Social Network Links
Powered by Squarespace
Search the Riddleblog
"Amillennialism 101" -- Audio and On-Line Resources
« Gettysburg | Main | "Christ Has Been Raised" -- 1 Corinthians 15:12-34 »

The OC -- A New Burned-Over District? Part Four -- Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral

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

Reader Comments (19)

"Amazing grace how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me" Once, when they sang this song on TV, The line with the word "wretch" was once changed to "That saved and gave strength to me". On another occasion, a choir of children sang it and it was changed to "That saved a child like me."
I think I would probably much prefer Erma on organ singing the original words.
July 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Anstett
I think we can get the OC buzzing once again - how's this for a new marketing ploy. Let's combine Calvary Chapel with the new Crystal Cathedral - "Pope Chuck" takes on a whole new meaning!

The only question left to decide is the name. Which do you like best: 'The Crystal Chapel' or 'The Calvary Cathedral' or 'The Calvary Cathedral Crystal Drive-Thru Chapel'?!
July 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBob Reese
Kim, I wonder if you'll include some of the other attempts at relevance from the OC, like the "biker church" Set Free?
July 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Whitehead

Set Free was huge in the OC, but it went the way of the wind so fast (it lasted, what, three years?) I hadn't planned on mentioning it. When it comes to the OC the question for me is, how many of these posts can I write without doing a whole bunch of research? So much went on here . . . It was truly an amazing time.
July 23, 2013 | Registered CommenterKim Riddlebarger
I remember touring the grounds of the Crystal Cathedral years ago, and the tour guide, a member of the church, proudly showing me the statues on the grounds--of Jesus having a good time with kids, and others. The guide proudly talked about how the sculptor had been a well-known artist from Italy who had sculpted Biblical figures for Schuller with the proviso that he would not do any sculptures of "Jesus on the Cross" and that sort of thing, to which Schuller readily agreed because that was what he was not about. I thought to myself--"how appropriate that Schuller wasn't interested in depictions of Christ's work on behalf of sinners."
July 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichard
I know it wasn't around for long, but as someone who grew up skateboarding all over Orange County (I refuse to call it "the OC"), Set Free was a big deal. They always had the best ramps, and once someone put praise lyrics to Rolling Stone's songs it seemed like lots of other churches followed in their wake.
July 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Whitehead

How about making this series into a CRC (church published) booklet? Your casual, first person writing style for this content is great. The essays could be your personal reflections upon the OC religious phenomenon without scholarly references and notes. I'd just like to see this fine series in a permanent published form.
July 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKenneth Samples
"...more like OP versus Amway". Great line.

Kim, can you share any of the off-air debate that went on?
July 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermatt
"Maybe the real battle of style was more like OP versus Amway. " --KR

Ohhh, that stung. (We had a nephew of one of the Amway founders in our old CRC, back when.)

"Seems that Schuller's "new Reformation" of self-esteem didn't turn out so well in the end." --KR

Were you one of the millions that received Schuller's "Self Esteem the New Reformation" book for free. I was. Never could figure out what made poor little me a "Christian leader" worthy of free stuff.

What I've never seen mention of is that there was a follow up conference on self esteem at the Chrystal Cathedral. This would have been in the early '80s, but I don't have any clear recollection of the time. Someone paid for our pastor to go. He came back with a head full of odd notions, that didn't (fortunately) stick. (That pastor had his own odd fate, but that's not a story that's done yet.)
July 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter"lee n. field"

During the breaks, Dr. Schuller attempted to make it clear that a young whippersnapper like Mike did not have the right to call the esteemed Dr. Schuller into question. Mike took issue with that. Schuller was pretty perturbed, Mike was very flustered (like "did that just happen?"). When the studio went "live" again, Schuller was immediately calm and composed as though nothing had happened. Mike (along with the rest of us) were flabbergasted by this. I've never seen anything like it. From then on he took the passive-aggressive attitude you hear in the interview.

Lee n. field:

I still have the book, but mine came as a freebie from the publisher. Schuller held lots of similar conferences such as you describe, these ran throughout the 80s. Never went to one.
July 25, 2013 | Registered CommenterKim Riddlebarger
That interview with Schuller, even without the off air parts, is still a compelling and disturbing listen even 20+ years on.
July 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpb

Thanks for the additional information. So Schuller used an ad hominem as his defense? Not very surprising. Makes me think of when Norman Geissler did the same to James White.
July 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermatt
There is a whole book - or maybe several - waiting to be written about Robert Schuller and the movement he built in Orange County. Remember that he came here around the same time Disneyland opened (1955) - and that was a place which spoke of infinite possibility - not just to imagine the future, but to reinvent the past. After all Disneyland's Main Street is much more a function of nostalgia than actual history. Schuller saw infinite possibilities in this land by the sea that was still mainly citrus groves, but was stuck (in his view) with these dusty old creeds and catechisms which incorporated a very pessimistic view of human nature. So...something had to give. Modern thinking, modern architecture (Neutra and Johnson), and modern consumer marketing were all deployed to reinvent the church. I don't care for the doctrine of Positive Thinking at all - it's not Biblical, but I still think Schuller's story is fascinating. Only in America could you do this. People say Positive Thinking has had its day in the sun and we've learned our lesson. I'm not so sure. When I see Joel Osteen on TV I think of a Schuller who doesn't ask for money.
July 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam

Spot on.

I'd also like to see someone with the right credentials tackle the rise of the Jesus People and Calvary Chapel in the same region/culture. That the same place could produce Disney/Schuller in the mid-fifties followed by the counter-culture of CC/Chuck Smith, Vineyard, etc., just a few years later is also an important story.

For someone with the skills and interest, there are at least two books to be written here! Get to work.
July 25, 2013 | Registered CommenterKim Riddlebarger
Kim, I agree with Ken.

It'd be great if you could publish this piece officially.

At very least, it may validate the pain and disillusionment for those who survived.

(It's poignant to remember those who did not make it -shipwrecked on the rocks of self-esteem and contemporary "Christian" worship.)

I wish somebody would've taught us baby-Christians back then, there was more than Mormonism to be wary of.

We saw John Wimber raise a Bible on Sunday and say "don't trust this book --- trust the moving of the Spirit!" . . . referring to emotional rantings of congregants.

I wish I could hand your article to those I loved and lost in that time. Maybe it would help them be restored?

What we thought was revival was in fact the ravages of apostasy!

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobin
Robin, your comment on John Wimber, I was in several of John Wimber meetings and i never heard him say that. I heard him say to study the Bible. and i probably have it on one of my old cassette tapes that i have from back in the 1980,s of him. Did John Wimber make mistakes, yes i believe so and have not we all have made mistakes? John Wimber was in some ways just trying to make a point on some matters. I , for one would not be interested in going to a church where John MacArthur was pastor. Why? Because he has written off that spiritual gifts are for today. Why would i want to just go to his church and just sit there each week to hear him preach a message and then go home? To me that makes no sense. Keep filling my head up with doctrine, and yes i do say though to study the Bible. But it says in the book of James to Do what the Bible says. So what did the early church do? This is what i want to see. did not the early church turn the world upside down? May God be exalted in Christ Jesus.
July 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterroger o.
The comment about Amway was good. My mom was an Amway distributor during the 1980s (not in OC), and the organization did much to recommend books by Schuller and other "positive thinking" gurus to their members.
August 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul L.
Wow! Great recollections! I remember that evening with Schuller so well. We (Marian, Mick, Wally, and I) paced the den listening to the radio! Didn't he wind up taking your leather HC with him?
Reading this series makes me echo Ken Samples. This needs to be distributed...
August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHB
"I think we can get the OC buzzing once again - how's this for a new marketing ploy. Let's combine Calvary Chapel with the new Crystal Cathedral - "Pope Chuck" takes on a whole new meaning!"

Nice trick when you take into account how Anti-Catholic a lot of Calvary Chapel types can get. I especially remember "Pastor Raul Rees, Calvary Chapel West Covina" from Seventies/Eighties Christianese AM radio. It's hard to exaggerate just how Anti-Catholic that guy's broadcasts could get.
August 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHeadless Unicorn Guy

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.