Rev. Humbard was forced out of the Cathedral ministry in 1982. Thereafter, the congregation dwindled to as few as 75 people. In 1994 the Cathedral complex was sold to evangelist Ernest Angley.

The Cathedral of Tomorrow was a mega-church before the term was coined. The Humbard TV ministry featured a mixture of preaching and high-quality music. Mr. Humbard’s wife, Maude Aimee – an accomplished gospel singer – performed regularly on the broadcasts, as did the popular Cathedral quartet and the Humbard children. Large crowds of worshippers at the Akron Cathedral gave the ministry a cachet of success and quality that drew financial support and the admiration of many. Imitation – the sincerest form of flattery (even in church) – followed as night follows day. Ministers across the country dreamed of multi-million-dollar ministries and flying in private jets to conferences where listeners would hang on their every word.

Today, the Cathedral of Tomorrow model is a fixture of American culture. Although that ministry is gone, mega-church 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 bestseller, The Purpose-Driven Life, has more currency in some churches than the Bible. Politicians listen to his proposed “solutions” for problems like worldwide AIDS and global warming, as though he really knows how to solve them. It is a heady time to be a mega-church leader.

In the fate of the Cathedral of Tomorrow we see how fleeting fame and fortune can be – particularly when they rest on the leadership of a single man. The CoT showed what can happen when leaders forget that a church is not about growth and bigness, but about personal ministry to God’s people and preaching the Gospel. The CoT tried to leverage growth by borrowing, not by trusting God (and God’s people) for the funds to build the ministry. That attempt failed.

This kind of error is easy to make when a leader of a huge ministry becomes convinced that he has a private line to God. Ministry officials often see the danger in this conceit, so they establish “accountability boards” to check the Top Banana’s adventurism. This can work – the Billy Graham Ministries are a good example – but often the head guy handpicks the board’s members. Saying “No” to his vision is a formidable challenge that might result in board members being invited to serve elsewhere. The Bakker ministry’s accountability system failed when Jim Bakker got too big for his britches. The Cathedral’s Internal dynamics have not been revealed, but the ministry clearly lacked oversight that could rein in future plans that became overly ambitious.

The Cathedral of Tomorrow was also one of the first mega-ministries based on the idea of a church service being a “really big show” (as Ed Sullivan used to say). An international television network carrying the Cathedral’s high-quality church “spectacle” generated millions in donations for the ministry. This established the model that eventually grew into today’s mega-churches.

Friends of ours attend a southern mega-church 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.) The preaching is top-drawer. The foyer of the gigantic church building includes a Starbucks Coffee shop. Membership exceeds 20,000. So much money is coming in that the church is now establishing satellite churches linked to the “mother church” by a common message fashioned by the senior pastor and his staff. The church has essentially become its own denomination, accountable to no one and linked to no historical body of theological thought – except to the extent that the pastor chooses to do so. This is risky business for any church.

Mega-church success stories are as American as apple pie. We love seeing an enterprise start small, fight to survive, then grow big and successful. Fine – all within reasonable bounds. 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 essential mission. Without vigilance and constant correction, the ministry can devolve into squabbling factions. Members and donations simply melt away, as in the Cathedral of Tomorrow’s sad saga. Many people attend mega-churches because they love the bigness and the aura of success. They don’t stick around when the aura starts slipping.

My view – based on a lifetime spent in the Church – is that churches are not meant to become huge enterprises with mega-budgets and gigantic campuses resembling convention centers (with or without Starbucks). Pastors are not meant to be “executives” remote from their congregations. And worship services are not meant to be spectacles attended by thousands who don’t know anyone in the seats around them. The church is meant to be a body of believers who minister to each other. The pastor looks after his people’s spiritual needs. The body looks after its members’ temporal needs and helps the community. The Gospel is preached; the scriptures are studied.

The mega-church is a modern construct based on marketing principles – as though the church is a saleable commodity, like entertainment. Its packaging – not its content – is the primary thing. That might work for a time, but eventually people will look inside the package. For operations like the Cathedral of Tomorrow, that’s the beginning of the end. The CoT wasn’t a real church, in the sense of ministering to people at a personal level. 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 should not be scoffed at. But the Cathedral and all the rest of it – well, nobody’s perfect.

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[1] Details of the life and ministry of Rex Humbard were excerpted from various news reports that appeared following his death.