When the Rev. Robert H. Schuller started his Orange County ministry in 1955, he took out ads proclaiming a new way for the faithful to attend church: “Come as you are, in the family car!”
At a drive-in movie theater off the Santa Ana Freeway on a Sunday morning in March, Schuller strode upon the snack bar's tar-paper roof, microphone in hand. His wife, Arvella, played an organ that the couple towed on a trailer behind their station wagon. Worshipers in a few dozen cars listened on drive-in speakers clamped to their windows as the amiable young preacher urged upon them a divinely inspired optimism.
“But Jesus beheld them,” he intoned, “and said unto them, ‘With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.'”
The collection that week totaled $83.75 — an inauspicious start for one of America's most successful evangelists, an apostle of marketing who used to call his church “a shopping center for Jesus Christ.”
Schuller, who built the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove as the embodiment of an upbeat, modern vision of Christianity, only to see his ministry shattered by family discord and financial ruin, died Thursday at a care facility in Artesia. He was 88 and had esophageal cancer.
After a working life of great success and influence, Schuller was forced to watch from retirement as much of what he built was laid to waste. In October 2010, his church, then led by his daughter Sheila Schuller Coleman, declared bankruptcy. That led to the sale of the cathedral and surrounding property to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in February 2012.
Changing tastes, financial overreach and squabbling over a successor were factors in the collapse. Schuller had turned over his pulpit first to his son, Robert A. Schuller, and then to Coleman. In March 2010, he and his wife formally cut ties to the ministry they had founded, bemoaning the “negative and adversarial atmosphere” enveloping the church's leadership.
It was an ignominious end to what had been one of the greatest success stories of postwar American Christianity.
The silver-haired evangelist rose from humble beginnings to become one of the late 20th century's most recognized religious figures.
He created the weekly “Hour of Power” television show that at its peak popularity attracted an international audience of millions, wrote dozens of books with titles such as “Turning Hurts Into Halos” and “If It's Going to Be, It's Up to Me,” and built a 40-acre church campus with buildings so striking that the American Institute of Architects gave him its first lifetime achievement award in 2001.
Schuller's popularity rested in his avuncular public manner, tireless energy and unique approach to Christianity that blended pop psychology, unbridled optimism and the Gospel. Offering an alternative to the fire-and-brimstone preacher, Schuller taught that believing in Jesus Christ — along with the power of “possibility thinking” — provided the keys to leading a successful and fulfilling life.
Schuller's ability to think big — and his knack for satisfying congregants' spiritual hunger in practical ways — led to the creation of one of the world's first seeker-sensitive megachurches, drawing 10,000 people to its membership rolls and attracting worldwide television audiences of an estimated 30 million for its Sunday services.
“Find a need and fill it, find a hurt and heal it” was the church's mission.
A generation of megachurch pastors was influenced by Schuller's approach, including bestselling authors Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest and Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago. Although those pastors and others attracted new generations of churchgoers, Schuller's audience mostly aged with him.
“Robert Schuller was one of the original pioneers of the megachurch movement,” said Donald E. Miller, executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC. “However, his message of positive thinking became frozen in time — appealing to an aging audience of adults but never really connected to the post-boomer generation.”
One of Schuller's legacies is the Crystal Cathedral — since renamed Christ Cathedral — a Philip Johnson-designed structure made of steel and 10,000 panes of glass. Using the pastor's desire for an open-air worship space as inspiration, Johnson created a building where congregants could feel connected to God by gazing out the 12-story-high glass walls and ceiling to view the sky, clouds, trees and birds. Completed in 1980, it cost $20 million to build.
“The Crystal Cathedral is not an attempt to be an architectural ego-statement,” Schuller said in a 1997 interview with the American Academy of Achievement. “It's probably the ultimate spiritual and psychological statement that could be made in architectural terms.”
Until money problems surfaced at the Crystal Cathedral, Schuller had steered clear of the scandals that led to the downfall of other televangelists. But he did receive a steady stream of criticism from some Christians — including those within his denomination — for his downplaying of sin, tying popular psychology too closely to the Gospel and constructing a series of world-class buildings with millions of dollars that could have been spent on the poor.
The church's bankruptcy filing ultimately revealed a pattern of lavish spending, including generous salaries and benefits for Schuller family members on the church staff. With the congregation aging and donations dwindling, Schuller's ministry could not be sustained.
Born near Alton, Iowa, on Sept. 16, 1926, Schuller was the fifth child of Dutch immigrant parents who lived in a farmhouse without electricity or plumbing. Schuller said he first knew he wanted to be a pastor at age 4 after his missionary uncle returned from China and predicted that was his destiny. Each evening for the next 20 years, Schuller said, he prayed to God to become a pastor.
In addition, many days “I would stand in my solitude on the hills by the river, preaching to an imaginary congregation, imitating the sounds and gestures of a seasoned preacher,” Schuller wrote.
Nonathletic and overweight as a child, Schuller gained confidence by singing in a high school quartet that won the Iowa state championships. In college, he competed in a tournament in California, a state whose geography wowed him. He vowed to return someday.
A graduate of Hope College in Holland, Mich., Schuller fell in love with an 18-year-old church organist, Arvella DeHann, while attending nearby Western Theology Seminary. During a three-week period in 1950, he graduated from the seminary, married and was ordained by the Reformed Church in America, a Protestant denomination with roots in the Calvinist Reformation of the 1500s.
Schuller began a five-year stint as a pastor of a Chicago church and discovered the power of delivering simple, positive sermons that spoke to congregants' everyday lives.
“Miraculously, lives in our tiny congregation began to transform,” Schuller wrote in his biography. “The congregation began to grow.... I realized that every sermon I preached should be designed not to ‘teach' or ‘convert' people, but rather to encourage them, to give them a lift. I decided to adopt the spirit, style, strategy and substance of a ‘therapist' in the pulpit.”
In 1955, Schuller — with $500, his wife and two babies — headed to Orange County to start a church. Finding no available worship space, he rented the drive-in.
Holding church services in such a secular setting brought a wave of criticism upon Schuller, including a call from a fellow Reformed Church pastor enraged that the congregation met in the “passion pit” of a drive-in theater where ungodly acts happened.
Nevertheless, the drive-in church grew quickly, with congregants often arriving in their pajamas and listening to the service through tinny speakers clipped to the inside of their car windows.
A fan of Norman Vincent Peale, Schuller invited the author of “The Power of Positive Thinking” to his drive-in church, beginning a decades-long friendship.
“I built my church on Easter services, Christmas Eve services and Norman Vincent Peale,” Schuller would often say.
In 1961, architect Richard Neutra designed for Schuller the world's first “walk-in-drive-in” church building in Garden Grove. The controversial $5-million structure — deemed undignified by some — caused 40 members of his congregation, including some of the leadership, to leave in protest. They also had grown uneasy with Schuller's messages because he didn't preach enough from the Bible.
The rift, according to early Schuller biographers and friends Mike and Donna Nason, caused the pastor to be so “haunted” by “the fear of failure” that he became paranoid, temperamental and even feared that he was losing his mind.
They describe Schuller as “a broken man … his hair turned prematurely gray practically overnight.”
Despite the controversy, the church continued to grow so rapidly that Schuller was able to set up the Institute for Successful Church Leadership, which is credited, by some, for launching the megachurch movement. Pastors from around the country came to Garden Grove to learn Schuller's secrets, which included providing ample parking and going door-to-door asking nearby residents what they would like in a church.
In 1970, Schuller became the first pastor to televise his weekly services. The “Hour of Power” program remains on the air today, featuring Schuller's grandson Bobby. Broadcast on cable TV and locally on KTLA Channel 5, it also is streamed on the Internet.
The “Hour of Power” raised the pastor's national profile and set the stage for building the 3,000-seat Crystal Cathedral. The building was dedicated in 1980 and featured a giant outdoor television screen so congregants could still attend services in their cars.
The Crystal Cathedral soon became a draw for various activities and entertainers — the list became secular enough that state officials deemed the venue too much of a commercial venture and temporarily stripped the property of its tax exemption. In the end, Schuller paid part of the back taxes the state sought, and the church was again declared tax-exempt.
By 1987, the scandals that had engulfed Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker created fundraising shortfalls for other televangelists, including Schuller. His “Hour of Power” and ministry were forced to make major budget cuts and layoffs. But the church was able to rebound.
In 1989, before the Iron Curtain fell, Schuller became the first pastor to preach on television in the Soviet Union. As a sign of its influence, five U.S. presidents made appearances on the 1,000th “Hour of Power” show in 1990.
Away from the pulpit, Schuller was often quick-tempered and controlling. In a lengthy Times profile in 1983, Bella Stumbo wrote that privately the pastor — “particularly among strangers but even around his faithful staff, friends and wife — is often surprisingly aloof, stiff and uncomfortable, sullen and sour at times, defensive at others. In conversation, he is perpetually dominant, both condescending and pedantic. He displays not the slightest trace of spontaneous humor, rarely smiles and never seems to laugh.”
In 1997, Schuller's temper became public after he “aggressively” grabbed a flight attendant by the shoulders in a dispute over service in first class. The pastor was charged with misdemeanor assault on a flight attendant but avoided a trial by apologizing, paying a $1,100 fine and agreeing to six months of supervision by a federal case officer.
In the 21st century, Schuller put the finishing touches on his church campus, adding a $40-million International Center for Possibility Thinking, designed by Getty Center architect Richard Meier. It served as a visitors center and was included in the sale to the Catholic Church.
Schuller's wife, Arvella, died last year. He is survived by their son Robert Anthony and daughters Sheila Coleman, Jeanne Dunn, Carol Milner and Gretchen Penner; and 19 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
A public memorial service is planned for Christ Cathedral. A date has not been set yet.
Lobdell is a former Times staff writer.
Times staff writer Steve Chawkins contributed to this report.