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Robert Schuller, Crystal Cathedral Megachurch Founder, Dies at 88

IMAGE: Robert H. Schuller

Robert Schuller in an undated photo during a service at the former Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. JOHN T. SCHULLER — FILE

The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, who became one of the most influential Protestant preachers in the world only to see his empire crumble in bankruptcy, died early Thursday, his grandson confirmed to NBC News. He was 88.

At its height, Schuller's self-help message, which he called "possibility thinking," drew thousands to services at his spectacular Philip Johnson-designed Crystal Cathedral in Southern California and tens of millions around the world to his "Hour of Power" television broadcasts.

Schuller's Reformed Church of America congregation started out in a drive-in movie theater in Garden Grove, near Los Angeles, in 1955. He began his TV broadcasts in 1970, beaming his silver hair, broad smile and fatherly, comforting homilies to what would eventually reach 184 countries, targeted specifically at those he called the "unchurched." The Crystal Cathedral — the largest glass building in the world at the time — opened in 1980.

Crystal Cathedral Megachurch Founder Robert Schuller Dies at 88 1:18

Schuller's message of "let's just make it happen," as he often urged, traces directly to the optimistic theology of Norman Vincent Peale, as laid out in his controversial book "The Power of Positive Thinking," which has sold more than 5 million copies since it was published in 1952.

Schuller often described Peale — who wrote the introduction to Schuller's 1982 book, "Self-Love" — as his mentor and inspiration. But Schuller's "possibility thinking" softened the edges of Peale's theology, which was criticized by many theologians and some mental health advocates as more a blend of New Age mind science and pop psychology than Christian ministry.

The distinction is that while Peale preached that the unconscious mind had the power to "turn wishes into realities when the wishes are strong enough," as he wrote in 1982's "Positive Imaging," Schuller preached that God was trying to help his flock do that.

"Faith plus focus plus follow-through equals achievement," Schuller was often quoted as saying. God, he wrote in one of his biggest best-sellers, "Self-Esteem: the New Reformation," published in 1982, was trying "to build a society of human beings who live out the Golden Rule."

Still, Schuller, like Peale, was often criticized for preaching a "false Christianity" that emphasized the secular over the spiritual. In a 1999 CNN interview, he acknowledged that "I happen to focus on the secular world. That's been my ministry for 45 years. I'm not interested in talking to people who have religion. I'm trying to talk to people who turn God off."

That message — punctuated by his catch phrase, "If you can dream it, you can do it" — helped make Schuller one of the earlier shepherds of what's now called a "megachurch," Garden Grove Community Church and then the Crystal Cathedral. He was an unofficial adviser and counselor to Presidents Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Schuller delivered the invocation at the 1988 Republican National Convention, a few months after Bush visited the Crystal Cathedral to pray with Schuller on the night of the 1988 California presidential primary. But Schuller largely tried to stay out of electoral politics, refusing to endorse candidates and declaring that had he been asked to preach at a Democratic convention, "I would have accepted that, too."

Schuller delivered the invocation at the 1988 Republican National Convention, a few months after Bush visited the Crystal Cathedral to pray with him on the night of the California presidential primary. But Schuller largely tried to stay out of electoral politics, refusing to endorse candidates and declaring that had he been asked to preach at a Democratic convention, "I would have accepted that, too."

IMAGE: Interior of the former Crystal Cathedral
The interior of the former Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, in 2011. The cathedral, the largest glass building in the world when it was built, was designed by the famed architect Philip Johnson. ALEX GALLARDO / Reuters - file

Unlike the ministries of other prominent televangelists, such as Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, Schuller's ministry largely remained free of scandal — but not entirely free of it.

The ministry began to fall apart in 2008, when Schuller removed his son, Robert A. Schuller, as senior pastor just two years after having appointed him, citing a "lack of shared vision." In July 2010, his daughter Sheila Schuller Coleman became head of the church, and Schuller retired to become chairman of the board.

Just three months later, Coleman announced that the church was seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Documents filed in bankruptcy court and investigations by the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register revealed that from 2008 to 2010 — as church revenue plummeted from $54 million to $22 million — the church failed to pay vendors and began laying off employees, even as it was continuing to give 23 church insiders and Schuller family members lavish salaries and benefits totaling millions of dollars. At the time of the bankruptcy filing, the church owed creditors $48.5 million, according to court documents.

In July 2011, Coleman ousted her father from the Crystal Cathedral, and by the next year, she had left to start her own ministry. In 2012, Schuller cut ties with his church, testifying against it in bankruptcy church, claiming it owed him millions of dollars.

In 2013, the church hit bottom. Schuller was diagnosed with cancer and was given about two years to live, and the church he founded — now under the leadership of his grandson Bobby — agreed to sell the Crystal Cathedral to the Catholic Diocese of Orange and to lease space at St. Callistus Catholic Church in Garden Grove.

Schuller's wife of 64 years, Arvella Schuller, known popularly as the "First Lady" of Crystal Cathedral Ministries, died last year at age 84. In addition to Sheila Schuller Coleman and Robert A. Schuller, he is survived by three other daughters, all of whom went into the ministry, two of them with their father's church.

Today, the Crystal Cathedral is called Christ Cathedral. What once was the gleaming glass tower of Protestantism is now the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in Orange County.