Crystal Cathedral’s Latino revival?

I feel like I just commented on a Los Angeles Times story about Crystal Cathedral. Oh, that’s right. I did.

Here now comes something a little different. Call it the silver-lining-in-the-crystal-cloud-in-bankruptcy-court story. The LAT reports:

As the Crystal Cathedral fights to survive its descent into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, this is its untold success story: a Spanish-language service led by a dynamic Argentine pastor, Dante Gebel, who inspires comparisons to the church’s founder, Robert H. Schuller.

Since Gebel arrived two years ago, the cathedral’s Hispanic Ministry has grown from no more than 300 people to 3,000, far outstripping the traditional ministry led by Schuller’s daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman. The brash, shaggy-haired Gebel is seen on television in some 70 countries; his Facebook page is “liked” by more than 800,000 people.

The really interesting part of this article comes next. Reporters Mitchell Landsberg and Nicole Santa Cruz speculate that Gebel’s soaring popularity probably won’t save the Crystal Cathedral. What’s so interesting, though, is that Gebel doesn’t really seem to care. He comes off in the story as a gun for hire.

“I haven’t been called to save the Crystal Cathedral, so that isn’t my goal,” he said in an interview in his office on the cathedral grounds. He thinks about just one thing, he said: “Preaching to the Hispanic people.”

He likens the cathedral, with its soaring, light-filled vault, to a borrowed tuxedo. “I would say the same thing here as in Bolivia or Argentina,” he said, “but here, I have a better suit.”

To me, this image is a lot more compelling and worth probing than any recitation of the difference between English- and Spanish-language services at a single church. It’s old news that American churches, even if not especially the most-famous megachurches, have mixed identities across what can be a bifurcated congregation.

What is best about Landsberg and Santa Cruz’s article is that while they discuss the differences between Crystal Cathedral and Catedral Cristal, they do so by framing the differences within the personalities of the separate communities and their pastors.

The tension in this story is heightened nicely by the ongoing — and likely fatal — struggles of the English-language Crystal Cathedral service and the original worship space.

(As an aside, though, I wonder if “groused,” as used here — “If I wanted to hear rock ‘n’ roll, I’d go to a nightclub,” groused a retired airline pilot one recent Sunday.” — was an appropriate word choice. I like it, but I think it works best of this retired pilot was a real curmudgeon and not just unhappy.)

And the reporters do a great job showing, not just telling the reader, the ways in which the Spanish-language service is thriving and the ways in which the English service has gone cold.

Sheila Schuller Coleman, who has taken over for her father, figures heavily in this story. And she is quoted as saying her heart if for the needy and that her church needs to change to remain relevant, but without giving specifics about how. One voice generally missing, though, is Gebel’s.

Gebel is cited briefly in describing where he came from. But it seemed that the reporters missed an opportunity to do more of a mini-profile of this charismatic preacher who has stirred something in the Garden Grove, Calif., Latino community.

I also found this passage bizarre:

One recent service featured a guest appearance by self-proclaimed prophet and faith healer Cindy Jacobs, who purported to cure ailments that included deafness, depression and infertility. Her brand of fundamentalism once would have been unlikely in a Schuller pulpit. Coleman said she wasn’t aware of Jacobs’ visit and had never heard of her, although programs featuring Jacobs’ name and face were widely available around the church campus.

Using a Spanish interpreter and citing God as her source, Jacobs prophesied that Gebel’s ministry would grow to 10,000, then 20,000, then spread nationally, leading a Latino-based revival of Christianity in America.

For one thing, just because some claims to be a prophet and healer does not mean they are a fundamentalist. Jacobs might be, but I wonder how that description was decided upon. As interchangeable with “evangelical?” As a pejorative term used to refer to someone who might be considered nutty for God?

More important, though, is what Jacobs was doing at the Spanish-language service and why her visit would have been “unlikely in a Schuller pulpit.” Crystal Cathedral started in the Reformed Church in America, and I think it’s still in good standing, and that is definitely not a denomination associated with fundamentalism.

So … a good story but one that left some questions unanswered. However, it probably won’t be the LAT’s last on the Crystal Cathedral.

IMAGE: Via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Matt

    I wanted to know more about the formal relationships in this story. Is Gebel’s congregation affiliated with the Crystal Cathedral and its denomination? Does the CC keep the bulk of the offerings and pay Gebel a salary? Or does Gebel’s congregation have control of the offerings and pay rent to the CC?

    Reformed denominations, including the Crystal Cathedral’s RCA and my own PCA, take seriously the role of the regional body (“classis” or “presbytery”) in approving ministers. Is Gebel licensed to preach by the CC’s local classis? If so, was that difficult to attain for someone ordained by the Assemblies of God? If not, is it because of the looseness of his relationship with the CC, or perhaps because the CC is a 900-pound gorilla within its classis?

    I just wonder about these things, probably because I’m becoming a church policy wonk.

  • Maureen

    I recently saw Robert Schuller speak, and he was all about “The Power of Positive Thinking”. And told a story about the miraculous comeback from injury of one of his family members. Basically, it didn’t seem all that far down the spectrum from a faith healer talk. Culturally different, mind you.

  • CarlH

    Thank you, Brad, for your riff on the question of how “fundamentalist” is used and misused. It fits right in with the thread from Mollie’s post yesterday.

    For one thing, just because some claims to be a prophet and healer does not mean they are a fundamentalist. Jacobs might be, but I wonder how that description was decided upon. As interchangeable with “evangelical?” As a pejorative term used to refer to someone who might be considered nutty for God?

    I particularly like the last question, as I think it completely unmasks some of the niceties used to cover what some have been referring to as its “cultural meaning.”

  • Cassius Zedaker

    Words like “fundamentalist” are so easy to twist into whatever connotation journalists have in mind to conceal the truth inside a lie. Language is the only thing we have to communicate with each other. Language is there to reveal, rather than to conceal. Look at most advertising. Good journalism requires a definition of ambiguous words right up front.

    As Humpty Dumpty said to Alice, “Words mean what I say they mean, nothing more and nothing less”. All the kings horses and men were powerless to put him back together once he crossed that line. Communication is now impossible.

    Journalists with an agenda LOVE ambiguity and can make words mean only what they want them to.

  • Ann Rodgers

    I suspect the word that the reporter was searching for was “Pentecostalism.” Most genuine Protestant fundamentalists are staunch dispensationalists who shy away from contemporary prophecy.