Crystal Cathedral’s Chapter 11

The Crystal Cathedral is kind of a big deal. A stone’s throw from Disneyland, the megachurch is a SoCal cultural landmark in its own right. And Robert H. Schuller who started it all in a drive-in parking lot, became a pioneer of televangelism with the “Hour of Power.”

Over the years, the power struggle over who would succeed Schuller and then a rumor that he had come out of retirement were big news. And not surprisingly.

So it should come as no surprise that news outlets were all over the story when the Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy last week. Even the Los Angeles Times — after all, Garden Grove is about 30 miles from downtown LA, and for years the LAT seriously competed for Orange County news — got involved with a first-day story, another online from the AP and an editorial (“Cracked Crystal“).

Yes, the puns and crystal metaphors are painful but rather unavoidable. To be sure, the Crystal Cathedral is not actually made of crystal.

Of course, neither article was written by a religion reporter. The article by LAT writer Nicole Santa Cruz included the essentials and was a pretty standard nuts-and-bolts news article. I would, however, expect more from a religion reporter. And last time I think the LAT has one.

Here’s what happened when, albeit a week late, The New York Times sent its religion reporter, the boycotted and recently re-honored Laurie Goodstein, to Disneyland-adjacent. Here’s what she writes in “Debt and Disputes Cloud the Crystal Cathedral.”

When Mr. Schuller announced in 2006 that he was turning over the pulpit to his only son, the Rev. Robert A. Schuller, the church was already carrying a huge debt from its last lavish building project. But in a little more than two years, the son was pushed out before he ever really took the reins, and some of his sisters and their husbands stepped in.

The family feud left the church without clear leadership, just when its programs badly needed a makeover to attract a new generation of followers.

At stake is the legacy of the senior Mr. Schuller, who at 84 is still occasionally preaching his brand of upbeat, inspirational Christianity. His Sunday program, “Hour of Power,” has been broadcast for 40 years and was the nation’s most-watched weekly religious program for more than a decade. Unlike other religious broadcasters, Mr. Schuller largely steered clear of politics, and avoided the sexual and financial scandals that brought down competitors like Jimmy Swaggart.

Until now, the younger Mr. Schuller, pained by the rift with his family, has avoided speaking publicly about what happened. But in a lengthy interview this week in Los Angeles, he explained the sequence of events, later confirmed by others, that preceded the current turmoil.

“It boiled down to, they weren’t ready to accept my leadership,” he said of his relatives and some of the other board members of the cathedral. “And had they been, they wouldn’t be where they are today.”

That is a bold statement, but it lies at the heart of a much more interesting story. Goodstein focuses not on the Crystal Cathedral’s bankruptcy but on how they got there and how the church’s trouble with transition was a familiar them when larger-than-life pastors decide to move on. And it leaves little wonder as to why the elder Schuller and his successor chose to speak with the LAT and refused requests from Goodstein.

Even when you’re talking about megachurches, size doesn’t matter. But at 1,482 words — as long as an LAT Column One these days — Goodstein’s article is full of meat while the LAT’s 536-word piece is really just the milk.

PHOTO: The Crystal Cathedral spire, via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Irenicum

    I’m glad to hear that the NYT’s did a better job than the LAT’s, but calling their report “meat” seems a bit overly generous. I would be interested to learn more about the feud among the Schullers and know if there are theological reasons for that feud. Back when Schuller Jr was deposed almost as soon as he inherited his father’s throne, I remember hearing that his more cross centered preaching was as much an issue as his supposed lack of charisma. If that’s the case, then that’s just as news worthy as the financial troubles.

  • Mollie

    I really enjoyed Goodstein’s piece, too. It made me wish it was even longer. I figure that the story of what happened to the Crystal Cathedral is a long one with many angles. I like the family feud angle, journalistically. I sort of assumed people would take the “Saddleback beats Crystal” approach. And on that note, I’m kind of surprised this hasn’t been a bigger story.

  • Gail O

    The Goodstein’s piece was more interesting because it showed human failings and imperfections even among the religious. It is very similar to an Old Testament Bible story with the family infighting.

  • Frank Lockwood

    I was struck by this line, in the third paragraph of the Times’ story:

    “…the Crystal Cathedral, which many church historians call the nation’s first modern megachurch…”

    The Crystal Cathedral is not the nation’s first modern megachurch. It’s not even SoCal’s first modern megachurch.

    (Depending on how one defines ‘modern’), I would suggest that Angelus Temple, in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles, meets all the requirements for a “modern” megachurch. Built in the 1920s by evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, Angelus Temple seated 5,000 people and was crowned with a pair of radio transmission towers. Angelus Temple was one of the first evangelical churches that 1.) drew megachurch crowds, 2.) used cutting-edge technology to beam its services around the nation; 3.) held non-stop services every Sunday to accommodate the crowds; and 4.) ignored conventional church wisdom about architecture,sacred music and sacred drama, the gifts of the Spirit and the role of women in ministry.

    My position on Angelus Temple being the first modern megachurch is the minority position, however. Mark Driscoll and others argue that it was Charles Spurgeon’s congregation in London or perhaps Charles Finney’s Chatham Street Chapel in New York City.

    Christianity Today, in 2002, said that First Baptist Church in Dallas, has been called the “first modern megachurch.”

    If “modern” means “television-age”, I would suggest that Rex Humbard’s Cathedral of Tomorrow, in greater Akron, Ohio, qualifies. Humbard’s made-for-television worship services drew multitudes in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

    I’ve done a fair amount of Googling and I’m not finding a heap of claims that the Crystal Cathedral is the original modern megachurch — until this week.

    On Oct. 19, 2010 Harry Smith of CBS’s “The Early Show”, for example, said Crystal Cathedral is “arguably America’s first modern megachurch.”

    By the time the Times gets a hold of it, the “arguably” has been erased. And that’s unfortunate.

  • Jerry

    The New York Times sent its religion reporter, the boycotted and recently re-honored Laurie Goodstein,


    The story of what happens when the founder is no longer around is as old as humanity. It occurs today from secular institutions to religious ones. Reporting the story, typically without that context, is a staple of the media.

  • tmatt

    Just curious. Schuller senior’s theology has evolved through the years to the point of almost vanishing.

    What role does that play in this story, in terms of the children? Any denominational ties at all?

  • George M.

    “The family feud left the church without clear leadership, just when its programs badly needed a makeover to attract a new generation of followers.”

    Just something to remember when certain simple-minded and anti-Catholic groups call for the end of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church. While chaste celibacy – in imitation of Jesus – does not insulate a man from temptations of the flesh, clerical marriage would bring forth a host of other difficulties and not necessarily make ministry any easier.

  • Bible Belt Blogger

    According to the Times, Schuller has been “eclipsed by preachers with a more contemporary format, like Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church in Houston, who leans more heavily on self-help than Scripture.”

    I’m not convinced that Osteen’s message contains less Scripture than Schuller’s.

  • Eric

    I guess if you better not throw stones if you have a glass church.
    Like any TV programming the competition is fierce these days and trying to keep the church in the family is tough, because folks see through the hereditary monarch gimmick. Just like the Grahams we see you can’t inherit respect. The family feud is an extension of the creepy vibes from the Crystal cathedral and the last straw. Sure Saddleback probably drew down Schuller’s flock – easy pickin’s. It should be any surprise to anyone down here in the Southland.

  • Jay

    Robert A Schuller (aka Jr.) was never going to be able to replace his dad at the Cathedral. At the age of 50 (1976) Robert H Schuller (aka Sr.) had already started to build-out the Garden Grove campus and was planning the $20 million Crystal Cathedral – which was finished in 1980. In comparison, Robert A Schuller was the Sr. Pastor of a small (250 members) church owned by the Crystal Cathedral in San Juan Capistrano (almost in the “backyard” of Saddleback Chuch) – called the Rancho Capistrano Church. The membership of the “Ranch Church” had declined over the final years of Robert A’s leadership and he also failed to pull off a capital campiagn to build a new sanctuary. In fact, once Robert A left the Ranch Church (in 2000) to begin to train to take over the his father’s position at the Crystal Cathedral, the Ranch Church congregation was disbanded and the church building was rented out to other organizations. So it was a “pipe dream” for the management of the Crystal Cathedral to think that Robert A was ever going to be able to step in and lead AND grow a congregation such as the Crystal Cathedral. He had never shown the ability to do so nor did he show the inclination to change. The disaster that occurred in 2008 with his “firing” from the Hour of Power and his “resigning” as the Senior Pastor of the Crystal Cathedral was “born” way back in 2000 when he first moved up Interstate 5 from San Juan Capistrano to Garden Grove.