The Schullers: A tale of two churches

Three miles from the Crystal Cathedral in an American Legion Hall, a 29-year-old pastor in a purple sweater and blue jeans takes the pulpit. He rocks from heel to toe, casually joking with the congregants — today they almost had to meet at the park because a pancake breakfast threatened their rented space.

His message? "You are welcome here."

That pastor is Bobby Schuller, grandson of the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, 84, the televangelist pioneer who founded the TV ministry "Hour of Power" and the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.

The third-generation Schuller hopes to do what the landmark — and now bankrupt — Crystal Cathedral has apparently failed to: evolve with the times.

Bobby's church, The Gathering, takes a low-key approach to worship. Sunday's services aren't in an opulent church. Young band members open the service, and it's intimate — people don paper name tags and shake hands. All of these elements represent a "post-boomer" style of worship popular with 20- to 40-year-old Christians, said Richard Flory, a sociologist of religion at USC.

The cathedral, on the other hand, is known for grand productions, robed pastors and traditional hymns. The age of its average congregant is 53.

"They are totally outdated," Flory said. "They are so committed to a plot of land and a building, and they've got a problem."

Crystal Cathedral officials say their financial woes were brought on by the recession. More than 550 creditors are owed $50 to $100 million, according to bankruptcy documents filed last month.

But insiders and religious experts say the situation is more complicated, and stems from how to best preserve founder Robert H.'s legacy.

The Crystal Cathedral has been battered in recent years as attendance has declined along with donations. That has brought cuts that some believe have reduced the quality of the church's programming and productions.

At the same time, the church has been roiled by family discord that included the very public firing of Robert Anthony Schuller, who had long been seen as the founder's successor, and the ascension of Robert H.'s eldest daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman, to the top job. Bobby, who also ran a ministry at the cathedral and occasionally appeared on the "Hour of Power," took his church to the legion hall in Orange last year. His attendance has doubled.

"There's not one right way to do church," said Bobby, Robert Anthony's son. "I looked at a culture and formed a church that fit my generation."

The church his grandfather started more than 50 years ago barely resembles today's sprawling campus. At the time, Robert H. was the one adapting a ministry to the culture. But instead of the American Legion Hall, his venue of choice was the roof of the snack bar at the Orange Drive-In Theatre.

His slogan: "Come as you are in the family car."

He catered to the parents of the baby boomers, many of whom were transplants from the Midwest looking to live out the American Dream in Southern California. Far from fire and brimstone, the elder Robert delivered a message of optimism and hope. The uplifting sermons caught on, and by the early 1960s he had taken his growing congregation to Garden Grove, where a large campus that included the 13-story Tower of Hope would be built.

In 1970, he expanded his ministry to television through the "Hour of Power," a program that became the church's trademark and attracted millions of viewers internationally.

The church kept expanding, and the spectacular 10,000-pane Crystal Cathedral was dedicated in 1980. "The Glory of Christmas," an extravagant holiday production that attracted thousands, began in 1981. Soon after, the church added an Easter show.

The Christmas production would begin to signify a culture of extravagance within the church: More than a dozen angels in white chiffon flew overhead, professional singers replaced volunteers, and live camels and donkeys took the stage.

"You felt like you were sitting in the middle of a symphony orchestra," said Conwell S. Worthington, who directed the Christmas and Easter pageants from 1983 to 1986.

Despite those lavish productions, church attendance started to decline in the mid-'80s, said Robert Anthony, 56. The televangelist model that his father helped pioneer was tainted by the scandals of other well-known pastors, such as Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker.

In 2001, the church eliminated 37 jobs, but Robert H. kept building. In 2003, a $40-million welcome center on the Garden Grove campus opened, featuring a museum and a wall made of 20,000 crystal bricks etched with donor names.

And in 2005, Carol Schuller Milner, the third Schuller daughter, produced a multimillion-dollar pageant called "Creation," which was poorly attended and never staged again.

A year later, Robert Anthony took over as the lead pastor, the role he had been groomed for. But he made it clear he wanted a shift in the church's culture: He proposed fewer family members and in-laws on the board for more transparency.

But before any changes were made, a July 2008 board meeting took away many of his duties. With a swift vote, the board created a three-person Office of the President, consisting of Fred Southard, the chief financial officer, and two of Robert A.'s in-laws.

"That was a single pivotal point," said Jim Case, a former board member who is now a congregant at Bobby's church.

Soon after the July meeting, church leadership told Robert Anthony that his sermons weren't "anointed." Then, he couldn't preach on Sunday mornings. In November 2008, he resigned.

The move was a surprise to his daughter, Angie Schuller Wyatt, who said she grew up with the notion that her father would someday lead — not leave — this church.

"When you have a dynamic where faith, fame and family are all involved, it becomes difficult to prioritize faith," she said. "Instead it becomes part of this mixture of family dynamics and fame dynamics."

Don Neuen, the choral conductor for 10 years, resigned last July, in part because he believed the Schuller children were not prepared to handle the responsibilities of the church.

Church leadership put the children "in positions for which they simply weren't qualified," he said. "If you follow genius and qualifications with that, you're bound to be in deep trouble."

Robert Anthony, who ran a ministry at the church's Rancho Capistrano retreat for more than 20 years, said he could have helped the Crystal Cathedral avoid bankruptcy by updating the church's programs. "I don't think it would be where it is today," he said.

The religious programming model of asking for funds — the one so favored by the cathedral — might be broken, he said. Instead, he has purchased two television networks, one that will offer family-friendly programming and one that will have religious content, and hopes to rely on advertisers instead of viewers for funding.

Regardless of Robert Anthony's plans, a change in leadership can be difficult for any church.

"I think it's true that any congregation has to figure out how its style of ministry affects more than one generation." said Wes Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary for the Reformed Church in America, the denomination to which the Crystal Cathedral belongs. "You see evidence of that in Bobby's service."

Bobby Schuller is an innovator like his grandfather, but the way he delivers his message of Christianity is drastically different. The stereotypical church, he said, is about a perfect building filled with perfect people, music and a perfect preacher.

"In other words, it's not like life," he said.

He ponders his vision in his office — located in his garage. A bookshelf lines one wall, and a large jug of home-brewed beer (inspired by Harry Potter's butter beer) sits in the corner. Parked on the street, there's his gold Toyota Camry, which has clocked more than 200,000 miles.

He wants his church to be about community — and something "messy people with messy lives" can relate to.

Volunteers set up for the service each Sunday and take down the chairs and tables that afternoon. When the work is done, they all go out for pizza. More than 90% of church funds go toward social justice issues such as homelessness and domestic violence.

"Our goal is to make big Christians, not big churches," he said.

Even so, Bobby will be the first pastor featured on his father's network.

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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