The Rev. Robert H. Schuller handed over the leadership of the Crystal Cathedral to his only son on Sunday, ending a half-century as pastor of a church he started in a drive-in movie theater in Orange County and built into a worldwide ministry.
Schuller, 79, waited until the close of his New Year’s Day sermon to announce that Robert A. Schuller would succeed him as senior pastor Jan. 22. He will also take over the popular “Hour of Power,” a religious program broadcast around the world.
“Bob needs your prayers,” Schuller said, fighting back tears, his strong voice wavering with emotion. “But it is up to the congregation, not this guy or that guy -- to make it happen.”
The younger Schuller asked the congregation for help. “I need your prayers. I covet your prayers. From the time I was born, God has equipped me and allowed me to take on this incredible challenge. I am honored and humbled.”
Like the pastor sons of evangelists Billy Graham and Oral Roberts, Robert A. Schuller, 51, follows a well-known figure of 20th century American Protestantism. But unlike televangelists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the elder Schuller stayed out of politics.
He set the tone for his upbeat ministry by first preaching from the roof of a drive-in theater snack bar in 1955. Setting aside the fire-and-brimstone sermons then common, Schuller developed a relentlessly optimistic form of Christianity that linked the power of positive thinking and self-esteem with uplifting Gospel messages. The mix was appealing enough to pack his church and attract millions of TV viewers around the world.
His ministry became a model for the thousands of nondenominational congregations -- including some of the nation’s largest churches -- that have popped up in recent decades to serve believers uncomfortable with the formality of old-line faiths.
“Schuller is to be credited as one of the inventors of the megachurch,” said Donald E. Miller, director for USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. “I suppose he is also someone who caused critics to raise questions whether this was just about marketing or about the truth of religion.”
A devotee of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the power-of-positive-thinking pioneer, Schuller has written more than 30 books, including five New York Times bestsellers. His writing is filled with aphorisms such as “inch by inch, it’s a cinch,” “turn your scars into stars” and “I will bloom where I am planted today!”
Schuller’s message of optimism found favor among world leaders and celebrities, including every U.S. president from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, industrialist Armand Hammer, Mother Teresa, deposed Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and Coretta Scott King.
“Robert Schuller has had a major religious impact, not only in the United States, but in many parts of the world through his writings and television broadcasts,” the Rev. Billy Graham said in a statement. The TV programs offered some of the first Christian broadcasting in the Soviet Union.
“Rev. Robert H. Schuller’s great legacy will be his creative use of television to bring the message of Jesus Christ to the world,” said Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles. “He was always searching for new ways to bring the Gospel message to as many people as possible.”
The elder Schuller built the sprawling church complex in Garden Grove, including a glass-walled cathedral with 10,000 panes of glass, so architecturally rich that he received a lifetime achievement award from the American Institute of Architects.
Schuller’s presence will still be felt throughout the ministry with its $72-million budget, 500 employees and 3,500 volunteers, according to church figures. Crystal Cathedral, part of the Reformed Church in America, has about 10,000 members; its broadcasts reach millions.
Freed from managing daily operations, Schuller plans to continue to preach at the church and has formulated a 20-year plan he hopes will culminate with him preaching at the Crystal Cathedral when he is 100. His title will be founding pastor.
“I am not retiring,” Schuller insisted in an interview Friday.
He plans to raise an endowment of about $100 million to cover the $4 million in annual maintenance needed for the church buildings and grounds. Schuller said this would give the Crystal Cathedral the financial footing to continue for “a thousand years.”
When the younger Schuller is installed as senior pastor, it will mark the culmination of a succession plan formalized in 1996.
After his father made the announcement Sunday, the younger Schuller joined him at the altar, and they embraced before an audience of 2,157 people who attended the first of two morning services. An additional 2,200 attended the second service. The church holds 3,000.
Crystal Cathedral members said afterward that while the senior Schuller drew them to the church, his son had grown to be a more confident and powerful preacher. They said they expected the church’s upbeat tone to change little.
“I think young Robert has come a long way,” said Virginia O. Hamilton, 79, of Irvine who has been attending the church for 36 years.
Floyd and Rae Baker, a retired Anaheim couple, agreed. But, his father “will be a hard act to follow,” Floyd Baker said.
Some churchgoers said the younger Schuller faced a challenge in taking over a congregation drawn by his father’s charisma and eloquence. “His dad, when he talks, he talks straight to your heart,” said Celia Concepcion, 45, a cosmetics company owner from Carson.
The new senior pastor is a tall, handsome man with short brown hair and a rugged jaw. He has four children and lives in Laguna Beach with his second wife, Donna. He tries to lift weights daily and is a 20-handicap golfer in the sport he took up eight years ago, after giving up his hobby as a marlin fisherman.
His messages are delivered in a stiffer style than his father, but show the same optimism that runs through the family.
The elder Schuller’s path to the Crystal Cathedral was forged on his own will and vision. A native of Iowa, he started preaching in Orange County in the mid-1950s, drawn to California because of its beaches, mountains, deserts and mild weather. He brought with him his wife, Arvella, to whom he has been married 55 years.
In the 1960s, Schuller moved his growing flock to a $5-million complex he called the Garden Grove Community Church. Schuller walked door to door, asking residents what they wanted in a church. His marketing survey would be emulated by churches nationwide.
Through the years, the church campus expanded to 40 acres and includes the work of some of the world’s foremost architects. Philip Johnson designed the Crystal Cathedral and Richard Neutra the 14-story Tower of Hope, which houses a round-the-clock telephone counseling service, and is topped by a 90-foot illuminated cross.
Richard Meier designed the $40-million International Center for Possibility Thinking, a building that took 17 years to complete, in part, because of a neighbor who demanded -- and got -- $1 million for a tract house that stood in the minister’s way.
Schuller said the design of the church was intended to reflect his philosophy: A person’s deepest need is a spiritual hunger for glory.
Unlike some televangelists and major church leaders, the elder Schuller has remained untouched by major scandal, but not free of controversy. In 1997, he avoided a trial on assault charges when he apologized for “aggressively” grabbing a flight attendant by the shoulders in a dispute over service in the first class cabin.
Critics usually focus on Schuller’s theology, believing that his optimistic messages and self-help philosophy act to water down Christianity.
“The idea that people could come to church in their pajamas and sit in their cars, that raised the question: What did this have to do with the cross of Jesus?” said USC’s Miller. “Is this religion on the light side?”
A. Larry Ross, president of a Dallas-based public relations firm whose clients include Billy Graham and other famous Christian pastors, said Schuller’s nonjudgmental approach brought many questioning people to accept the Gospel.
“Dr. Schuller has been one of God’s great servants in the past generation,” Ross said. “There is no telling how many people started as tire-kickers and are now believing Christians due to their exposure to Schuller’s Gospel message.”
Times staff writer Christian Berthelsen contributed to this report.
Highlights from the life and ministry of the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove and “Hour of Power” television show.
September 16, 1926: Robert H. Schuller is born in Alton, Iowa.
1950: Receives bachelor of divinity degree from Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Mich. Ordained a minister of the Reformed Church in America. Marries Arvella DeHaan.
1950--1955: Serves as pastor of Ivanhoe Reformed Church, Chicago.
1955: Founds the Garden Grove Community Church in Orange County.
1961: Dedicates the first walk-in, drive-in church.
1968: Dedicates the Tower of Hope, a 14-story office and counseling center designed by architect Richard Neutra.
1970: Begins broadcasting the “Hour of Power” television ministry in Los Angeles. It now runs on hundreds of stations worldwide. Founds the Robert H. Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership.
1980: Dedicates the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, designed by architect Philip Johnson. It is the first all-glass church.
1980: Launched “The Glory of Christmas,” a pageant that has become a Southern California holiday fixture with its camels, horses, and sheep, flying angels and a cast of hundreds. Five years later, Schuller starts “The Glory of Easter.”
1986: Elected to the board of directors of the American Institute of Architects, the only nonarchitect to be elected.
Dec. 25, 1989: Pioneers Christian broadcasting in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe when Mikhail Gorbachev invites Schuller to speak on a telecast to the entire Soviet Union.
April 1996: Formally announced his son, Robert A. Schuller, would succeed him one day.
May 2003: Completes $40-million International Center for Possibility Thinking, designed by architect Richard Meier. It is the final major building on the campus.
Jan. 1, 2006: Announces he is turning over leadership of the Crystal Cathedral to his son, Robert A. Schuller, 51.Source: Crystal Cathedral