GARDEN GROVE (AP) — Capitalizing on the emerging car culture of Southern California in the 1950s, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller started a drive-in church and built it into an international televangelist empire, symbolized by the soaring glass Crystal Cathedral and its weekly “Hour of Power” show.

Now Schuller’s life’s work is crumbling.

The organization declared bankruptcy this week in a collapse blamed by some on its inability to keep up with the times and a disastrous attempt to hand the church over to Schuller’s son.

The church’s failure to adapt to a changing landscape is ironic, considering that Schuller, now 84, was considered a theological radical during the Eisenhower years when he started preaching about the “power of positive thinking” from the roof of a concession stand at a drive-in theater. Followers could sit in their cars and listen to him through the movie loudspeakers that hooked to their windows.

Schuller tapped into powerful post-World War II cultural forces that were reshaping America, said Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at the Hartford Institute of Religion Research.

“What he was preaching was seen a pretty heretical to a traditional religious world view at the time. But it worked because that’s where society was,” Thumma said. “Society was in their car. They had a very positive viewpoint of the world. We had just come back from World War II, we were all having kids, we were all going to college. He tapped into those different streams in the culture and turned them into Christian expression.”

Schuller soon turned his humble pulpit into one of the nation’s first megachurches, beaming his weekly Sunday service into 1 million homes worldwide through the “Hour of Power” TV show, which went on the air in 1970. Schuller became a familiar presence on television, a smiling figure in flowing robes, with snowy white hair and wire-rimmed aviator glasses.

In 1980, he opened the Crystal Cathedral, a 2,900-seat see-through church made of 10,664 panes of glass. A $20 million architectural marvel designed by the acclaimed Philip Johnson, it became a major Southern California landmark and tourist attraction. Schuller soon added a K-12 school and a tourist center.

(To this day, you can pull up to the Crystal Cathedral and listen to the service in your car through small speakers in the parking lot.)

Church leaders blame their predicament almost entirely on the recession, saying donations and ticket sales for their holiday pageants began to drop precipitously in 2008. The additions to the 40-acre grounds also forced the ministry to take out a mortgage that still carries a $30 million balance, church spokesman John
Charles said.

Attendance has dropped about 10 to 15 percent at services at the Crystal Cathedral in the past few years but still hovers around 5,000 each Sunday, Charles said. A Spanish-language service attracts about 2,000 and is growing rapidly, and a new Arabic-language service has about 400 worshippers, he said.

But those who have watched the church’s fortunes decline believe Schuller — and later his children — failed to do much to attract younger people.

Newer evangelical leaders like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels began offering hip worship services and an emphasis on social activism and the latest technology. Schuller got left behind, Thumma said.

Schuller and family “stayed with the organ when everyone had gone to the rock ‘n’ roll band. He stayed with the robes when everyone else was reinventing themselves as bishops. In a time when most megachurces are going multisite and to smaller venues, he kept building bigger buildings,” Thumma said.

The church has recently joined sites like Facebook and Twitter (Schuller has his own account), posts inspirational videos on YouTube and offers the Spanish and Arabic services, but those changes may have been too little, too late.

“I look at the ‘Hour of Power,’ and when the camera pans to the audience, it’s gray-haired people,” said Kurt Fredrickson, assistant professor of pastoral ministry at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

The Crystal Cathedral also alienated older worshippers with the ill-fated attempt to turn the church over to Schuller’s son, Robert A. Schuller Jr. The much-heralded changeover ended in a bitter and very public family spat, with the younger Schuller disappearing from the “Hour of Power” broadcasts and abruptly leaving the church altogether in 2008, less than three years after he assumed his father’s mantle.

Last year, while announcing his own weekly TV show, Schuller Jr. said his father had resisted when he tried to introduce other media, such as cell phones and the Internet.

Sheila Schuller Coleman, Schuller’s daughter, has since taken over as senior pastor and presides over the “Hour of Power” broadcasts with a rotating stable of guest preachers, including her father.

In the past two years, the church has laid off 250 of its 450 or so employees, sold its beloved retreat center, cut salaries and canceled contracts with more than 100 TV stations nationwide, Charles said. Family members took 50 percent pay cuts this year, the church spokesman said. He would not say how much they are paid.

This week, the church filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which allows a business to keep operating while it tries to put its finances in order under court supervision. The church said that for the time being, “Hour of Power” will remain on the air and the Crystal Cathedral will continue operating as usual.

Charles acknowledged the church could have reacted faster to changes in worship styles, but said: “There’s always a fine line we have to walk. We want to gain new members and we want to keep the older members, but some members say, ‘I want it to stay exactly the way it is.”‘

(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Comments (10)
  1. walter says:

    ha! pray to your god for the money you greedy trashy god worshipers!

  2. Peter says:

    Chrystal Cathedral has a very beautiful landscape surrounded by very well designed architects. It is a place
    that brings in harmony and peace. There is a very beautiful mortuary garden at the center resting there are many beloved
    ones who were once members of the church. The sight at the cathedral is a wonderful place to see. My little brother use
    to work at that church many years ago and he said the people there are absolutely the nicest people. That is how I know
    about the church. I visit the church occasionally with my friends. It is a sad moment to hear of the financial burden
    during the struggling ecomony. However, God works in mysterious ways and I believed in time, everything will come together.
    My support to the awesome Chrystal Cathedral and all the staff, members, visitors, tourists, or anyone who believes in working
    together and coming together during these hard times. Never give up as long as the Chrystal Cathedral still stands!

  3. KJ says:

    This church and Robert Schuller have changed so many lives for the better for so many years it would be a shame to see it disappear. What’s ironic is that they became known world wide by their forward thinking innovation attitude. Now resting on laurels brings them here. First rule of the “people business”, you can’t please all the people all of the time.

  4. Bob says:

    Please turn of the darn AutoRefresh. Can’t finish reading long web pages before they refresh. Does anybody at CBS read thier own web pages????? This has been a problem since the begining of the new CBS format

  5. Ron says:

    I have watched this story with a hint of sadness because the Crystal Cathedral played a significant part in my life and who I am. My family and I used to travel down to Garden Grove in the 70’s to sit in the “outdoor sanctuary” and listen to Dr. Schuller’s message. I did this mostly from the back seat of our family car, but strangely it was a good introduction to the Church. I eventually joined and was active in the church for a number of years, even helping out with the Glory Of Christmas. We can argue if Dr. Schuller’s teachings were more positive psychology based or bible based, but the messages were generally good, uplifting, and they helped a large number of people that normally may not have been reached by the gospel. As I grew up, I parted ways from the Cathedral and now attend a church that suits the needs of an older and maybe a more mature version of me, but I think this points out that many others like me were left behind as technology and the entire model of what we call a church moved forward. In many ways they are a 20th century church in the 21st century. Younger worshipers turn to the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter for the “fellowship” older parishioners felt in person at church. I still get cards from my former deacon on Easter and Christmas. I don’t even think they know I have left. I attend church group meetings online sometimes and make use of VOIP, Skype and video chat to connect to other members. Refusing to change with the times usually is bad for any organization, especially a church. I hope they can work out their financial problems and settle the legal hassles for money, so they can get back to their prime mission of spreading the word. Regardless of your opinions on the man and his church, it would be sad to see your life’s work end in this way.

  6. betsy says:

    so sorry to hear – but time to go back to the basics – i am certain it takes a lot of money for the upkeep of the church – maybe salaries should be lowered as well. I dod not read the entire articial but I see alot of the same last names mentioned. God Bless – all churches have the same issue during these hard time and last days. trust and believe and do the right thing….

  7. Chuck TELA says:

    Dr. Shuller should have kept both his son and daghter in a shared Pastorate. What sense does the name “Hour of Power” make if he cannot treat his family right. What sense the name “Christian”? They should stick together and provide a credible example in this time of trial. ctt

  8. Larry Workman says:

    Can anyone be surprised that another ministry is in financial trouble. When money is the key to being on the air this is what happens. Even the father was caught back in the Jim Baker era of using a ruse to raise money. Filming trucks supposedly delivering supplies to some backwater country but were filmed on a back lot in California. Family lived like royalty in big houses and driving fancy cars. When a ministry refuses to list salaries for it’s leaders, that should be a red flag. Some of these ministries are no different that a mafia family. Power staying in the ‘family’ and only the family. Maybe God had enough and let this one fall.

  9. Mildred A. Parker says:

    The Hour of Power has produced some wonderful services that encourage one. Whatever the reason for the “positive” slant on the gospel, people changed and gave their lives to Jesus Christ. God’s word “does not go out void, but will accomplish that for which it was sent.” I love music and have always liked the music that was presented at the service. I for one, like the good “old” hymn’s that lifted me and with the Word of God has sustained me to this day. Yes, the economy has something to do in this situation, but I believe that it will survive. We really don’t need anymore “mega-churches” we need sincere people “walking the talk.” My heart goes out to Sheila as she faithfully carries on with her Dad by her side. God will be the final judge in this matter.

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