The Crystal Cathedral Isn't What It Used to Be

Christianity Today reports that the Crystal Cathedral is experiencing a serious financial crisis. One is tempted to have a little fun at the cathedral’s expense. The possibilities for possibility thinking here are interesting. What is more interesting, however, is that the congregation that is arguably the source of much of the Church Growth methodology for American evangelicalism finds itself in such a state. After all, without the Cathedral, there would be no Willow Creek or Saddleback.

A couple of months back we had occasion to visit the Crystal Cathedral on the Lord’s Day. We attended the early service (9:30 AM). I’ve seen Bob Schuller preach on television but never in person, so we made the drive to Orange County. Given the influence Schuller has had among American evangelicals and given that he is semi-retired and preaches only occasionally now it seemed like a good idea to see the him while it is still possible.

Frankly, I was shocked at what I saw. It’s not what you think. I expected the fountains and the cameras and the show. What I didn’t expect to see was the number of ordinary folks from Orange City, Sioux Falls, and Grand Rapids. In fact, if you know what to look for, underneath the therapeutic veneer and show biz glitz, there was still a bit of the old Reformed liturgy. To be sure, the words to hymns were all changed (forget about psalms, are you kidding?). There was a crisp, professional-sounding praise band but there was also an organ. The announcements had an Orange City feel to them. Even though there were several large HD television cameras mounted around the auditorium (and several mobile cameras rolling about the place) the first part of the service had an almost homey quality. There was a hint that the congregation was facing significant financial difficulties.

Then Bob Schuller rose to preach. In the first couple of moments he looked every bit of his 84 years. He seemed a little disoriented. They were marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Hour of Power television show and he didn’t seem sure about some of the details. That’s to be expected. I’m a little more than half his age and I struggle for names constantly. After a few minutes, however, he regained form and he came to life and suddenly the charismatic preacher was his old self again. He began speaking by asking rhetorically what he was doing. Was it a sermon? No, no one likes to be preached to. Was it a psychological study? Well, yes, in part. What was it? It was a message of HOPE! Of course I have no recollection of what biblical text (if any) was read. The message did not mention sin. It featured several of touching illustrations and it was well-delivered and rhetorically skillful.

Throughout the service, as we could see Schuller in person and on the big screen I had the impression that there were two services happening simultaneously: one for the screen and one for the congregation. On the screen (which, I assume, is what will be shown on television) Schuller appeared to be speaking extemporaneously. Off-screen he had notes – which I saw him turn but which I never saw him actually consult. How did he do that? I didn’t see a tele-prom-ter. The backdrop appeared somewhat differently than it did to us off-screen. In other words, there were two realities, the on-screen reality and the off-screen reality. That was a little disconcerting. There was a touch of Hollywood but not as much as I expected. We were on a TV set but were also in a congregation. There was a dual reality.

After the service we explored the remarkable complex of buildings. What impressed me the most about them all was the thoroughness with which everything has been planned and how consistent everything is. This is a place with a message and everyone knows what the message is and everything is organized around that message: You can do it and God will help you. Jesus wants the best for you.

The Crystal Cathedral isn’t what it used to be. It’s still shiny and amazing. The jumbotron screen in the auditorium looks a little dated now but it was still quite impressive. Bob Schuller is aged but he can still deliver a message with vigor and clarity that would shame men half his age. The power of his personality is still evident, but he’s not there every Sunday. With the departure of his son–who was dismissed in a way that any gruff Dutch dairy farmer would understand; you can take the boy out of Orange City but you can’t take Orange City out of the boy–the Cathedral features a rota of visiting preachers. Clearly the transition has been awkward and things aren’t exactly flourishing.

The Cathedral isn’t what it used to be. When it began it was the only thing of its kind. Like television producers, American evangelicals are copy-cats and it wasn’t long before everyone and his brother was studying Schuller’s  “success” and imitating it. Indeed, the Cathedral trained thousands of pastors how to do in their towns what Bob has done in his. Today one can see some version of the Cathedral almost anywhere. It’s no surprise that the Cathedral is struggling. The familiar and comforting preacher isn’t there, at least not every week and apparently the other fellows aren’t getting it done. More to the point, their brand isn’t their brand any more. You don’t have to tune in to the Hour of Power any more to get what Bob is selling. You can get it from Joel Osteen or from Rick Warren or Bill Hybels or in any one of hundreds of ostensibly “confessional” Reformed/Presbyterian congregations. In the last several months I’ve heard more than one Schuller-esque messages emanate from a Presbyterian platform.

The Cathedral isn’t what it used to be but it doesn’t have to be because it’s become ubiquitous. America may not need the Cathedral anymore, except as a sort of museum, a way of remembering what happened to American evangelicalism (and to “evangelical” Presbyterians) in the late 20th century.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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17 comments

  1. So…. does the Crystal Cathedral going past it’s prime just highlight the fact that its bellwether influence has spread “ubiquitously” throughout Americana, ergo Willow Creek, Saddleback, and the like plus a myriad of smaller wannabes and that it no longer roosts on its own pinnacle? Or is its gradual demise more prophetic that the same thing will eventually begin to happen to those copy-cats, as well?

  2. As and architect I have always found Schuller a fascinating character he is the kind of client we all dream of but in other respects he was very disturbing. I wonder if these two impressions are some how related he seems to have had a genius for a kind of west coast “show biz” liturgy that is very appealing (remember watching a service there in the wake of 911 where 4 service men march down the marched down the aisle that brought tears to my eye) but it also seemed devoid of any real deep spiritual content. One wonders which came first the highly pragmatic delivery or the squishy theology. Hard to believe the guy is/was CRC.

    • Correct. Schuller is RCA – although, if I’m not mistaken, I think the RCA still “officially” retains the TFU as their confessional standards.

  3. Interesting.

    I remember, back around ’85 or so (it was around the time RS’ “Self Esteem, the New Reformation” book came out), our then CRC pastor went to a conference put on by Schuller. Our guy came back all enthusiastic for self esteem. (Fortunately, that didn’t last long.) If I remember correctly, his way was paid by some monied men in the CRC (the Amway guys?) who wanted various pastors to go to this. Signs of things to come in the CRC?

    Schuller, Jr. was interviewed on Issues, Etc. this winter. He comes off sounder than his father, by comparison.

  4. Does anyone remember Jackie Gleason, the comedian? Years and years ago he was interviewed on “60 Minutes” and he said, “I watch these TV preachers and they say, ‘If you need anything at all, ask God and He will give it to you,’ but when those guys on TV need money, they don’t ask God, they ask ME.” I want to send Robert a copy of, “Tough Times Don’t Last, But Tough People Do.” There is nothinig mean about this – it’s sincere. He says it really really works, so lets see it work. I don’t mean any sarcasm when I say that.

    Schuller’s problem is demographic. Very few people under 50 or maybe even 60 watch him much. The Cathedral itself is as much a burden as a blessing. In a culture which worships the new, the Cathedral is now old…we’ve been there, seen that, and now we’re off to the next thing.

    Schuller got his start in So Cal around the time that Disneyland was being built, but Disney has had to change enormously in order to survive and thrive. Schuller doesn’t understand that what was new and innovative say, 50 years ago is now boring. Even novelty gets old.

    • Interesting thought. I would say, novelty, especially and always, gets old. The ancient paths, the ordinary means of grace since the garden, the words of eternal life – those never get old. And they haven’t ever changed, either.

      • That’s fantastically exciting news (a Schuller grandson at Westminster California)! On the flip side (I claim the “I’m in college ministry on a secular campus” card as my excuse for knowing this) one of the Schuller grandkids was a major personality on the Hollywood-idolizing MTV reality-series Laguna Beach.

        @Steve: I believe the former CRC product you’re thinking of might be Bill Hybels. I believe Schuller was and still is in the RCA. At least here in the Midwest there are definitely still congregations in the RCA that could be defined as “confessional,” but I understand there’s quite a bit of variance on the coasts.

      • The doctrine of inevitable progress toward liberalism is a liberal myth; just as people repent, occasionally pastors and even churches do repent and turn back to the Bible. It would be a great blessing if the name Schuller were to be identified with something other than what it now is.

        Reinhold Niebuhr’s church, for example, long after he left, called a man who was a “pious liberal,” who was succeeded by a true evangelical, who was succeeded by a Calvinist who began his career as a lawyer, went to seminary, entered the ministry, became the head of the United Church of Christ’s Biblical Witness Fellowship, and finally pulled the church out of the UCC and into the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference.

        I’m sure Niebuhr would be shocked that one of his pastoral successors returned his church to the theology that not only Niebuhr but his pastoral father had deliberately rejected. Perhaps the same can one day be said of the grandson of the Crystal Cathedral founder. After all, we believe in a God who raised the dead from the grave, so raising someone out of dead doctrines shouldn’t surprise us.

        • It would be a great blessing if the name Schuller were to be identified with something other than what it now is.

          Mmmm, WIn Schuler’s Cheddar Cheese Spread.

  5. A couple of months back we had occasion to visit the Crystal Cathedral on the Lord’s Day. We attended the early service (9:30 AM).

    So the Schuller’s son is dismissed because of not having the same “shared” vision as the father, so his “Rev” daughter replaces the Rev son. I guess the daughter more closely share’s her dad’s vision. Too bad you didn’t get to hear the “Rev” Dr Sheila Schuller Coleman the current “church” leader.

    So just visiting Dan or Bethel no problem. Nice!

    Really, no NAPARC church you could have gone to instead? FWIW There are 11 OPC churches within a 50 mile radius of the CC, and your own church is only 65 miles away. I know 65 California miles is much further than in other parts of the country, but there is an OPC church that was only 7 miles away. Where’s the fun though in actually consistently attending only confessional churches?

  6. Sculler is from a Reformed back ground…that sounds laughable but its true. In terms of deception, modern heresies and urban myths we still haven’t seen the last of purveyors of false gospels. As long as people are ready to eliminate sin, righteousness and judgement from their messages or salvation story we will always have a long list of substitutes. The result of these easy substitiutes leads to frustruation, embarrassment and shipwreck. (See article “The emperor steps out in his clothes..again” http://wp.me/pEVJ0-jL )

  7. There is a saying “time and tide wait for no man” meaning that there is a natural life-span for humans and communities, nations and Institutions.
    Dr. Schuller at 84 is still truly remarkable yet not as vibrant and vigorous as 30 or 40 years ago. Get used to this, it’s natural and the same outcome awaits us all.
    His biography “Goliath” reveals his low times as well as his achievements.
    Matt.13 v 57-8 “A prophet will always be held in honour, except in his home town, and in his own family. And he (Jesus) did not work many miracles there: such was their want of faith.”
    Schuller’s incredible achievements in Orange County have circled the Globe and the impact of his uniquely gifted ministry will take many years to measure. There are so many ecclessiastical pygmies keen to write the obituary “fired up” because they know full well that they could never have begun to tackle the challenges that Dr. Schuller took on and achieved.

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