Robert Schuller's early life was stamped by a natural disaster. One summer when he was home from college, he and his father spotted the tail of a tornado slithering down from the sky as they were working on the family pig farm in northwest Iowa. They raced away from the twister in their family car, and when they returned after the storm had cleared, they found absolute destruction. The house, barn, and outbuildings had been completely leveled. The pigs were dead, and the corn was flattened. Even the trees had been uprooted.
Schuller's father was a taciturn Dutchman. He said little about the loss and simply offered an early iteration of Possibility Thinking: "Never look at what you have lost. Always look at what you have left."
The next morning he found a dilapidated house in a nearby town, bought a section of it for $50, and proceeded, with his son's help, to take it apart. Every shingle and every nail were saved. Even the concrete blocks of the foundation were pulled apart and repurposed. A new house was built on the old site. Fields were replanted using a borrowed horse and a homemade plow. In a few years, they were prosperous again. And Schuller never forgot his father's refusal to accept defeat.
As a boy, Schuller was known for dreams. His wife, Arvella, saw it in high school. "He was so exciting . . . so sure of himself. He loved the spotlight. . . . He had bigger dreams than anyone I had ever met in my life."
Those dreams were tied to Christian ministry. The youngest of five children, Schuller went off to the Reformed Church's Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and then to neighboring Western Theological Seminary. Graduating in 1950, he promptly married Arvella and moved to a Chicago suburb to take up a small, flagging church. In four years, the church grew from 40 members to 400. Schuller relentlessly walked the streets to build the congregation, calling door to door.
He could've stayed and prospered, but he was drawn to wider horizons. In 1955, the Schuller family—now four in number—moved to Garden Grove, California, to start a church. Garden Grove was mainly farms and fields, but construction for Disneyland was being finished only two miles down the road.
Always in a hurry, Schuller scoured the area for a place to meet, but he couldn't find one. So he settled on a drive-in theater, which he rented for $10 a week. Thus began a strange experiment in church life.
Today, the emerging church has familiarized us with services in coffee shops and bars. But nobody in 1955 saw the future of holding a service in a drive-in theater. Schuller pulled the family organ on-site every Sunday morning in a trailer, and Arvella would play hymns while Schuller preached from the top of the snack bar. An A-frame ladder enclosing a wooden cross was propped up behind him, thus church-ifying the space. "Worship as you are in the family car," fliers suggested. Forty-six cars came the first Sunday.
What began as expediency soon became a philosophy. Grandson Bobby Schuller said, "Everything begins with the drive-in movie theater. People could come to church without really coming to church. He reached out to wounded, broken people who were afraid of the church experience. It was the beginning of the seeker-sensitive movement."
More conventionally, Schuller bought property and quickly built a 300-seat chapel. But people kept attending the drive-in. Schuller settled on two services: He preached at the chapel and then raced to the Orange Drive-In to preach again. Eventually, the church split over his vision of combining the two. He won a 52-48 vote to build a "walk-in, drive-in church." Much of the losing half left the church.
Schuller managed to hire internationally-known architect Richard Neutra. In 1961, they dedicated a 1,700-seat auditorium with room for 2,000 cars to duplicate the drive-in theater experience. A huge glass door allowed Schuller to walk outside to address people in their cars.
Seven years later, the church purchased an adjacent walnut grove, with plans for the spectacular Crystal Cathedral. It too featured huge doors that opened onto a parking lot. The drive-in aspect of Schuller's church gradually withered away. Television replaced it, offering an even more convenient way to participate in church.
The Hour of Power and the Crystal Cathedral
When Billy Graham came to the Anaheim Stadium in 1969, Schuller was particularly impressed by Graham's mobile television facilities. Six months later, with Graham's encouragement, he began broadcasting throughout the Los Angeles area. Soon The Hour of Power was buying air time all over the country. Robert Schuller, with his twinkling eyes and mischievous grin, his flamboyant and optimistic spirit conveyed in slogans and sweeping gestures, became a household presence.
He was likeable. He was encouraging. He eliminated the sharp edges of religion. Schuller's target audience was the same group that had come to his drive-in church. He hoped to reach people who wouldn't go to church because they didn't want to deal with the people. You could do church in your pajamas, with a hangover.
The Crystal Cathedral, which opened ten years and $20 million later, was a set for the TV show. Designed by world-famous architect Philip Johnson, it suggested a dream church, with an open view to the sky. To be sure, Schuller's Garden Grove Community Church inhabited the building as a vital, active local congregation. But the television church became Schuller's reference point, the tail that wagged the dog, and—eventually—a hungry monster that ate the dog.
'New Thought' Idealist or Gospel Preacher?
During his seminary years, Schuller studied John Calvin's Institutes with unusual seriousness and developed a detailed index of the entire work. He always insisted that he was a Calvinist, but he also insisted that he was a missionary who had to communicate the gospel to people who no longer lived in Calvin's God-centered universe.
Schuller's grandson Bobby said that "a lot of people who walked into church in the '80s walked in because they were warmed up by Dr. Schuller." That was his objective. In Orange County, he encountered people who didn't know the Old Testament from the New and didn't care. If he was going to build a big church—and Schuller always thought big—he had to talk in a language that appealed to these indifferent people.
Schuller understood that Southern California residents wanted a life liberated from the narrowness of small-town traditions, including church. With remarkable entrepreneurial energy and great communication skills, Schuller offered a new, clean, beautiful, and uplifting form of Christianity. He did for church what Disneyland did for amusement parks. Schuller pitched perfectly to the same upper-middle-class white audiences who would fall in love with the affable Ronald Reagan. "He offered a more inclusive, generous kind of American religion. In that sense he was a unifying voice, shunning doctrinal debates," said Darren Dochuk, history professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
When Schuller was a young pastor in Illinois, he was heavily influenced by Norman Vincent Peale, a fellow Reformed Church pastor who published The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952. Peale actually preached for Schuller in the drive-in theater church, drawing throngs, and he preached at the first services of the drive-in, walk-in church in 1961.
Schuller acquired Peale's fascination with psychology, along with his optimistic belief in the possibility of changing your destiny by changing your thoughts. Schuller found that psychologists gave him more insight into the human condition than theologians did. He encouraged people to believe in themselves, to have faith in God, and to love. It was self-help optimism in the name of Jesus.
Schuller always wore a clerical robe, his church's music was organ and hymnody (though the hymns were never about repentance or the church), his church buildings had gardens and splashing fountains before shopping malls adopted them, and he stayed out of politics and controversy. Messages left no room for gloomy reflections; those were to be overcome with faith, hope, and love.
As an opening for missionary opportunities, that was defensible. But Schuller saw it as something more: an entirely new expression of orthodoxy. In 1982, he published Self-Esteem: The New Reformation. Sensitive and anxious for approval, Schuller compared his insights to those of Martin Luther, proposing that the church would not survive unless it superseded the guilt-ridden, sin-obsessed religion of the Reformers. "God's ultimate objective is to turn you and me into self-confident persons," he wrote. "Dare to be a possibility thinker! . . . God's almost impossible task is to keep us believing every hour of every day how great we are as his sons and daughters on planet earth." Reviewers were not kind.
In 1984, CT sent theologians Kenneth Kantzer and David Wells for an extensive interview with Schuller. Schuller gave them a detailed explanation of his views on sin and repentance, which he had thought through in a thorough if non-scholarly way. Schuller failed to satisfy them that his ideas were fully biblical, but they did come away convinced that he was no New Thought idealist posing as a servant of Jesus. His ambition was to claim as many people as possible for the God of the Bible.
Calvin College communications professor Quentin Schultze, who often watched Schuller's TV show, says that Schuller regularly went beyond self-help to present the gospel. He never lost his evangelical convictions, and his Garden Grove congregation was solidly gospel-centered. How much his TV audience benefited is not so certain.
The problem with trying to meet a cultural moment is that you may be buried in it. America changed again, becoming more polarized and doctrinaire. Culture wars made it harder to find middle ground in sunny optimism.
"TV's insatiable appetite for more led to a wide range of problems," says Schultze. "Ministries that wanted to continue growing required more and more money from a diminishing supply. Constant financial difficulties [meant they] had to create special promotions." Some televangelists used emotional appeals based on moral or political concerns. Schuller's audience would not have liked that. "What Schuller tried to do with fundraising was books and jewelry. He was a religious jewelry salesman. He offered some new dove earring almost every week."
TV also requires nimble and crystal-clear leadership. The slow processes of ecclesiastical democracy would never have moved fast enough. Schuller's church was overshadowed by its TV ministry, which was run by members of Schuller's family. All five children and their spouses worked with Schuller.
In 2006, he named his son Robert as his heir. In 2008, citing differences in vision, he reneged on that plan and announced that his daughter Sheila had become head pastor. In 2010, bankruptcy was announced. In 2011, Schuller was removed from the Hour of Power board. And in 2012, the church buildings were sold to the Catholic Church. The congregation was forced to move. (In 1980, when the Crystal Cathedral opened, it was "debt free." But the television ministry certainly was not, and it owned the building.) All in all, it was a sad ending to a dazzling ministry.
Why Schuller Matters
To focus on the demise of the Crystal Cathedral is to miss the bigger story of Robert Schuller. He was driven by a missionary calling to reach people who had distanced themselves from traditional church-going. Brilliant at understanding and adapting to his time, he reached millions. He built one of the earliest megachurches, with a strong and deeply orthodox ministry. He passed along his vision to other pastors, becoming a significant force in the development of the seeker-sensitive movement. Rick Warren, among many others, profited from Schuller's teaching. A pioneer in Christian television, Schuller was never caught in a scandal—personal or financial. Even those who know his faults intimately speak of him with great love and loyalty.
We need Schuller's missional creativity today—more than ever. Americans are increasingly resistant to the church. Many don't want to worship "as you are, in the family car," or in any other way. The church needs new leaders with creative approaches to emerge. And these new leaders will face the same challenges that Schuller did: How do you tell the gospel creatively and attractively, using modern terminology and technology, without straying from orthodoxy? How do you build an institutional support structure that is nimble yet strong? Can a local church be combined with a global media empire? What do you do when times change and your most creative approaches become outdated?
When you have a well-known reputation, when you have a large budget, when you must produce an hour-long show each week for a loyal audience on whom you're financially dependent, it's difficult, and perhaps impossible, to adapt yet again. Times change, and big organizations find it hard to change with them. That explains Schuller's predicament in the end.
We can learn from Schuller's failures, but we need a continuing renewal of his audacious, optimistic spirit. He loved God and gave his life to the church. Moreover, he loved those who were far from the church and he was driven to find ways to reach them. He really was a Possibility Thinker; it was not just a slogan. That is his legacy.
Tim Stafford, CT editor at large, is the author of The Adam Quest: Eleven Scientists Who Held on to a Strong Faith While Wrestling with the Mystery of Human Origins (Thomas Nelson).
See also CT's August 10, 1984, issue, which included a lengthy interview with Schuller, his view of sin, and Kenneth Kantzer's assessment of Schuller's theology.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more