The Orange County Register reports…
“From the moment he climbed atop a drive-in theater snack bar to preach to families in their automobiles, Robert Schuller established himself as a different sort of clergyman.
What he conveyed about himself was that he was unafraid to stand out, that he was attuned to the California car culture and that he was willing to try almost any means necessary to make his voice heard.
What he said about God and Christianity was another story.
Schuller’s spiel was less dogmatic than the fire-and-brimstone oratory of other top televangelists, a fact that also set him apart. He went light on theology, heavy on a more secular message of hope and positive thinking. Schuller’s gift for marketing and entrepreneurship helped to transform the poor farmer’s son from Iowa into one of the world’s pre-emininent church leaders: a best-selling author and empire builder who was a friend to an array of celebrities and powerful political figures.
Schuller, who died of cancer Thursday at age 88, enjoyed the admiration of a global following that numbered millions, even while his many critics branded him superficial, phony and mercenary.
At its peak, his Orange County-based ministry operated the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove and the “Hour of Power” television program, which put Schuller’s grinning face and folksy humor before an estimated 20 million viewers a week.
But Schuller lived long enough to see the empire crumble. Amid acrimonious family squabbling, his church filed for bankruptcy in 2010; his beloved Crystal Cathedral, clad entirely in glass and designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson, was sold off to the Roman Catholic Church, which has renamed it Christ Cathedral.
“He was always the ringleader. He always had complete power” within his church, said Stanley R. Bailey, a sociology professor at UC Irvine who specializes in religious studies. “It takes a certain type of personality to be so authoritarian. No one could hire or fire Schuller. He was always above the fray. It was all about him.
“I think his downfall,” Bailey said, “was that the church was too much focused on him and not the ministry.”
Schuller was the visionary. He was unable, or unwilling, to look beyond his own family to find a worthy successor who might be capable of sustaining the church’s cultural relevance, Bailey said.
Strongly influenced by the positive-thinking doctrines of Norman Vincent Peale, who was persuaded to speak at Schuller’s drive-in-theater church soon after it opened in the 1950s, Schuller rose in sharp contrast to the titans of the pulpit who preceded him: Billy Graham, with his passionate Southern Baptist conservativism; Oral Roberts, with his emphasis on faith healing and fundraising to construct academic and medical institutions; and Rex Humbard, an early television evangelist who connected with his viewers emotionally, often crying on the air.
“Schuller came along and did things very differently than those guys,” Bailey said. “He went after a different audience. He was about positiveness, harnessing one’s own individual talents – be all that you can be. In someways he was like the Army recruiter: ‘A Christian can be all that you can be.’”
Schuller’s flair for marketing was evident even in subtle touches, like the naming of his $20 million glass church, touted as the largest glass building in the world when it was completed in 1981. He didn’t call it a glass church – he chose the far more evocative Crystal Cathedral.
The cathedral and adjoining Tower of Hope, a Richard Neutra-designed church office building topped by an enormous cross, were jewels that, along with Schuller’s own panache, brought notoriety to the ministry.
Fans sought Schuller’s autograph, including former heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali. President Ronald Reagan invited Schuller to the Oval Office. The press clamored to spend time with him, mainly to sort out his motivations and success secrets.
Schuller’s success was deeply rooted in his engaging, lighthearted talks – he avoided calling them sermons – in which he entertained his audience with self-effacing stories that often dealt with the simple stresses of marriage and life at home.
He also conceived of spectacular, theaterlike holiday performances at the Crystal Cathedral, bringing in live animals and performers soaring through the air on cables to stage “The Glory of Christmas” and “The Glory of Easter.”
That appealing showmanship often contrasted with Schuller backstage, according to an exhaustive profile written by late journalist Bella Stumbo for the Los Angeles Times in 1983.
“Schuller, it quickly becomes clear, not only preaches self-esteem, he seems to possess it in healthy abundance,” the writer reported, later adding: “The private Schuller – particularly among strangers but even around his faithful staff, friends and wife – is often surprisingly aloof, stiff and uncomfortable, sullen and sour at times. … He displays not the slightest trace of spontaneous humor, rarely smiles and never seems to laugh.”
Schuller’s wife, Arvella, was a church organist when he met her and she later became the longtime producer of his “Hour of Power” program. She died early last year.
“When you looked at him on his television program, he always seemed to be a fatherly or grandfatherly figure,” Richard Flory, director of research at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, said of Schuller. “He was taking the ideas of Norman Vincent Peale and wrapping them into a kind of homey evangelicism. People felt comfortable watching him or listening to him.”
Schuller was unabashed about being a religious entrepreneur. He conducted marketing surveys. He gave private motivational speeches. He found time to write a long list of inspirational books, bearing such titles as “Tough Times Never Last, But Tough People Do!” A tome called the “Possibility Thinkers Bible, The New King James Version,” co-authored with Paul David Dunn, featured an aquamarine leather cover and Christ’s words written in blue.
Cracks in the ministry began to appear only as Schuller, nearing 80, began to slow down.
In 2006, his son Robert A. Schuller took over as senior pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, but by late 2008 the elder Schuller, citing differences in their visions for the church, removed his son from that post. Schuller’s daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman, later ascended to senior pastor, barely in time to announce that the church was filing for bankruptcy. The following year, 2011, the elder Schuller was ousted from the Crystal Cathedral’s board of directors.
Though a branch of the church still survives – Schuller’s grandson, the Rev. Bobby Schuller, runs it under the name Shepherd’s Grove – many critics and longtime followers say Schuller’s legacy is marred by a failure to let go and see the church as something larger than himself.
“At some point he stopped being as innovative or forward-looking,” Flory said of Schuller. “He stopped reading the culture as well as he did at an earlier age. That’s one source of the economic troubles that led to bankruptcy.”
Such failures are commonplace in large organizations, Flory added. “We see this in businesses all the time. They get to a certain point in development and they stop having new ideas. Inertia starts driving them.”
Longtime Orange County historian Phil Brigandi cannot help but see a contrast between Schuller, who meticulously controlled his family-run empire, and Chuck Smith, who founded Calvary Chapel as a small congregation in Costa Mesa in the mid-1960s. Smith’s more decentralized organization, based on sharing authority, now consists of more than 1,000 churches nationwide and overseas, even after Smith’s death in 2013.
“Calvary marches on without Chuck Smith,” Brigandi said. “Schuller’s ministry couldn’t even survive him.”
Bailey, the UC Irvine religion professor, said that Schuller was, ultimately, a man who achieved his own vision, but who exercised his power to retain that vision within his own family.
“He wasn’t developing young ministers under him, unless they were family members,” Bailey said.
Schuller, who died a day shy of Good Friday, “had many, many family members on the church payroll,” Bailey said. “In a political realm, we would call that nepotism – the benefits of an institution going by blood lines. But Schuller was very successful. He lived a life of great prestige, great wealth.”
At the end, though, having lost a court battle to recoup millions from his bankrupt ministries, Schuller died at an assisted living home in Artesia that accepts Medi-Cal.”