O.C. pi­o­neer of the megachurch

‘Hour of Power’ preacher’s up­beat min­istry was even­tu­ally shat­tered by fam­ily con­flict and fi­nan­cial ruin.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Wil­liam Lob­dell and Mitchell Lands­berg

When the Rev. Robert H. Schuller started his Or­ange County min­istry in 1955, he took out ads pro­claim­ing a new way for the faith­ful to at­tend church: “Come as you are, in the fam­ily car!”

At a drive-in movie theater off the Santa Ana Free­way on a Sun­day morn­ing in March, Schuller strode upon the snack bar’s tar-pa­per roof, mi­cro­phone in hand. His wife, Arvella, played an or­gan that the cou­ple towed on a trailer be­hind their sta­tion wagon. Wor­shipers in a few dozen cars lis­tened on drive-in speak­ers clamped to their win­dows as the ami­able young preacher urged upon them a di­vinely in­spired op­ti­mism.

“But Je­sus be­held them,” he in­toned, “and said unto them, ‘With men this is im­pos­si­ble, but with God all things are pos­si­ble.’ ”

The col­lec­tion that week to­taled $83.75 — an in­aus­pi­cious start for one of Amer­ica’s most suc­cess­ful evan­ge­lists, an apos­tle of mar­ket­ing who used to call his church “a shop­ping cen­ter for Je­sus Christ.”

Schuller, who built the Crys­tal Cathe­dral in Gar­den Grove as the em­bod­i­ment of an up­beat, mod­ern vi­sion of Chris­tian­ity, only to see his min­istry shat­tered by fam­ily dis­cord and fi­nan­cial ruin, died Thurs­day at a care fa­cil­ity in Arte­sia. He was 88 and had esophageal can­cer.

Af­ter a work­ing life of great suc­cess and in­flu­ence, Schuller was forced to watch from re­tire­ment as much of what he built was laid to waste. In Oc­to­ber 2010, his church, then led by his daugh­ter Sheila Schuller Cole­man, de­clared bank­ruptcy. That led to the sale of the cathe­dral and sur­round­ing prop­erty to the Ro­man Catholic Dio­cese of Or­ange in Fe­bru­ary 2012.

Chang­ing tastes, fi­nan­cial over­reach and squab­bling over a suc­ces­sor were fac­tors in the col­lapse. Schuller had turned over his pul­pit first to his son, Robert A. Schuller, and then to Cole­man. In March 2010, he and his wife for­mally cut ties to the min­istry they had founded, be­moan-

ing the “neg­a­tive and ad­ver­sar­ial at­mos­phere” en­velop­ing the church’s lead­er­ship.

It was an ig­no­min­ious end to what had been one of the great­est suc­cess sto­ries of post­war Amer­i­can Chris­tian­ity.

The sil­ver-haired evan­ge­list rose from hum­ble be­gin­nings to be­come one of the late 20th cen­tury’s most rec­og­nized re­li­gious fig­ures.

He cre­ated the weekly “Hour of Power” tele­vi­sion show that at its peak pop­u­lar­ity at­tracted an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence of mil­lions, wrote dozens of books with ti­tles such as “Turn­ing Hurts Into Halos” and “If It’s Go­ing to Be, It’s Up to Me,” and built a 40-acre church cam­pus with build­ings so strik­ing that the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute of Ar­chi­tects gave him its first life­time achieve­ment award in 2001.

Schuller’s pop­u­lar­ity rested in his avun­cu­lar public man­ner, tire­less en­ergy and unique ap­proach to Chris­tian­ity that blended pop psy­chol­ogy, un­bri­dled op­ti­mism and the Gospel. Of­fer­ing an al­ter­na­tive to the fire-and-brim­stone preacher, Schuller taught that be­liev­ing in Je­sus Christ — along with the power of “pos­si­bil­ity think­ing” — pro­vided the keys to lead­ing a suc­cess­ful and ful­fill­ing life.

Schuller’s abil­ity to think big — and his knack for sat­is­fy­ing con­gre­gants’ spir­i­tual hunger in prac­ti­cal ways — led to the cre­ation of one of the world’s first seeker-sen­si­tive megachurches, drawing 10,000 peo­ple to its membership rolls and at­tract­ing world­wide tele­vi­sion au­di­ences of an es­ti­mated 30 mil­lion for its Sun­day ser­vices.

“Find a need and fill it, find a hurt and heal it” was the church’s mission.

A gen­er­a­tion of megachurch pas­tors was in­flu­enced by Schuller’s ap­proach, in­clud­ing best­selling au­thors Rick War­ren of Sad­dle­back Church in Lake For­est and Bill Hy­bels of Wil­low Creek Com­mu­nity Church near Chicago. Although those pas­tors and oth­ers at­tracted new gen­er­a­tions of churchgoers, Schuller’s au­di­ence mostly aged with him.

“Robert Schuller was one of the orig­i­nal pi­o­neers of the megachurch move­ment,” said Don­ald E. Miller, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Reli­gion and Civic Cul­ture at USC. “How­ever, his mes­sage of pos­i­tive think­ing be­came frozen in time — ap­peal­ing to an aging au­di­ence of adults but never re­ally con­nected to the post-boomer gen­er­a­tion.”

One of Schuller’s lega­cies is the Crys­tal Cathe­dral — since re­named Christ Cathe­dral — a Philip John­son-de­signed struc­ture made of steel and 10,000 panes of glass. Us­ing the pas­tor’s de­sire for an open-air wor­ship space as in­spi­ra­tion, John­son cre­ated a build­ing where con­gre­gants could feel con­nected to God by gaz­ing out the 12story-high glass walls and ceil­ing to view the sky, clouds, trees and birds. Com­pleted in 1980, it cost $20 mil­lion to build.

“The Crys­tal Cathe­dral is not an at­tempt to be an ar­chi­tec­tural ego-state­ment,” Schuller said in a 1997 in­ter­view with the Amer­i­can Academy of Achieve­ment. “It’s prob­a­bly the ul­ti­mate spir­i­tual and psy­cho­log­i­cal state­ment that could be made in ar­chi­tec­tural terms.”

Un­til money prob­lems sur­faced at the Crys­tal Cathe­dral, Schuller had steered clear of the scan­dals that led to the down­fall of other tel­e­van­ge­lists. But he did re­ceive a steady stream of crit­i­cism from some Chris­tians — in­clud­ing those within his de­nom­i­na­tion — for his down­play­ing of sin, ty­ing popular psy­chol­ogy too closely to the Gospel and con­struct­ing a se­ries of world-class build­ings with mil­lions of dol­lars that could have been spent on the poor.

The church’s bank­ruptcy fil­ing ul­ti­mately re­vealed a pat­tern of lav­ish spend­ing, in­clud­ing gen­er­ous salaries and benefits for Schuller fam­ily mem­bers on the church staff. With the con­gre­ga­tion aging and dona­tions dwin­dling, Schuller’s min­istry could not be sus­tained.

Born near Al­ton, Iowa, on Sept. 16, 1926, Schuller was the fifth child of Dutch im­mi­grant par­ents who lived in a farm­house with­out elec­tric­ity or plumb­ing. Schuller said he first knew he wanted to be a pas­tor at age 4 af­ter his mis­sion­ary un­cle re­turned from China and pre­dicted that was his des­tiny. Each evening for the next 20 years, Schuller said, he prayed to God to be­come a pas­tor.

In ad­di­tion, many days “I would stand in my soli­tude on the hills by the river, preach­ing to an imag­i­nary con­gre­ga­tion, im­i­tat­ing the sounds and ges­tures of a sea­soned preacher,” Schuller wrote.

Nonath­letic and over­weight as a child, Schuller gained con­fi­dence by singing in a high school quar­tet that won the Iowa state cham­pi­onships. In col­lege, he com­peted in a tour­na­ment in Cal­i­for­nia, a state whose geog­ra­phy wowed him. He vowed to re­turn some­day.

A grad­u­ate of Hope Col­lege in Hol­land, Mich., Schuller fell in love with an 18-year-old church or­gan­ist, Arvella DeHann, while at­tend­ing nearby West­ern The­ol­ogy Sem­i­nary. Dur­ing a three-week pe­riod in 1950, he grad­u­ated from the sem­i­nary, mar­ried and was or­dained by the Re­formed Church in Amer­ica, a Protes­tant de­nom­i­na­tion with roots in the Calvin­ist Ref­or­ma­tion of the 1500s.

Schuller be­gan a five-year stint as a pas­tor of a Chicago church and dis­cov­ered the power of de­liv­er­ing sim­ple, pos­i­tive ser­mons that spoke to con­gre­gants’ ev­ery­day lives.

“Mirac­u­lously, lives in our tiny con­gre­ga­tion be­gan to trans­form,” Schuller wrote in his bi­og­ra­phy. “The con­gre­ga­tion be­gan to grow.... I re­al­ized that ev­ery ser­mon I preached should be de­signed not to ‘teach’ or ‘con­vert’ peo­ple, but rather to en­cour­age them, to give them a lift. I de­cided to adopt the spirit, style, strat­egy and sub­stance of a ‘ther­a­pist’ in the pul­pit.”

In 1955, Schuller — with $500, his wife and two ba­bies — headed to Or­ange County to start a church. Find­ing no avail­able wor­ship space, he rented the drive-in.

Hold­ing church ser­vices in such a secular set­ting brought a wave of crit­i­cism upon Schuller, in­clud­ing a call from a fel­low Re­formed Church pas­tor en­raged that the con­gre­ga­tion met in the “pas­sion pit” of a drive-in theater where un­godly acts hap­pened.

Nev­er­the­less, the drive-in church grew quickly, with con­gre­gants of­ten ar­riv­ing in their pa­ja­mas and lis­ten­ing to the ser­vice through tinny speak­ers clipped to the in­side of their car win­dows.

A fan of Nor­man Vin­cent Peale, Schuller in­vited the au­thor of “The Power of Pos­i­tive Think­ing” to his drive-in church, be­gin­ning a decades-long friend­ship.

“I built my church on Easter ser­vices, Christ­mas Eve ser­vices and Nor­man Vin­cent Peale,” Schuller would of­ten say.

In 1961, ar­chi­tect Richard Neu­tra de­signed for Schuller the world’s first “walk-in-drive-in” church build­ing in Gar­den Grove. The con­tro­ver­sial $5-mil­lion struc­ture — deemed undig­ni­fied by some — caused 40 mem­bers of his con­gre­ga­tion, in­clud­ing some of the lead­er­ship, to leave in protest. They also had grown un­easy with Schuller’s mes­sages be­cause he didn’t preach enough from the Bi­ble.

The rift, ac­cord­ing to early Schuller bi­og­ra­phers and friends Mike and Donna Na­son, caused the pas­tor to be so “haunted” by “the fear of fail­ure” that he be­came para­noid, tem­per­a­men­tal and even feared that he was los­ing his mind.

They de­scribe Schuller as “a bro­ken man … his hair turned pre­ma­turely gray prac­ti­cally overnight.”

De­spite the con­tro­versy, the church con­tin­ued to grow so rapidly that Schuller was able to set up the In­sti­tute for Suc­cess­ful Church Lead­er­ship, which is cred­ited, by some, for launch­ing the megachurch move­ment. Pas­tors from around the coun­try came to Gar­den Grove to learn Schuller’s se­crets, which in­cluded pro­vid­ing am­ple park­ing and go­ing door-todoor ask­ing nearby res­i­dents what they would like in a church.

In 1970, Schuller be­came the first pas­tor to tele­vise his weekly ser­vices. The “Hour of Power” pro­gram re­mains on the air to­day, fea­tur­ing Schuller’s grand­son Bobby. Broad­cast on ca­ble TV and lo­cally on KTLA Chan­nel 5, it also is streamed on the In­ter­net.

The “Hour of Power” raised the pas­tor’s na­tional pro­file and set the stage for build­ing the 3,000seat Crys­tal Cathe­dral. The build­ing was ded­i­cated in 1980 and fea­tured a gi­ant out­door tele­vi­sion screen so con­gre­gants could still at­tend ser­vices in their cars.

The Crys­tal Cathe­dral soon be­came a draw for var­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties and en­ter­tain­ers — the list be­came secular enough that state of­fi­cials deemed the venue too much of a com­mer­cial ven­ture and tem­po­rar­ily stripped the prop­erty of its tax ex­emp­tion. In the end, Schuller paid part of the back taxes the state sought, and the church was again de­clared tax-ex­empt.

By 1987, the scan­dals that had en­gulfed Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swag­gart and Jim Bakker cre­ated fundrais­ing short­falls for other tel­e­van­ge­lists, in­clud­ing Schuller. His “Hour of Power” and min­istry were forced to make ma­jor bud­get cuts and lay­offs. But the church was able to re­bound.

In 1989, be­fore the Iron Cur­tain fell, Schuller be­came the first pas­tor to preach on tele­vi­sion in the Soviet Union. As a sign of its in­flu­ence, five U.S. pres­i­dents made ap­pear­ances on the 1,000th “Hour of Power” show in 1990.

Away from the pul­pit, Schuller was of­ten quick-tem­pered and con­trol­ling. In a lengthy Times pro­file in 1983, Bella Stumbo wrote that pri­vately the pas­tor — “par­tic­u­larly among strangers but even around his faith­ful staff, friends and wife — is of­ten sur­pris­ingly aloof, stiff and un­com­fort­able, sullen and sour at times, de­fen­sive at oth­ers. In con­ver­sa­tion, he is per­pet­u­ally dom­i­nant, both con­de­scend­ing and pedan­tic. He dis­plays not the slight­est trace of spon­ta­neous hu­mor, rarely smiles and never seems to laugh.”

In 1997, Schuller’s tem­per be­came public af­ter he “ag­gres­sively” grabbed a flight at­ten­dant by the shoul­ders in a dis­pute over ser­vice in first class. The pas­tor was charged with mis­de­meanor as­sault on a flight at­ten­dant but avoided a trial by apol­o­giz­ing, pay­ing a $1,100 fine and agree­ing to six months of su­per­vi­sion by a fed­eral case of­fi­cer.

In the 21st cen­tury, Schuller put the fin­ish­ing touches on his church cam­pus, adding a $40-mil­lion In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Pos­si­bil­ity Think­ing, de­signed by Getty Cen­ter ar­chi­tect Richard Meier. It served as a vis­i­tors cen­ter and was in­cluded in the sale to the Catholic Church.

Schuller’s wife, Arvella, died last year. He is sur­vived by their son Robert An­thony and daugh­ters Sheila Cole­man, Jeanne Dunn, Carol Mil­ner and Gretchen Pen­ner; and 19 grand­chil­dren and nine great-grand­chil­dren.

A public me­mo­rial ser­vice is planned for Christ Cathe­dral. A date has not been set yet.

Mar­sha Traeger Los An­ge­les Times

POWER OF THE POS­I­TIVE “I re­al­ized that ev­ery ser­mon I preached should be de­signed not to ‘teach’ or ‘con­vert’ peo­ple, but rather to en­cour­age them,” Schuller once wrote.

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