Calvary Chapel may have created most of the Christian "buzz" in the OC, but surely the OC's most famous church is Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral. The sheer scale and grandeur of the Cathedral dominates the heart of the OC. In an area with few tall buildings, the Crystal Cathedral is clearly visible from three of the freeways which pass through central Orange County.
In one sense, the Crystal Cathedral and Robert Schuller were not really part of the OC "buzz." Schuller's message of "self-esteem," and the Cathedral's highbrow manner of worship, were much more typical of the Protestant mainline than the evangelical and charismatic churches which did generate local buzz. But if you had family coming to town from the Midwest or the East Coast, they wanted to see the Crystal Cathedral and they knew all about Robert Schuller, even if they had never heard of the two "Chucks" (Smith or Swindoll) who were much more appreciated by the local evangelicals.
Robert Schuller first arrived in the OC shortly after I did (1955). He came by car, I came by stork. He began preaching to people in their cars from the roof of the snack bar of the Orange Drive-In theater. The place was soon packed. Schuller went on to build the Tower of Hope in 1968, and by 1970, Schuller's "Hour of Power" was the most popular religious broadcast in the United States. In 1978, work began on the now world famous glass cathedral. It was the perfect stage for Schuller's psychologized message. I'll bet that the Hour of Power brought more people to Southern California than anything but the Rose Parade. The Cathedral was the perfect OC showcase. His was the perfect message for an affluent middle class growing tired of their local stucco church, boring sermons, and "Erma," the kindly but elderly organist attempting to play the offertory correctly just one time before going to glory.
Schuller's pulpit (or better "stage") was turned over to countless celebrities ranging from Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda to former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, all of whom were willing to endorse Schuller's non-gospel of "Possibility Thinking."
The Cathedral was the stage for the elaborate pageants, "the Glory of Christmas" and the "Glory of Easter." Ironically, it was the church's inability to pay the vendors and animal handlers which led to the local bankruptcy courts. The Cathedral was also home to a magnificent 16,000 pipe Ruffatti organ capably manned for many years by Frederick Swann. Famed pianist Roger Williams played there for thirty years. The contrast between the worship services of the Crystal Cathedral and the CCM of Calvary Chapel could not be greater! One local wag spoke of the difference between the two churches as the "Jesus People versus the Blue Hairs." Maybe the real battle of style was more like OP versus Amway.
Lest we forget, the Crystal Cathedral was also home to a congregation affiliated with the Reformed Church of America. The consistory of the church was distinct from the Hour of Power which had its own governing board. It was common to hear Schuller's church members defend him by arguing that the Hour of Power broadcast and was not representative of the life of the congregation, and that the church not only had many Bible studies, but the Heidelberg Catechism was taught and revered. But, as we all know, the message you use to draw people in is what they want, and what keeps them attending. The claim that the Hour of Power brought in seekers who were subsequently catechized rings hollow. I do know of people, however, who did indeed study the Heidelberg Catechism there.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I attended the Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton for several years, and even joined the church. But I never actually met Chuck Swindoll. I did shake his hand once at a wedding--but that doesn't really count. I attended Calvary Chapel a number of times but never met Chuck Smith, or anyone else of note (like Lonnie Frisbee or Greg Laurie). I have only been to the Crystal Cathedral one time (for my son's high school graduation), but have met and actually spoken with Robert Schuller on several occasions.
The first time I met Dr. Schuller was at Mike Horton's home shortly before Schuller's infamous appearance on the White Horse Inn. It was not a pleasant experience. Dinner conversation was cordial enough, although the name dropping got old. "I was talking with `Bev' the other day" he said, thinking we knew he was referring to opera singer Beverly Sills. So far as I knew, he was talking about his secretary. "Oh, and Norman called," referring to General Schwarzkopf. At that point, our Lutheran compatriot, Rod Rosenbladt, made a comment which was very apropos, but which I cannot repeat.
During the live broadcast later that evening, Schuller became very offended by Mike's line of questioning, and stormed out of the studio, on air, only to awkwardly rejoin the broadcast a few mintues later (after his aide insisted that he do so). From this point on, things were not quite so cordial. If you've heard the broadcast, you know what I mean. You should have seen the debate that went on off-air during the breaks! (You can get the audio here if you are interested--Robert Schuller on the White Horse Inn)
I have also been in the presence of the Schuller family on the occasion of a family member's wedding (which I conducted, and Dr. Schuller read from the Scriptures). Never thought I'd live to see that day! I must say, that I found the Schullers to be a godly Christian family, friendly, and hospitable--even during the middle of the recent legal woes and the impending loss of the empire. As is often the case with celebrities, the public figure is much different than the private person. On this occasion, Dr. Schuller was simply "grandpa," enjoying an important day in the life of his family.
The remarkable irony of Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral is that he arrived here first (of all the famous OC preachers) and built one of the largest empires (TBN is bigger still). The empire is now completely gone, going the way of "all flesh." If Robert Schuller wasn't part of the "buzz" locally, nationally he was the best known pastor from the OC. Now as an old man, he must watch from the outside as his beloved Cathedral becomes "Christ Cathedral," home to the OC's Catholic diocese. But this is the likely outcome of any ministry built on personality, a passing fad ("possibility thinking"), and a glitz equal to any Hollywood production.
As the Cathedral's problems increased, the Vatican, apparently, had also been engaged in their own version of "possibility thinking." When the OC bankruptcy court dictated that the church property be sold to pay off the numerous creditors, Rome was ready, willing, and able, to cut the multi-million dollar check.
The Hour of Power has given way to many hours of priestcraft and popery. Seems that Schuller's "new Reformation" of self-esteem didn't turn out so well in the end.
Next time, we'll consider the Bible teachers and Apologists (people like Walter Martin) who contributed significantly to the OC "buzz." Part Five: The Bible Teachers
Here's the introduction to this series: Introduction
Here's part one, "the buzz": The "Buzz"
Here's part two, "TBN": TBN
Here's part three, "Calvary Chapel": Calvary Chapel