Robert Schuller’s supporters say he has reformed the Reformation. His detractors say he has rejected it.

His supporters say he has found the wavelength of the secular mind. His detractors say he has lost the gospel.

His supporters say he presents sin without turning off the listener. His detractors say he is soft on sin.

His supporters say he has created a glass church whose openness reflects the possibilities of the gospel. His detractors say he has built a $20 million monstrosity.

What is Robert Schuller really saying and doing? To find out, Christianity Today flew a team of interviewers to Garden Grove, California, location of Schuller’s 10,000-member “Crystal Cathedral of the Reformed Church in America.” On the team were Kenneth S. Kantzer, president of Trinity College (Deerfield, Ill.), David F. Wells, professor of historical and systematic theology, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, Mass.), and V. Gilbert Beers, editor of CT.

In their taped interview, which lasted several hours, they questioned Schuller on his mission, on self-esteem, the “New Reformation,” and especially on the places he sees for sin in the Christian message.

The following is an edited transcript.

Is Sunday morning worship at the Crystal Cathedral a normal Protestant service?

Not really. Suppose that when you start a church as a mission, your audience is made up of, say, 100 non-Christians. That will challenge any body’s idea of how to plan a Sunday morning service. You can’t use regular hymns. You can’t serve Communion to people who haven’t confessed Christ. You can’t baptize children, because their parents are unbelievers.

I ask Christians, “What kind of service would you work out for such a congregation? What would you do to the words of the hymns? How would you use the Bible in presenting the gospel?” Most of my listeners come from universities where they have heard the Bible cut down as a collection of myths and errors. It doesn’t seem wise to try to win people by quoting a source they don’t believe.

Architecture and Mission

How did you solve the dilemma of a Sunday morning worship service mainly attended by non-Christians?

To convert them, first you need to relax them so they will listen to you. That is what Richard Neutra, our church architect, taught me 29 years ago. Neutra says that every organism is designed to live in a particular environment. Birds live in the woods, fish in the water. Neutra’s theory, which he called biorealism, is that a lot of the tension in the world comes because human beings are out of their natural habitat. They were designed to live in gardens. The eyes long to lookout upon hills, flowers, and trees; and we should hear songs, water, birds. This is tranquilizing, and conditions us for creative communication. But tension blocks the capacity to hear and to add a new dimension to our consciousness.

Now, Neutra was speaking as a secularist. But what he said had the ring of truth to it. The larger truth is that when the human being is in his natural environment, something more might be achieved than his relaxation. Perhaps we can lead him to the Father God.

So I concluded that Neutras architecture would be just the ticket if I wanted to create a place where secular, cynical, untrusting people would come. We have no stained glass windows, but lots of water and natural plantings. The human being must be back in his natural habitat, with structures that don’t provoke cross-cultural conflicts, but make him receptive to our message. If you are to understand our approach to the church as mission, you first have to grasp that.

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How did you discover the wavelength of non-Christians in your area?

My first year in Garden Grove I rang 500 doorbells and asked, “Why don’t you go to church?”

The people said, “Why go to church? One preacher is telling you why Red China should be admitted into the United Nations; the next preacher is telling you why it shouldnot be admitted. And you go to another church where they say you are going to hell. They spend 20 minutes explaining how hopelessly unworthy and lost you are, and then in five minutes they ask you to come to Jesus, who is perfect.”

Is that a sensible way to win people? I came to see that it wasn’t.

How did this lead you to a new concept of mission?

The full theory of what I call “creation theology” is to try to put humans back into their natural habitat. Neutra had said, “Never, never design gloomy corners into a structure.” I believe in the Resurrection. That is the capstone of my faith, my philosophy, my knowledge, my theory of the church. So in its emotional tone the structure should breathe in harmony with the gospel of the resurrected Christ. That means joy, not gloom.

When we outgrew the original building Neutra had planned, I asked one of his friends with the same outlook, Philip Johnson, to design a new one. I said to Philip, “I’d like it all glass.” That was the idea behind the new, larger structure, the Crystal Cathedral.

What effect does this have on Christians?

Two strikingly different types of people come for help on a Sunday morning—the nonreligious, and the born again. If a person becomes an authentic Christian, it’s still possible for him to be sick, since sickness is a relative term. But health and wholeness to a person mean having positive “self-esteem,” “or self-worth.”

Incidentally, I’m not happy with those words. I’d be delighted if someone could come up with better ones to describe the state of psychological, emotional, and spiritual health Adam and Eve had before the Fall. Self-esteem is rooted in creation theology, because God creates something in us that reflects life in those early days in the garden. When we are born again, we get what Adam and Eve had before they fell—godly pride. There are two kinds of pride: demonic and godly. Before the Fall, Adam didn’t walk around the garden ashamed. If someone had asked him, “Who are you” he’d have said, “I’m Adam. Who are you?” Our tendency today is to say, “I’m nobody.” God meant us to be proud, but totally humble—and that’s a paradox.

How does this godly pride change the believer into a healthy Christian?

He becomes open and transparent. The structure of our church, I think, contributes to the development of the kind of personality that becomes open. An old architectural adage says that the person designs the structure, and from that point on the structure designs the person. You make the choice, but from that point on, the choice makes your choices.

However, in talking about our relation to Christians, we have to remember one thing: At the beginning we were a mission. We were not a church, and we hope we still aren’t. A church is a group of redeemed people who have stepped out of the world and made their commitment. They live under discipline, namely, the lordship of Christ, and under the Scripture as the Spirit interprets it to them.

Church and Mission

You are not a church?

We are a mission first, and a church second. When we came in here, we were a mission, not a church. I hope we never change that perspective. This gets me in trouble with people, because I say that unless the church is a mission first and a church second, we have not kept on reforming.

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Consider Martin Luther. He was baptized when he was born. The Protestant church wasn’t born as a new mission group. It was born as a midflight correction to that vehicle called the Christian church, which was launched at Pentecost. Luther’s role was to correct a defect in the church, and this was Calvin’s role too. Calvin emphasized the proclaimed Word, the sacraments of ministry, and discipline—but the throbbing flame of missions wasn’t there. Later, because of this emphasis on church and deemphasis on mission, the early missionaries from England had a difficult time when they wanted to go out and evangelize the world.

Would you consider the nucleus of your own people, the Christian people here, the church?

Absolutely. Now here we come into the big problem. When a mission succeeds, what do you have? A church. People who are now converted, born again, want the deeper Scripture—and if I gave them what they wanted, we would cease to be a mission. This is because they would be satisfied, and our church would stop growing. But that was not how they were saved in the first place.

Then where do they get what they need in order to grow?

They could get it in morning church if we made a calculated decision to say that we are no longer a mission but a church. We have 10,753 members. They hold down volunteer positions serving Christ in this mission. Suppose we were to change our approach and say, “Now were going to be a church. Now well switch our present Sunday morning service from topical and relational preaching to expository preaching.” If we did that, I know what the future of this church would be—dull and boring.

We haven’t gone that route. But to answer your question, Christians get what they need in an adult Sunday school class rather than in the worship service. Or they get it Sunday night, when we expound the Bible.

You started a mission, but are you still a mission?

We certainly are. Were a mission first and a church second. I believe any church can grow if it is willing to die as a church and be born again as a mission. To balance that I would also say that a mission fails unless it becomes a church. It’s a perpetual tension, a delicate one to maintain. If you don’t have a strong doctrine of the Holy Spirit, you’d better get out.

Sin and the New Reformation

Many people read your book Self-esteem: The New Reformation. They say to themselves, “Dr. Schuller believes in the doctrines of the old Reformation, and yet he seems to be posing a new Reformation.” Could you mention the salient points of the old Reformation you completely agree with?

My strongest point of agreement concerns salvation by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God. That is the core of what I am trying to say in my book Self-esteem. To be saved by grace through faith centers in nonjudgmental love. It does not deny—but obviously immediately implies—that we are lost. It implies that sin is all pervasive. And it says that we have a positive healing message to preach.

A person reading Self-esteem might not always be sure what you mean by some of the terms used in the Reformation and the Bible. When you refer to sin, do you mean something different than, say, Billy Graham means?

Actually, I made a commitment to Jesus when Billy preached at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. And I have signed the Lausanne Covenant. It has been said that I am just an old Protestant liberal; that is just not true. I think the old-fashioned liberals had a weak doctrine of Christology.

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Do you subscribe to the historic creeds of the church?

Yes, I accept the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds.

Is the Christology of the Reformers different from yours?

Absolutely not! I don’t have a single problem with the Christology of Calvin or Luther.

People question your understanding of the relation of sin to mission.

Something is terribly wrong in the area of theology today, because people aren’t responding to the gospel as they should. Were forced to say either that we have a poor product, or that we don’t understand it well enough to communicate it in terms listeners can grasp. If they’re dying, and they are; and going to hell, and they are; and we have the best thing in the world, and it’s free; then why aren’t they flocking in? Somebody is doing something wrong. I say we’re doing something wrong, and they’ve got a big problem. Their problem arises from being permeated with sin. Our job is to figure out how to present the living Christ in a way that people will effectively meet him.

One reviewer says you hold to the red letter New Testament—a version that presents the words of Christ in red letters. He thinks you believe the rest of the Bible is neither verbally inspired nor inerrant. Is he correct?

I believe all the Scriptures are the Word of God, infallible for faith and practice. I have no problem with the plenary view of inspiration.

Could you elaborate on that?

I accept the Lausanne Covenant. The Bible is inerrant in all that it affirms.

When you come across a passage in the Pauline epistles, how would you handle it?

I have published something I should have scratched out in my final draft. I wrote that a new Reformation should start under the lordship of Christ, because we are on safer ground there than we are with Paul. That was a red flag for a lot of people.

Did you mean that Paul is not important, but Jesus is?

Not at all. The essence of our Reformed theology is Pauline. I have no problem with Romans in its classical interpretation. But Self-esteem is a primer. I’ve thrown out a lifebuoy to someone who is drowning. What I’ve said is scriptural, and is summed up in Colossians 127, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The Book of Romans provides a powerful base for a theology of human dignity through salvation by grace. We are declared righteous by faith. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, freely given to us through faith.

When you look at your congregation or imagine your TV audience, do you believe you are seeing people who are bonafide sinners?

What is a bona fide sinner? I see “sinners” as persons who have failed to come to a saving faith in Christ.

When you see people who do not have self-esteem, is your preaching designed to start them down the road toward getting it?

Yes. And how can I help them get it? By introducing them to Jesus Christ. Self-esteem comes when a person realizes that Christ, who died an atoning death for him, comes to live in him through the Holy Spirit.

Misunderstanding may arise because you are translating biblical concepts. Do you get an equivalent concept if you use psychological language instead of the original biblical language?

That question may have to be answered with another one. How do we communicate with people in today’s un-Christian culture who do not understand us, or are unwilling to listen to us, when we use biblical language?

But have you changed the content? For instance, your TV hymnody seems to lack penitential hymns.

I believe in penitence, but not mortification. This is an area we need to refine in Reformation theology. We still have some hangovers from medieval Roman Catholic theology, and one is the mortification mentality. This says that unless I put myself down, I am not really repenting. That’s a mistake, We must turn to the light. That’s positive, not negative. Otherwise we manipulate people. Before the Reformation, this created the need for the confessional. In the process it led people to contradict their own profession of salvation by grace through faith. Today an incorrect preaching of repentance makes it a good work.

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Are you saying that the key to repentance is thinking right about yourself?

The key to repentance is plugging into a personal relationship with Jesus. It’s choosing to live by faith.

Dealing with Sin: Jesus and Paul

Is your starting point different from traditional Reformation theology?

In the midst of our concentration on Christology, and on the authority of Scripture, we have missed another constant—the theology of the human being. People say that we should start with God and then go on to man. I say, what is wrong with starting out with the theology of man? This is what A. H. Strong did in his Systematic Theology; volume one was on anthropology. The Heidelberg catechism also starts with a man-centered theology. Its first question is, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”

How do you contrast a man-centered with a God-centered theology?

I am constantly criticized along this line, especially by seminary professors. I don’t believe that I hold to a man-centered theology just because I begin with a person’s problems. But at any rate, many experts today have abandoned the theology of the human being.

What do you mean?

What is a “whole” human being? What was the psychological condition of Adam and Eve before the Fall? Freud asked questions like this, using different terminology. He was an atheist, but he was trying to come up with a “theology” of the human being. It upsets me that we have abandoned that entire theological discussion to a new discipline. So today it is secular psychology that is telling the world what a human being is. Freud says it is “will to pleasure.” Adler says it is will to “power.” Frankl says it is “will to meaning.” I believe the Bible teaches it is the “will to dignity.” My view is that I was created to become a child of God. That’s creation theology. Its Reformed theology, too.

Many people who read your books, or listen to the “Hour of Power,” hear you say, “You need self-esteem. Turn to Christ and you will find it. You will find that you have this in creation and in redemption through Christ.” Then they turn to the apostle Paul in Romans. He writes a long section showing that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” So they ask, “If Bob Schuller is really biblical, why doesn’t he say more about sin?”

It’s because I prefer the model of Jesus to the model of Paul.

Are they different?

Yes.

How?

Jesus never called a person a sinner.

Do you mean when he was preaching the gospel?

That’s right.

Didn’t he call the Pharisees hypocrites?

Yes, but they were the theological elite who operated under the umbrella of an unchallengeable religious authority. They appointed themselves the only ones who could say, “This is a sin. That is a sin.” So they generated a sense of guilt. Then they linked this to a contrived view of atonement by telling people to cut the throat of a dove in the temple. By this process they were contributing to the guilt of the people rather than showing them the true heart of God.

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Didn’t Jesus call parents sinners when he said, “If you being evil know how to give good gifts to your children…”?

That’s true, they are evil. He did not deny the reality of evil, but he didn’t point a finger and say, “You’re a sinner, Mary.” “You’re a sinner, Peter.” It’s a question of how we communicate, a question of strategy.

Then you’re not denying the presence of evil?

Of course not. I’m preaching about problems a great deal.

What do you find particularly difficult about Paul’s understanding of sin?

He wasn’t as sensitive as Jesus was in telling people what they were like. I don’t put Paul and Jesus on an equal level. Paul was still a sinful human being. Jesus was the sinless Son of God. I have no problem with Paul’s theology. But I much prefer Jesus as the model of how to communicate to sinful people about their lostness.

In the process of becoming a Christian, do you believe it is necessary to recognize that we are sinful people, and therefore need something beyond ourselves, something that Christ offers?

Of course I do! I end every sermon with a statement that the listener needs the help of God Almighty and Jesus Christ. But I think this is the crucial question: How do we best address the subject of sin redemptively—that is, in a way that will save a person, not turn him away?

Law and Gospel

Do you ever want people to feel their guilt?

Do you think God wants people to feel their guilt? I think he wants them to experience his saving grace.

Is one not preparatory to the other?

Yes, but it’s a question of strategies. One is classical—”You’re a sinner.” In this approach we try to create conviction of sin. It’s dangerous because the person is not sure were that good ourselves. (It’s not even the strategy Jesus used, and he could have gotten away with it because he was perfect.) The second problem with this approach is that it provokes subconscious defenses that do our cause more harm than good.

Are you then saying that the law should come after the gospel, and not precede it, because of the tactical problems involved? Do you believe it is a better strategy simply to preach the gospel first, in the belief that afterward people will realize more clearly that they are sinners?

I believe that if I lead people into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, I’ve done my job, because it’s impossible for them to experience him without then becoming aware of their sinfulness.

When one asks, “What is the immediate good news you are preaching?” you seem to be saying that this is the way to get self-esteem and feel good about yourself. This can only happen if you turn to Jesus.

That’s right. I’m trying to reach people at a point of need. The secret of success is to find a need and fill it. That’s why I have a problem-centered ministry. I’ve discussed “impossibility thinking,” because then secularists will at least listen to me. By that phrase I mean lack of faith. I am saying a person is unhappy because he is not the kind of person Adam was before the Fall.

Would this be a fair statement of your position: “All of us are sinners. In my strategy of evangelizing I am not going to make an issue of that fact. I want to start from some other point than the classic point that says, ‘You are sinners; therefore, you need Christ’”?

I think you have correctly understood my strategy and spirit and style. It hasn’t changed the substance of the gospel.

How do you feel about the people you are speaking to?

I’m terribly sensitive to people out there. I don’t want to insult them or embarrass them. Jesus was very sensitive to people.

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You are saying they need forgiveness for sin, but their felt need is lack of self-esteem?

Right. I wish you could meet some of the people who have accepted Christ because of this strategy. I haven’t artificially stimulated their guilt and shame and fear of hell, and then exploited it.

Do you believe in hell?

Yes, because I believe in heaven. You can’t have the one without the other.

But you are saying that we will exist somewhere after death?

Yes, in heaven or hell. Either in a state of perpetual shame or in state of perpetual “I am somebody because I am Jesus’ friend.”

In Touch with the Secular Mind

In your preaching, how critical is the emotional situation of the non-Christian?

When I came to the city of Garden Grove, I asked, “What human condition exists here that I can have a mission to?” My answer was, “The condition of being emotionally hungry.” Because of that, we have developed our present ministry.

Do you believe the apostle Paul taught us a specific approach?

No. I don’t think he ever intended to teach us a methodology of evangelism.

Is that why you feel free not to follow his methods?

Am I not? Paul used many methods. He said, I am made all things to all men that I might by all means save some.”

Does the Book of Romans contain the essence of the gospel?

Absolutely, and that gospel is the foundation for a theology of self-esteem. Some time ago I was speaking with some theologians whose beliefs were faultless. But they had no consciousness of how their theology touched the daily thought and emotional systems of real people. They simply were not touching the hurts of people.

What do you see as the basic question facing the church today?

How can the worldwide body of believers be motivated to fulfill the Great Commission, and do it with compassion? The world is rushing toward secularism. I believe this is because secularism is meeting a lot of human needs, or it wouldn’t grow. Cannot those human needs be met better by the gospel of Christ?

Secularism says, “Oh, you want to build self-esteem? Get a Mercedes. Or carry a Gucci handbag.” For me, this poses another basic question the church must face: “How do we resolve the conflict between the ‘theology’ of comfort and success, and the theology of discipleship under the Cross?”

Do you ever wish you could alter statements you made in Self-esteem about the relation of Paul to Jesus?

A publishing deadline forced me to focus that book on the Lord’s Prayer. If I had had time, I probably would have preferred to base the theology on Romans.

In Self-esteem you say something like this: “What is sin? Sin is a lack of self-esteem.” Some of us back up from that and say, “Well, is not sin the presence of evil, or the condition of evil, or the bent to evil?”

Yes. Sin is separation from God. Evil, then, is inevitable.

How do you relate this to your evangelism?

The church must develop a theology for mission. I don’t think it’s done that. I accept John 3:16 as a good one if people have a fear of hell. Maybe they have, but I find a lot of secular people haven’t. At what point can I find a button to push so that I can reach them? I think their desire for self-esteem is that button.

Sin and Nonjudgmental Love

Could you enlarge upon your definition of sin?

Some say it is any thought, act, or word which, either by omission or commission, separates me from God. I don’t disagree with that, but I don’t think it goes quite deep enough.

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Here is an illustration: Suppose you were invited to a party where people were dressed to kill; you might feel very Self-conscious. You might ask, “Are my pants pressed? Am I wearing the right tie?” We are threatened by people who are above us. Now, Jesus is above us all. I suspect that, if you nailed them down, 98 percent of all non-Christians would say that Jesus was truly great. Why don’t they go to him? For the same reason you don’t like to go to a full-dress party—because you’re not sure you’re dressed well enough. We all possess a profound insecurity, a sense of unworthiness. We fear being rejected. We fear we are not good enough. We lack self-esteem.

Some people seem to be hearing you say, “You are good enough.”

I’m telling them they’re good enough to go straight to Jesus, because he says, “Him that cometh to me I shall in no wise cast out.”

But they are not good enough to get to heaven on their own merit?

Stop! Ive never said that. Romans tells me I am somebody because Christ has accepted me.

Are you talking about grace?

Yes. But most people are not taught to speak of it in a way that comes across as nonjudgmental love. I have the experience of being accepted by the Ideal One, who knows me at my worst but treats me as if I were as holy as he is. That is the kind of human experience no secular psychologist has ever dreamed of, yet we have it with Jesus.

Recovering Our Birthright: Self-Esteem Through Christ

Some are wondering whether your quarrel with the Reformers is over their theology or their methodology?

Methodology. The basic method is to treat all people as beautiful human beings even if you know—and especially if you know—how bad they are.

The word self-esteem is a little ambiguous. It can mean a recognition that one is a being of worth. The alternative says that self-esteem is self-centered praise of myself for what I am. Are you saying the first but not the second?

That’s right.

Could you then define self-esteem once more?

Self-esteem is the divine dignity that God intended to be our emotional birthright as children created in his image. It was lost in the Garden. We hunger for it until we regain it through faith in Christ.

Do you suppose that one problem you face in communicating this is that the term self-esteem is used by other people to mean something very different?

Yes. I see true self-esteem as the sense of value that comes to me when I have been restored to a relationship with God as the heavenly Father, and I have the assurance that I am worth a lot. Christ has died on the cross for me. If he thinks that much of me, I had better start thinking something good about myself.

Our discussion has ranged widely, from the Crystal Cathedral to the Garden of Eden. Is your ministry your answer to some single dominant question that continually burns in your mind?

It is.

What is that question?

Where can I best invest my life to tell others about Jesus Christ?

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