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This past October, the megachurch prototype of the late 20th century filed for bankruptcy. A 24 percent drop in donations and a $50-$100 million debt owed to more than 550 creditors forced the Crystal Cathedral to file. It was a poignant moment in the history of modern evangelicalism.

Robert H. Schuller's famous Crystal Cathedral was built on a foundation of self-esteem. In a 1984 interview with Christianity Today, Schuller said that when he came to Garden Grove, California, in 1955, he asked himself, "What human condition exists here that I can have a mission to?" His answer was "emotional hunger." "Because of that," he said, "we have developed our present ministry."

That ministry increasingly was defined as the gospel of self-esteem, which for Schuller meant "the divine dignity that God intended to be our emotional birthright as children created in his image." It was lost in the Garden of Eden, he explained, but "we hunger for it until we regain it through faith in Christ."

Over the years, many people have caricatured Schuller's theology. Indeed, there has been much to criticize. To be fair, it was more nuanced than many critics imagine. Schuller's root concern from day one was emotional hunger, and the answer was helping people gain a positive self-image, albeit in Christ.

Schuller was tapping into themes of the human potential movement, the rage in the 1960s and '70s, when Abraham Maslow's theories deemed self-actualization the highest expression of human life. Schuller put a biblical and theological spin on it all and, as a result, attracted many to faith in Christ.

But already in Schuller's day, there were concerns. The ...

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January 2011

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