Lessons Learned from a Church Innovator

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 26, 2015

1 Corinthians 9:19-22 GNT; Reading from Believing in the God Who Believes in You

In 1988 we were living in Denton, Texas.  The last few days of June, we loaded up our minivan and embarked on a westward journey, and, of course, we visited a number of national parks along the way.  On Sunday—which happened to be the July 4th weekend—we found ourselves in the Los Angeles area.  One of the places I was looking forward to visiting was the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.  So Sunday morning found us attending worship in the Crystal Cathedral, a 2,800-seat mega-church constructed primarily of glass and filled with lush, green plants, and boasting one of the finest pipe organs in the world.  Since it was the 4th of July weekend, a patriotic service was planned for the day.  We were happy to be there, but we were quite disappointed that the founder and senior minister of the famed Crystal Cathedral, Dr. Robert Schuller, was on vacation and absent that day.

You see, I had discovered Robert Schuller and his writings at a time when I was searching for a more positive message to try to counter-balance the conservative church and theology I was a part of.  Schuller had done the very same thing, and seemingly quite successfully.  Robert Schuller was reared in a Dutch family in the state of Iowa, a family that belonged to the Reformed Church in America, which formerly had been known as the Dutch Reformed Church, one of the more conservative Calvinist branches of the Presbyterian-Reformed family of churches.  In fact, as a part of his seminary studies, Schuller compiled an index to John Calvin’s four-volume Institutes of the Christian Religion, a work that had become the theological basis for classic Calvinism.  But having been influenced by the writings and thought of another famous Dutch Reformed minister, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, who became famous with his best-selling book titled The Power of Positive Thinking, Schuller and his wife Arvella set out to start an innovative new church by preaching a new, positive gospel in a very unique setting.

In 1955, during the post-World War II booming economy and time when the automobile was becoming an important part of the family dynamic, Schuller thought outside his church’s theological box and came up with the idea of starting a new church at a family drive-in theater.  So as America was taking to the automobile, Schuller and his wife moved to Southern California with $500 and started holding Sunday church services at a drive-in theater.  He set a podium and small organ upon the roof of the concession stand, and the new church’s motto was, “Come as you are in the family car.”  His hope was to appeal to people who would not ordinarily go to church.  So cars would pull into one of the drive-in parking spaces and hang the speaker to their car window.  True to the Apostle Paul’s drive to become all things to all men in order to reach some, Schuller took to the drive-in theater and the automobile to reach as many as he could reach with his positive gospel.  The idea worked, and by 1961, the new church had a brick building to house its ministries.

But Schuller didn’t stop there.  He also tapped into the growing television audiences, and in 1970 he started televising his Sunday services, which he called the “Hour of Power.”  Then in 1980, Schuller led in the building of the 2,800 seat glass-and-steel sanctuary in Garden Grove, which he called the “Crystal Cathedral,” at the cost of $3 million.  It provided parking spaces for 500 cars, so attendees could either attend services via their automobiles as they had done at the drive-in theater, but by turning on their car radio, or park and come inside the glass cathedral.  The ministry peaked in the 1990’s, with the “Hour of Power” being broadcast to about 20 million viewers in about 180 countries around the world.

Schuller’s message resonated with many people because it was a blend of four ingredients—traditional worship service, which Schuller maintained to the end (the “dignity of worship,” as one has said of him); biblically-based sermons; combined with a blend of pop psychology; and Schuller’s unique message of “Possibility Thinking” and the love of God that enables people to overcome life’s hardships.  He sought to focus on the positive aspects of Christian faith.  Schuller’s innovations and successes led to his being recognized as one of the early fathers of the megachurch movement that would soon have such an impact on the American church.  Schuller would publish more than 30 books, some of them becoming bestsellers.

Well, it would be nice if the story ended there, but it doesn’t.  In 2006, Schuller, nearing 80 years of age, retired from the ministry he had founded, and it was all downhill from there for the megachurch and its ministry.  There were problems with the transition of leadership.  Schuller’s son, Robert A. Schuller, was installed as the pastor of the Crystal Cathedral but only lasted for two years.  One of Schuller’s daughters, Sheila, then took over, but after two years she resigned and started a new church of her own.  The church and its television ministry fell into deep debt due to a drastic drop in viewers and offerings, and ultimately ended up in bankruptcy, so much so that the Crystal Cathedral had to be sold in order to pay off debts.  It was purchased by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in 2011.  Then in 2013, the senior Schuller was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer.  Schuller died on April 2 at the age of 88 in an assisted-living facility.  The past nine years was a sad and disheartening ending to one of America’s greatest church success stories.

Now, you may be one who has little love for any megachurch or television preacher.  And that is okay.  Most of them I don’t care for either.  But as I noted earlier, the writings and approach of Robert Schuller appealed to me at a time in my life and ministry when I needed them.  Finding myself in a conservative Presbyterian-Reformed denomination like Schuller found himself in, I was needing help in getting away from a conservative, evangelical background and frame of reference and framing a positive message more in keeping with our times and my own convictions.  So I found some support in Schuller’s positive approach and writings.

Now, I will quickly admit that Schuller made mistakes.  He was not perfect by any means.  And I certainly do not idolize him, so don’t get the wrong impression.  But I think there are a few lessons to be learned from Schuller, who was at one time an American icon pop preacher in a similar way that Henry Ward Beecher was in another century.

For instance, Schuller was a true innovator who thought outside his church’s theological box.  Who would have thought of setting a pulpit and organ on the roof of a drive-in theater concession stand?  Who would have thought of building a 2,800-seat sanctuary of nothing but glass and steel so that you could look out at the world of Nature while worshiping?  And even though he was raised and educated in classic Calvinist theology, Schuller departed from it to preach the love of God and power of everyday faith.

Schuller was willing to take risks.  He took a tremendous risk climbing upon that concession stand; not only the risk of falling off.  But what if no one came?  What if the media branded him a nut?  What if he failed?  He took a risk by starting a television ministry.  And he took a big risk in even dreaming about a completely glass structure to be built in Southern California.

Schuller successfully blended the biblical world with contemporary trends and concerns.  Schuller continued to preach the Bible (the last account I had, he was using the New King James Version of the Bible) and the love of God and the power of faith in a person’s life, but mixed it with popular psychology and addressed to contemporary issues and needs.  But when you stop to think about it, that is what popular preachers have done all along.  I think of famous preachers like George Whitefield, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Henry Ward Beecher, all who used the same approach successfully.

Schuller proved that you can hold onto traditions that are good like the traditional worship service (i.e., “the dignity of worship”) and, at the same time, be a man of the times in which you live.  In contrast to many megachurch pastors who would follow and introduce the so-called contemporary worship style, Schuller held onto the traditional worship service format, and until he retired did so quite successfully.

The pertinent question is, Can we here at the United Church learn and apply anything from Schuller’s story and successes?  I think we can.  Sometimes we need to take off our blinders that will only let us see things one way, right in front of us, and look outside the box.  Sometimes we just need to take a risk in order to move forward.  And to our credit, I think we have taken a few risks in recent years to add a new position to our church staff and fund some new programs for children, youth and families.

I have been here long enough for most of you to know that I believe we can successfully and thoughtfully blend biblical texts with contemporary trends and issues.

And I believe, like Schuller did, in holding onto the “dignity of worship” in the traditional way we do it.  Contemporary worship services that consist of standing and singing praise choruses for 15 minutes, followed by nothing more than a scripture reading, sermon, passing an offering bucket, and a closing invitation and prayer appeal to many.  But it has never appealed to me.  I think we do well to continue our traditional worship service accented with a variety of music and a contemporary message.

We may not agree with everything Robert Schuller stood for, preached or did, but we do have to give him credit for being the church innovator that he was.  And his positive message touched and changed many lives.  When we were at the Crystal Cathedral, we were amazed at the many support groups the church provided for those recently divorced, struggling with addictions, out of work, grieving, and so on.

May it be so that this United Church is innovative, willing to take a few calculated risks, mix the good traditional with current issues and concerns, promote a positive message, and in the process change many lives.  Yes, may it be so.  Amen.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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