Thinking In Public

May 27, 2020

The Strange Tale of Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral: A Conversation with Sociologists Mark T. Mulder and Gerardo Marti

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Transcript

Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking In Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Albert Mohler:

Today I'm joined by two guests, Doctors Gerardo Marti and Mark Mulder. Professor Marty is Chair of Sociology at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. He earned his Bachelor of Arts at Pepperdine University and then his PhD from the University of Southern California. He has authored or co-authored eight books focusing especially on contemporary religious issues.

Albert Mohler:

Professor Mulder earned his PhD from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and is the Chair of the Sociology Department at Calvin University, where he also teaches in their Urban Studies and Ministry Studies Departments. In addition to his teaching, Professor Mulder has published numerous scholarly articles and books that also focus on social change and contemporary American religion.

Albert Mohler:

Professors Marti and Mulder have co-authored a new book, The Glass Church: Robert H. Schuller, the Crystal Cathedral, and the Strain of Megachurch Ministry, which is the topic of our conversation today. Professors, welcome to Thinking In Public.

Albert Mohler:

One of the most interesting questions even as we get started here for me is how the two of you came to collaborate on this book. That's not an instantaneous decision. Something has to explain how this came together in your minds, and then eventually, in the book entitled The Glass Church. How did that happen?

Mark Mulder:

Well, Dr. Gerardo and I have been collaborators on a number of projects for a long time. What brought us together, probably more intimately was another project called the Latino Protestants Congregations Project, which is Lilly funded and we continue to be co-directors of that. While we were working on that, Gerardo actually pitched this idea. I'm going to let him explain how he came to it and then how we decided to go forward with it.

Gerardo Marti:

I grew up in Schuller's Orange County and literally watched the Crystal Cathedral as it was being built. Having some acquaintance with all of the dramas that had been associated with that ministry, I was very well aware when the bankruptcy was declared and found it to be just as shocking as most other people. Once that started to come together, I felt like this was a story that needed to be told. This remarkable ministry that had started in a drive-in theater had grown tremendously, had become a model for what it meant to be a pastor in the contemporary world and then to see this empire crumble. It had a nice bookend, if you will, and that always attracts attention to people like me who would like to provide a more detailed, nuanced, and yet full understanding of what actually happened here in this ministry.

Albert Mohler:

What actually happened here is just as you described, in short, the birth of what became one of the most famous ministries in the world based upon a certain celebrity, and aspiration of success, what was at least claimed in many terms to be a demonstration of success that ended spectacularly in a bankruptcy. Then of all the historical ironies, what was called the Crystal Cathedral, at the heart of a televangelism or teller-religion phenomenon that is even as we speak now the Cathedral of the Diocese of Orange of the Roman Catholic Church, which as you noted in the book the first time a non-Catholic building has ever been translated into a Roman Catholic Cathedral in Catholic history. You can't make this up. No fiction writer could make up Robert Schuller. I say that as one who knew him and had various encounters with him, including the personal tour he took me on of the grounds of the Crystal Cathedral. There's a long story behind that.

Albert Mohler:

Robert Schuller and I were antagonists theologically in the reformed world. But he was irrepressible. The amazing thing is, is that one time when we had a very bad encounter, he actually said, "The next time you're in Southern California, let me show you around the Crystal Cathedral." Well, as a student of American religion, I couldn't turn that down. Anyway, it was just fascinating.

Albert Mohler:

But I'll tell you, I had no particular insight, as insightful as I would like to think myself to be that what I was seeing then would end in a matter of a decade in a spectacular bankruptcy. It is one of those stories that demands to be told. But you've done a uniquely academic work here, and it's published by an academic publisher, Rutgers University Press. In order to get this book published by an academic publisher, you not only have to write it in such a way that it impresses academic reviewers, and you do write as scholars. But it also has to be something that is understood to be of significance to a publisher like Rutgers University Press beyond your personal interests. The reality is you are talking about what is a very important cultural occurrence in the history of Christianity and the United States.

Albert Mohler:

Mark, you come from a Dutch Reformed background. This is just not the story you would predict coming out of that theological tradition in the United States.

Mark Mulder:

Not at all. It wasn't until I was an adult that I even realized that Schuller was Dutch Reformed. Back in Northwest Iowa, his name is pronounced “Skuller”. He actually changed pronunciation as he moved west to make it a little softer. When Gerardo pitched this idea, I was a bit, "I don't know."  I hemmed and hawed a little bit. But then I realized he and I come from very similar cultural milieus, Dutch Reformed. He was in Iowa. I grew up in Alto, Wisconsin; and he grew up in Alton, Iowa. Both named after the same Dutch town.

Mark Mulder:

Yeah, the reason why I think I never saw him as someone coming out at the same tradition until I was adult because the Crystal Cathedral was somewhat antithetical to my Dutch Reformed experience growing up, very small, plain, unordained, modest church. None of the vestments that he wore. None of the theatrics. A lot of what he does in terms of worship style, I didn't recognize. But then theologically, of course, possibility thinking, theology of self-esteem, never made the connection to reformed theology or Calvinism as I understood it.

Gerardo Marti:

There's the additional irony is that Schuller comes from a very unexpected place for what he ended up doing, both theologically and in terms of the building of an actual church, one of the earliest megachurches in America. The reason why I felt that Mark was important to be able to do this is that Mark has sensibilities living in Michigan, coming from Iowa, living in Wisconsin.

Gerardo Marti:

That area of being able to understand what is this sentiment that would somehow be able to transition into a Southern California that I understood much better, one that's characterized by mobility, by an ambition, by entrepreneurial impetus, by the ability to purchase property and utilize it in an expansive way, of cars, automobiles, the celebrity and the ability to be telegenic. All of those things were all very familiar to me. Being able to combine forces to be able to work all angles of this story is, I think, what makes it such a powerful analysis.

Albert Mohler:

It is a powerful analysis. As much as I thought I knew so much about Schuller and the ministry, I learned a great deal by reading your book. Just as a matter of personal biography, I grew up as a Southern Baptist, no surprise there. But I was also tremendously influenced by something of an analogy to the Crystal Cathedral in its vision, but not in its theology. That would be Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, where a D. James Kennedy was pastor.

Albert Mohler:

Yet, if you were to just take a television shot, there would be a lot of similarities between Robert Schuller in his academic gown, which as you say was very carefully orchestrated even right down to the particular tone because he wanted it to look right on television and D. James Kennedy in the pulpit of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, which was also incredibly, is incredibly theatrical space, also dressed in his doctoral gown.

Albert Mohler:

The difference was that Jim Kennedy actually had an earned doctorate from New York University. But they both seemed to understand something of this theatricality and they both began their services with a very similar invocation of a biblical verse said and that syntonian voice. Yet, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church was and is a part of the Presbyterian Church in America and under the control of the presbytery there and is far more organically Presbyterian than the Crystal Cathedral as its very name implies, ever was with what is America's longest continuing religious denomination, which is now the Reformed Church in America.

Albert Mohler:

I thought I knew a great deal. Frankly, I did. I encountered Robert Schuller first in 1983. It was right soon after his book, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation had come out. I found the book absolutely appalling. Theologically, I found it very difficult to believe that anyone identified with the Reformed Church in America would write such a book. I knew he was RCA, because he invoked that, the very first time I heard him in person. But he had no idea to whom he was speaking.

Albert Mohler:

He was invited to speak, it's a very odd thing, in 1983, in the midst of all kinds of national and denominational controversy. He was invited by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission, which was at the time the left wing of the SBC. He was invited to speak in the same session as Jim Wallis. I don't know if you know that name. Who's head of the Sojourners Movement.

Albert Mohler:

Okay. Just imagine the two of them. Schuller does not know who Jim Wallis is. Jim Wallis does know who Robert Schuller is. Schuler had no idea who his audience was. He got up and just actually tore pages right before us. He tore pages out of Self-Esteem: The New Reformation and proceeded to correct the reformation based theology that people to me was speaking. It did not go over well. I don't even know if he knew it didn't go over well.

Albert Mohler:

But, anyway, I read the book and it just seemed to me to be Palladianism mixed with New Thought. It was odd at the time. I was studying New Thought as a theological interest in trying to understand religion in America. I realized this is just Norman Vincent Peale. Now, at the time, I didn't realize it was organically Norman Vincent Peale. But it was.

Albert Mohler:

Gerardo, tell us something of how you get that New Thought, Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller trajectory.

Gerardo Marti:

What's interesting is even though people see Schuller as a celebrity, he really viewed himself as a pastor. When he graduated from seminary and took on his first pastorate outside of Chicago, his concern was how best to pastor and grow this church. At that point, doctrine was not the most important thing in his mind. He became very practical about what it meant to really speak to people, to motivate them, to encourage them, to have them be givers, as well as volunteers, and how do you go about doing the work of the gospel in a contemporary world.

Gerardo Marti:

He began listening to the preachers who seem to have the most attention, the ones who seem to have the most vitality in their preaching, and that's where Norman Vincent Peale came in. Norman Vincent Peale was by far one of the most famous preachers of the day, who had an astounding audience, well past the doors of his church. It was the message that appealed there that seemed to cross doctrinal lines and cross religious sensibilities to be able to touch the ordinary person. That's where I think that in those few years in which he was very successful as a pastor, that he began to craft a whole new persona of what it meant to really speak to people, and not just to the ones who are right in front of him, and not just the ones who were already shaped within the denomination, but to really be able to speak into the hearts of people.

Gerardo Marti:

When he started his mission church in Southern California, he immediately appealed to that same sensibility, developed and expanded it and built a mentoring sponsoring relationship with Norman Vincent Peale himself. Norman Vincent Peale became a lifelong example and a lifelong partner in the ministry that he cultivated.

Albert Mohler:

There's some real theological parallels there but they're not the same. Norman Vincent Peale was a Methodist. Who, in order to take the pulpit of the Marble Collegiate Church, accepted ordination in the Reformed Church in America, but at the same time ... I don't understand this on the part of the RCA. Some RCA officials going to have to explain this to me, given the times. I mean, you're talking about the 1930s. How in the world was it that someone like Norman Vincent Peale, who confessionally, basically openly rejected the confessional tradition of the RCA? He nonetheless is ordained in the RCA and becomes the pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church and, of course, eventually becomes the pastor to the family of Trump, the Trump family in New York, and is the one pastor cited by Donald Trump as the most influential in his life. Again, you can't make this up.

Gerardo Marti:

Well, that to me is the bridge. The bridge is that you have an expansion of business and an expansion of people who are moving up the ladder as white collar workers in a newly built ladder of promotion. How do I become stable financially? What does it mean to actually accomplish something in this world? How do I find meaning in life? For many people, that was through business.

Gerardo Marti:

I think that once this orientation of how do you then appeal to that business person who is pursuing profit and who is a very ego-oriented person putting themselves out into the world in a competitive manner? How do you appeal to that person to still embrace the tenets of Christianity? That's what began a longer work, a longer project of which Peale was a part of, to say, "Okay. We need to now accommodate this message to be able to say, yes, you can be a Christian, and you can be a capitalist, and to be able to work those things together so that the messages began to be more practical and spoke directly to the anxieties of this new class of person."

Gerardo Marti:

I think that Marble Collegiate Church was well placed to speak exactly to that kind of person. Lo and behold, when Orange County was populated with Southerners and Midwesterners, all moving out into an expanding suburban landscape, working in a variety of fields, not only aerospace, but a number of other businesses and opportunity that was opening up, that Schuller ended up speaking to the very same kind of person. That that meeting of the anxiety of the white collar worker anxious to provide for his family as well as a team, a measure of success became the target audience, if you will, of Schuller and his messages.

Albert Mohler:

There certainly was an incredible commercial, financial aspirationalism, managerial perhaps aspirationalism in all of this. As a church historian and theologian, I can draw a line from people like Henry Ward Beecher at Plymouth Congregational Church, also in Greater New York, then Harry Emerson Fosdick. Fosdick and Peale were at one time contemporaries there in New York, with Fosdick at the Riverside Church, the paragon of American theological liberalism.

Albert Mohler:

But also two different things with Fosdick, one was he understood public relations. Early in the 20th century, he began to partner in a way that was considered coloring way outside the lines, with one of the early public relations experts in America, Ivy Lee; and then also Bernays, the nephew, actually, of Sigmund Freud. But Freud takes me to the fact that Fosdick also translated ... He abandoned Orthodox Christian doctrine often actually repudiated it. But he abandoned it in favor of psychotherapeutic categories. Then along comes Peale.

Albert Mohler:

By the way, the best evidence from Peale is that every time ... In fact, Carol V.R. George, who wrote the best biography of Norman Vincent Peale, points out the fact that every time there was, say, a fundamentalist, modernist controversy, he sided with the modernists. But he did not have that abrasiveness of ... He never outright denied orthodox doctrines the way that Fosdick did.

Albert Mohler:

My grandmother, my Southern Baptist grandmother had not only Guideposts magazine, but other Norman Vincent Peale books. It was all seems to me a part of the same commercial milieu and the cultural moment with Dale Carnegie and the Rotary Club, it's this aspirational white collar looking for stability, and the Cold War has to be a part of the background to this as well. Orange County, as you point out in your book, overrepresented in the defense industries. This burgeoning New America shows up in places like Orange County before anywhere else. Eventually, you get Disney and Knott's Berry Farm and that just explosion of everything.

Albert Mohler:

But you make a fascinating point, which I have not seen made before in your book. You guys argue that Schuller wasn't so much an evangelist in the classic Christian sense as he was attractive to people who thought themselves Christian, but just weren't members of any particular church. They move from Iowa, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana. They ended up in Orange County. They weren't exactly non-Christians. They just weren't engaged yet in any church.

Albert Mohler:

Two things here, that he really was spectacularly successful at harnessing thousands of them. But he also decided the name of his church was going to be a community church. He downplayed any denominational identification. How does that all play into this? Let me ask Mark. How does all of this play into that?

Mark Mulder:

Yeah. That was a really conscious decision at the time to not be Garden Grove Reformed Church. For sure, it was because reformed ... It had no marketing ability. It can only stand to put people off. I think if you actually look at some of the records, he was a little bit embarrassed by some of his Dutch reformed compatriots who are already there in Southern California. Because as we discussed in the book, he had a lot of trouble finding a spot to actually hold worship. The lore of the drive-in movie theater where it ended up in 1955 was actually 9th out of 10 possibilities.

Mark Mulder:

The local classes of reformed churches had suggested a farmer who could be the architect for Schuller's new church, because he had built barns. Schuller was aghast at that. He thought, "No, I'm just going to be Garden Grove Community Church. I'm going to try to really lower any obstacle to come into church that people can possibly offer. I'm going to make sure it is as accessible as possible." He eventually came to consider himself a bit of a pre-evangelist that he was doing everything he could to get people in the door. He felt like their aspects, actually, of reformed theology that he found embarrassing. That he said, "You can't preach about it. You can talk about predestination. But you have to do it in a classroom setting where people can ask questions and you can have a dialogue. You can't have seat on a pulpit and just tell people about it, because it's going to come off as strange and profoundly unattractive, that people don't have agency."

Mark Mulder:

He always avoided that component of his reformed identity. When it came to issues of accountability and orthodoxy, then he really liked to lean into his Reformed Church of America identity, but only when it worked for him.

Albert Mohler:

You mentioned in the book, you document how he used it when he wanted respectability, and supposed evidence of accountability, which he repeated many different points over and over again at length. I think that's why he mentioned it at that event I first attended in 1983, which was a Southern Baptist event in which he was a speaker. But that also reminds me the fact that he wasn't unique in that. For instance, about the same time as Schuller is building the Crystal Cathedral at its height, Oral Roberts from an extremely different tradition, Pentecostal charismatic tradition in Oklahoma.

Albert Mohler:

He actually seeks and receives United Methodist credentials at one point, as a way of saying, "I'm not like those other people who are just unaffiliated and unaccountable." That didn't last all that long in terms of his act of identification. But it is interesting. You have this, maybe there's a story to be told here of the credentialising issues of the 20th century where both Schuller would cite it, and even people like Oral Roberts sought it and actually achieved it at one point, because it was convenient at the time to say, "I'm not just independent. I'm a RCA pastor or I'm a United Methodist pastor."

Albert Mohler:

By the way, you also make very clear that Schuller often claimed, A, to have produced the ministry as part of a strategic plan. By the way, we mean to take nothing away from the entrepreneurial ability of Robert Schuller. I just want to say that right up front. I take nothing away from his entrepreneurial ability in those early years.

Albert Mohler:

But as you indicate, this really wasn't a strategy. For instance, being located on the interstates there, the freeways. The freeways weren't there or no one knew they were going to be there when he started the property, but it did end up that way. The other thing is, he wasn't, B, you might say, as innovative as he often gets credit for. In the book you don't take this out very far.

Albert Mohler:

But you mentioned J. Wallace Hamilton in St. Petersburg who did two things. Number one, long before Schuller had a drive-in church, which by the way, again, irony is actually a United Methodist Church. But it's also called Pasadena Community Church. I was born about 30 miles away from there. I knew of it. But I hadn't made that connection. But even naming this drive-in church, a community church, it was something he knew of already. But given Schuller, it all became a part of Schullerism.

Mark Mulder:

Right. I think one of the key things that we found out is he would read back stories or explanations for things that didn't necessarily exist at the beginning. Building a church near a highway intersection became one of the tenets of ... he would publish books and he had the leadership institute. You want to buy near ... build near highway interchanges. He talked about how the drive-in theater, he understood that later on as, "Oh, it's all about accessibility. We want it to be there for people who are wheelchair bound, people who are in uniform, people who are concerned about crowds and things like that." But that was read back on to drive-in church. That wasn't necessarily why he initially founded the drive-in church. It was out of necessity, lack of options.

Gerardo Marti:

One of the things I want to add is Schuller stumbled on a strategy to unite strangers at church. Churches, for as long as we've known them, are connected because friends, and family, and neighbors invite each other to church. Between getting the message out about a service that's accessible, and allowing people who did not know each other to occupy the same place was remarkable. He was able to then, in thinking about that, be able to figure out how can I accentuate this principle in every way possible in my messages, as well as in the space that I have, as well as in the broadcast that I eventually take on. I think this is part of what makes the modern church so distinctive.

Gerardo Marti:

Is that the modern church, even though it was called a community church, by him, is really about how can we get more strangers in the building in order to give it a shot? How can we then convince those who are already here to dedicate their time and their tithes to be able to build the infrastructure to hold more strangers? The ability to do that is, I think, what then backed into what became his key organizational strategy. That is, I can ask for as much money as I can, but ultimately, I'm going to have to borrow as much money as I can. As I borrow, then I'll be able to fill in the gaps of revenue by being able to get a few donors and carry out those payments for as long as possible. The assumption of debt on the part of the church became a strategic way of being able to build capacity for people who had not yet arrived.

Albert Mohler:

That's like a Ponzi scheme. It works until it doesn't. The Crystal Cathedral it worked until it didn't. By the time you had declining attendance, an aging Schuller, a changing Orange County, and any number of issues including an increasingly non-maintained facility at the entire Crystal Cathedral, eventually, the debt became a trap. By the way, you had the recession of 2009 and what came afterwards. All of a sudden, everything that had worked for Schuller, organizationally, begins to work against him. Is one of the lessons here that he didn't see it until it was way too late?

Gerardo Marti:

In my mind, as I've read the memos and understand his approach, he saw himself as incredibly strategic and highly rational. He and everyone else around him agreed that however he was achieving his success, it was because he was strategic. He pursued a strategic calculation to expand and create a stability for a church before secularism would come in and enforce its decline. But what I think what he did not know is that he was unaware of how policies towards financial institutions had changed in the late '70s in order to combat stagflation. You had a lowering of restrictions on the flow of capital. You had a massive rise in the ability to be able to obtain these loans. You also had windfalls on the part of wealthy Christian businessmen who now had more money to give to causes that they themselves had some resonance to.

Gerardo Marti:

The ability to access credit as well as access wealthy Christian businessmen, executives, together became a part of the success that I don't think he always talked about. They didn't always make it into the principles that he shared. When credit contracted, and when those that wealth was no longer as accessible, and the flow of capital dried up, that's what really put everything in arrears.

Mark Mulder:

I think also he assumed that what is doing is universal, and that it could be implemented anywhere in the United States that there ... He didn't realize the confluence of events that made his church in Orange County, in Garden Grove perfect for that moment, for the back half of the 20th century. The tilting of the country toward Southern California, bringing these white middle class families who we're eager for some semblance of a religious organization that looked something from home, but still had a fresh spin on it that felt West Coast and a bit different.

Mark Mulder:

He thought that this could be done anywhere. He suggested drive-in churches around the country. Build a dome at the intersection of 94 and 80 in Chicago. Don't worry about the weather. We can still do it there. I don't think there was a quite clear understanding of what demographics that allowed him to flourish for so long. Then as we know, as Orange County became more racially diverse, large Vietnamese populations, large Latinx populations that the ground was shifting beneath them.

Mark Mulder:

He did see it. I mean, they started a Hispanic ministry, but it was a bit of an attachment. It was not fully integrated. They weren't really resourced to respond or adapt to the changing demographics of Orange County.

Albert Mohler:

When you look at a book with the title, The Glass Church: Robert H. Schuller, the Crystal Cathedral, and the Strain of Megachurch Ministry, I have the impression that there would be many people who might know a little bit about some of this, but very little about all of this, or especially when you put all the words together. What in the world was a Glass Church? Well, you pretty much had to see it to believe it.

Albert Mohler:

The Crystal Cathedral, that wasn't its original name. But that became its name. That's a story too. The Strain of Megachurch Ministry and the person of Robert H. Schuller, again, it's a story that comes together that is so incredible. You couldn't possibly make it up. You see truth as stranger than fiction.

Albert Mohler:

Now, just to tell the story organizationally, things got rocky, especially say between 2003-2015 and in that period. The last time I was there, I think was about 2003. It was right after the Welcome Center, designed by Richard Meier, had been opened and I was shown around there. Again, this came out of a conflict. It didn't come out of anything harmonious. I had been on Larry King Live with Robert Schuller more than once. We squared off basically against one another.

Albert Mohler:

I had spoken at a conference in Southern California, in which I was just extremely critical of Robert Schuller's theology. Just to make this make sense, I was one of 40 young leaders in America, back when I was young, profiled in a Time Magazine cover story. That's the thing that caught his attention. The next thing I know, I got a phone call from Robert Schuller and started getting letters from Robert Schuller. It was a charm offensive. But I have to admit, I was curious enough that when I was in Southern California actually had the same event in which we would have been theologically very much in conflict. Nonetheless, he wants to show me around.

Albert Mohler:

I have to say it was incredibly impressive. Now, I mean, theologically, I was appalled. I love architecture. I mean, Philip Johnson, Richard Neutra, Richard Meier. I mean, it's like an architectural fantasyland. But that's exactly what it felt like, as a matter of fact. It didn't feel like a church at all.

Albert Mohler:

In your book, by the way, you demonstrate how ... you say he wanted to be called a pastor rather than evangelist. When pressed tried to argue that his church wasn't a church but a mission, because then it wasn't theologically accountable as a church. I got the impression as in my engagements with him that he was making it up as he went along. In other words, if he's talking to Christianity Today, interrogators, he affirms Chalcedonian and Nicene orthodoxy.

Albert Mohler:

But if he's talking to Larry King, I mean, he affirmed universalism, rather than historic Christian understandings of the gospel, I mean, repeatedly. But then he would turn around with someone else, like with me, and insist how much he believed in heaven and hell, and a traditional reformation understanding of the gospel. I'll admit. I'm still perplexed.

Mark Mulder:

I think there's an earnestness that he really wanted to be all things to all people in some ways. He could be a bit of a chameleon in that effort. He really want ... Just like he wanted you to like him ... he really wanted Ken Woodward, the religion editor of Newsweek to like him as well. Those two went toe to toe quite a bit.

Mark Mulder:

In the book, we also have instances where he's having a conversation with Lewis Smedes, and now passed reformed theologian who taught at Fuller Seminary for a long time, and then actually taught at Calvin where I'm at for a while as well. There's actually a moment where they're having a conversation about sin. Lewis Smedes tells Schuller, "I think you got it wrong. It's not that we don't have enough pride or we don't have enough self-esteem. Augustine would say we have too much and that's sin." Schuller has the audacity say, "Well, I think Augustine is wrong on that."

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. That is the most underlined emphatically sentence in your entire book and my copy. As an Augustinian theologian, for someone just to say Augustine was wrong. You guys cite the Christianity Today piece that was done about 1984, August I think of 1984. It had taken place because Kenneth Kantzer, David Wells, and Gilbert Beers had gone out to meet with and interview Robert Schuller. Kantzer and a co-author actually wrote an article summarizing it. But it's really interesting. They pressed him on a lot of these questions. You cite this in your book. But the actual Kenneth Kantzer, David Wells, Gilbert Beers interview was actually quite extensive.

Albert Mohler:

He basically says contradictory things in one conversation. But it's clear he doesn't like Paul. Even if he doesn't like Augustine, he really doesn't like Paul either.

Gerardo Marti:

But I know that Schuller saw himself as a brilliant theologian. As a sociologist, I see him more as a brilliant organizational theorist. He really thought through, how do I create an organization that will incorporate as many people as possible, staff it in such a way that I can appeal to a diversity of interests, and also be able to find an engine by which charisma could be characterized by excellence in the bureaucratic procedures carried through all the way down to the most lowly volunteer, so that even the usher at the greatest extent of the building is manifesting the same quality that he wants to see characterized out of the whole church, the same ethos or ambiance that comes from the pulpit from his own mouth.

Gerardo Marti:

There's that aspect to it. Then combine that with this organizational management of making sure that you can get that revenue in a constant and growing level, so that you can continue to feed the machine and expand it. When he added the Hour of Power ministry, what most people don't know is how much of the revenue of the Crystal Cathedral really came just from that single source. He himself admitted that the Hour of Power would likely not survive without himself, that he was the personality that would carry that show.

Gerardo Marti:

His hope was that he would be able to build the strength of the church and have the church live on well past his lifetime at the same time that the Hour of Power would dwindle. But in every year that we can see, the dependence on the revenue of the Hour of Power never was reduced. With the overextension, and the continuing to add more, and the borrowing of more, you could never really get away from the revenue of the Hour of Power in order to just have a church regardless of who would be the pastor.

Gerardo Marti:

Even though he never solved that problem, it is remarkable that he was able to build a 50-year ministry with such strength and persuade so many people of being able to manage things in this way that it really became the default of what clergy see as church management today. I think that no one would disagree that today, pastors see themselves as managers of their churches, not necessarily a doctrinal protectors who advocate things simply from the pulpit. Instead, we all have to be a part of managing our congregations. We all need to pay attention to where the revenue is going to come from. We all need to make sure that the mixture of the constituency of the church, the charisma that's coming from the pastor, and the ministry, as well as the capital resources are all operating in sync with each other.

Albert Mohler:

That makes a lot of sense. I have to say as one who is now a seminary president, been almost for three decades, of a confessional theological seminary, this will be clear. My life investment is to turn out pastors who are not mere managers, but rather are theologians, and see that their primary commitment is theological and pastoral. But as president of a large theological institution, I got to pay the bills. The local church has to pay the bill. Yes. In other words, they have to be adept at certain managerial skills as well, especially in an increasingly complex economy and culture.

Albert Mohler:

The problem is getting all that in sync. You could just draw a line there. It's just a matter of miles between Garden Grove Community Church and, say, Grace Community Church, pastor by John MacArthur in Sun Valley up in the valley itself. Their messages could not be more different with John MacArthur representing very much a very, very biblical, expository, theologically clear. Indeed, you could argue over the years, ever more clear in confessional identity and still going, by the way.

Albert Mohler:

You have two community churches, Grace Community Church in the north, Garden Grove Community Church in the south. But both of them have to be managerial to a certain extent. Otherwise, you can't ... I mean, you've got big properties, you've got big budgets, you got insurance policies, you got liabilities. But the issue for me is what defines a ministry. What do people think of? What you just said is exactly what I see as the most severe indictment of Robert Schuller. That is that as a supposedly Christian pastor, the one thing everybody admires about him is his managerial skill, which is so ironic because at the end of the day, that is what failed him. That's a warning to us all. I don't mean that with some hubris. I mean that because It's a warning to us all.

Albert Mohler:

You invoke several terms that I think are very helpful. In the business culture, the idea of organizational strain has been there for a long time. But you translate this into what you call megachurch strain. The interest of your book amongst many pastors, and I've shared it with many is not just that it's about Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral. But it really is about what you argue as a pattern of megachurch strain.

Mark Mulder:

Sure. We landed on what we call the three C's. The three legs that are supporting all churches, but megachurches in particular, and that's capital, constituency, and charisma. That as long as those three things ... The capital you have funds coming in. Schuller was a master at proposing major projects that took a lot of cash and that were really exciting. He said, "Don't bother with bake sales. Don't waste your time. Don't ask people to fix the furnace. They don't care about that. If you need the furnace fixed, tell them you need a new glass building and then use that money to fix the furnace and build your glass building." You need to have that constant influx of capital.

Mark Mulder:

But you also have to have the right constituency. You have to have the people in place that who are going to come, fill your pews, fill the offering plates, and that are going to be attracted to what you happen to be doing on Sunday mornings or on Wednesday evenings. Then you have to have the charisma. You have to have the right person in place who is going to give attenders confidence that this person is somebody I want to follow. That there's somebody who has a dynamism. Who is theologically astute, that they're onto something. As long as those things are in balance, it works.

Mark Mulder:

One of our arguments is we ... the Glass Church is both what locals call ... grew up calling the Crystal Cathedral as Glass Church pejoratively. You want to call it a cathedral. It's not. You want to call it crystal. It's not. It's a Glass Church. But there's also fragility in glass. It has some strength to a certain point. But once it's overwhelmed, it doesn't just crack a little bit. It shatters. It's ruined. Our argument is that, especially for megachurches, because they tend to be top heavy and overloaded, they're actually ... there's strains and there's fragility that in good times it's all quite masked. But it doesn't take much an economic crisis, a pastor who makes some poor decisions, changing demographics. If any one of those things goes out of balance, the entire structure might wobble and crash and sometimes catastrophically.

Albert Mohler:

Gerardo, you make the point in the book that growth is a key factor here. They grow until they don't. But when the Crystal Cathedral stopped growing, it actually, I would argue, started collapsing. Is that fair to say?

Gerardo Marti:

Very fair to say. In fact, Schuller would completely agree with you, because he felt like many other church growth "theorists" would say that if the church is not growing, it's dying. The difficulty is trying to achieve clarity about what that means. As a sociologist, and I've studied many churches, and have done a lot of analyses on these things. I'm looking for frameworks that will help me make sense of what's really going on. Once Mark and I landed on this notion that every church has to balance constituency, charisma, and capital that very much helped me to understand how is it that churches are trying to manage the resources of their ministries in order to achieve the goals that they have. There are often incompatibilities between the goals that they have and the resources that they possess. How they fill those is something that is part of the magic, if you will, of leadership.

Gerardo Marti:

But what we don't often see and what I think Schuller underestimated is you can stretch the capacities of your church internally. But you may be doing so at the risk of any external shocks that may happen, things that you cannot predict that may hurt your church, even though you have done everything you could within your church. As we, for example, face the COVID-19 pandemic, that's an example of an external shock which no church leader could have ever anticipated. Yet, the consequences of that are only going to exaggerate the difference between the resources you have and the desires which you want to achieve in addition to the commitments that you've already made.

Gerardo Marti:

Schuller already produced incredible strain just internally to the congregation out of the things that he wanted to accomplish in his ministry. Once the strains externally were imposed, in addition, that's what created the vicious spiraling that no one was able to control.

Albert Mohler:

I grew up in South Florida in my high school years. I was actually a member of a Baptist megachurch, really stood by those contemporary definitions. Move there in 1972. I was 12, 13 years old, never seen anything like it. Church had a bowling alley and a gymnasium, and vibrant youth group. By the way, it was just a phenomenally healthy place for me to be as a teenager and for our family. I'm very thankful for that.

Albert Mohler:

Then I came into the influence also of other pastors in the area. I mentioned Jim Kennedy, in particular at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. Much like Schuller in the visuals and they're just absolute contradictions theologically, except for one thing, which I'm going to get to. But theologically, they would have been completely opposed with Jim Kennedy a confessional Presbyterian, Schuller doing his best to get away as far from that tradition as possible, at least in perception and in preaching. But the visuals are very important. Jim Kennedy, who was incredibly strategic, as well as entrepreneurial in his own way, he goes on to a church as 10s, he builds it up into multiple thousands, builds this incredibly theatrical building.

Albert Mohler:

I believe Richard Wagner, Philadelphia, designed it. Again, very famous architect. With a 30-story, more than 350 foot tower, visible from almost everywhere in the county, by far the highest structure in the county, all this. Billy Graham, much like Norman Vincent Peale preached at the inaugural service of the Crystal Cathedral. Billy Graham preached the dedication at Coral Ridge. You look at all this and I say, "Okay. I saw that." There's a real Presbyterian Church at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church right now. But it's been through cycles of strain. I'm very thankful for the health that I see there now.

Albert Mohler:

But it's not the same as it was in the 1970s and '80s with Jim Kennedy, national television. By the way, you also make that point. I've seen that with the ministry of people like Charles Stanley in Atlanta. With the fact that so many people watch on television, and that means you don't know who you have on Sunday morning. People would watch Jim Kennedy, and then they would come to South Florida on vacation, and they would show up to see him preach. But he walked in there and thought you were seeing the church. You weren't.

Albert Mohler:

The same thing is the point you make about the Crystal Cathedral. The people watch the Hour of Power. They came as tourists. They made a pilgrimage, so to speak. Not to Canterbury, but to the Garden Grove. That's not a part of the financial foundation of the church. You also really document. By the way, if there's one thing I wish had been in your book that you did not have in your book and how's this for a managerial point? I need charts and graphs. Because one of the things I thought of and you got to it was the ageing of that congregation because I have seen that as a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention and elsewhere. That's one of the things that has been ... Megachurch pastors when they're together, they know this is a constant, the average age of attenders.

Albert Mohler:

Now by the time you get to Schuller and the end of his ministry, the average age in the congregation is creeping hauntingly towards his own. How does that factor in?

Mark Mulder:

Yeah. That becomes a significant issue that the current congregation continues to wrestle with. I think we have a postscript in the book that Schuller's grandson, Bobby, continues to minister to the congregation that's now known as Irvine Presbyterian Church. But even under, Bobby's in his maybe late 30s, they continue to try to figure out how to draw in a younger audience. Because if you watch Hour of Power, which you still can on YouTube every weekend, if you look at the congregation, it is still quite a bit older, even Bobby's younger presentation and he's a good preacher, and people love him. But they still draw older.

Mark Mulder:

There's a lot. I think, millennials and Gen Xers who saw, especially Robert Schuller in the last years, just didn't resonate with them anymore. They were more interested in what one of Schuller's disciples was doing down the road, Rick Warren at Saddleback. Rick Warren had been through the Leadership Institute with Schuller and he took ... I like to think of it this way. Robert Schuller had built a department store, trying to draw in everybody. I'm not sure it has something for everyone.

Mark Mulder:

Rick Warren's genius was, well, people don't shop like that anymore. Everybody wants a boutique or a craft something. Rather than one big service that everybody can kind of like, I'm going to have 11 different venues and really develop a loyalty to a certain type of worship at Saddleback. Warren would say, "That's okay. Because that's not really church. That's just getting people in the door. Church actually happens in the small groups that are spread all over, the one in 1,000 small groups are spread all over Orange County where people are actually getting together in intimate venue. That's church."

Gerardo Marti:

One of the things that's interesting about age is when a church grows over time, does the congregation remain the same age or does it get older? I think that the fact that the ministry had an older profile really betrays that the message of the cathedral and the ministry of the cathedral appealed to a particular culture. That culture clearly was shrinking in Orange County even as the campus of the Crystal Cathedral continued to expand.

Gerardo Marti:

As a contrast, we can look at Mosaic in Los Angeles, which is a Southern Baptist Church, led by Erwin McManus. That ministry for 20, 30 years has actually kept the same age profile, still an average age that's around 27, 28, or 29 years old. That is a remarkable phenomenon when you can see a ministry that can continue to appeal to a changing culture over time, and still be able to have relevance to those people.

Gerardo Marti:

Schuller had a message that he deemed to be universal, and one that would touch everyone. That spoke to the inherent psychology of all people. But in actuality, his church presumed that you had a certain Midwestern and Southern sensibility that you were already churched and understand what church means, and that you're already pre-inclined to say, "I make a commitment to a church and that includes making a healthy financial commitment to that church as well."

Albert Mohler:

You guys probably know the name Lyle Schaller, came across it in your work, a church management expert, kind of to mainline Protestantism, especially in the last part of the 20th century. I heard Schaller say one time, "That a lot of churches end up being retirement homes, and other churches end up being permanent youth groups. The goal was to be somewhere between those two." When you mentioned McManus and Mosaic and Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral that there seemed to be two different bookends of Schaller's point here.

Albert Mohler:

The difficulty is ... I mean, we talked about aging here. Let me just stipulate right up front. Let's just posit that Protestantism in the United States is older than it was 50 years ago. Mainline Protestantism, older in the mean, or the median than evangelical Protestantism. But evangelicalism is still older by median age than it was 20 years ago. We are looking at an increasingly secularized youth culture. The difficulty of not only attracting millennials and Generation Z or whatever we're going to land on calling them, but of getting them deeply involved in the life of a local church.

Albert Mohler:

It's not impossible. There are many churches are doing it well. It's not impossible. We've got record enrollment as a very confessional seminary. But the larger culture is the religious culture is getting older. I've been looking at trends, particularly in a project of my own in the United Kingdom. In the 1970s and 1980s, you could see that strain in the British churches, and you can see here now, just a delayed fuse.

Albert Mohler:

Let me ask you both. What's the parable of Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral? What's the one line you would offer as the lesson of your book?

Mark Mulder:

I'm just struck by how quickly Schuller has been forgotten. We discuss in the book the fact that I was starting all my semesters with students going to a Dutch reformed college and not to university and ask them just as a way to get to know them a little bit. Who here has heard of Robert Schuller? I get almost no hands.

Mark Mulder:

Then I would mention Hour of Power, and I get a few timid hands wanting to help me out saying, "They thought they knew that. Maybe when they're homesick from church or their grandma had watched something like that." But it just strikes me how someone as monumental to 20th century Christianity in the United States, someone who was on TV every Sunday morning for 40 years is credited by some as helping the fall of communism in the Soviet Union, because of his friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev, how less than a decade after he leaves ministry, he's already outside of the public consciousness for a lot of people. Just how fleeting some religious movements can be, which seemed monumental at the time.

Mark Mulder:

I often tell my students that religious change tends to be glacial. But in some ways, the story of the Crystal Cathedral and its vulnerability shows you that there are moments where there are radical changes that you don't even realize are happening as the ground shifts beneath our feet.

Gerardo Marti:

Our book is certainly a caution to church leaders today. Schuller had immense confidence that he had figured out church. He had figured out how to lead it. He had figured out the gospel for today. He had figured out how to secure a strong future for Christianity. Not just in America, but the whole world. Unfortunately, I think that there are many things that Schuller didn't understand and didn't even bother trying to discern.

Gerardo Marti:

I think if there is an ultimate virtue that we really want to promote through this book it's the virtue of humility. That pastors in their ambition and in their convictions that they still remember that the world continues to change, that they do not have 100% ability to see everything that impacts them in their ministry, and that they would always benefit from a little more reflection, a little bit more careful assessment, a little bit more of listening to unfamiliar voices in order to try to really grasp what is the larger activity of the spirit in the world today.

Albert Mohler:

I really did enjoy that conversation with Professors Mulder and Marti. They wrote a very interesting book. People who read the book are likely to read it in different ways. Some are probably going to read it simply because of their interest in Robert H. Schuller. As we discussed, that's probably a dwindling number, simply as a matter of the actuarial tables. People are getting older. A lot of the people who were deeply involved in and interested in the ministry of Robert Schuller aren't even with us anymore.

Albert Mohler:

I think there'll be some people who will read the book because of the idea of megachurch strain, with the megachurch such a major phenomenon across the religious world, especially the Christian world. We are trying to figure out what does that mean? What is the shape of the church for the future? What does a megachurch look like in the future?

Albert Mohler:

There are some incredible lessons to be learned by the Crystal Cathedral. But on the other hand, I'm a theologian. The bigger story here to me is theology or the lack of theology, the transformation of what had been a theological message into primarily a psychotherapeutic message, the abandonment of the gospel in any clear sense, the repudiation of the classic Christian understanding of sin. That means, of course, the reformulation of the gospel and all the rest. It becomes, when it comes to Robert H. Schuller, a parable of what I would call a different kind of liberalism.

Albert Mohler:

It's not the hard liberalism of a Harry Emerson Fosdick or someone who just outright denies the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. It's a softer liberalism that is simply not theological, that avoids any kind of theological rough spots, theological hard edges, any kind of definition. It's really clear that Robert Schuller was embarrassed by and felt restricted by the confessional reformation theology of the Reformed Church in America. But he also wanted the credentials. He wanted the respectability that came with being an ordained minister of the oldest religious denomination, Christian denomination in the United States. He wanted that. He wanted both worlds. As I discovered in my own small way, he wanted the respect of everyone across the theological spectrum. Of course, that's impossible if you take theology seriously.

Albert Mohler:

I can well remember as a young theologian being given a copy of Robert Schuller's 1982 book Self-Esteem: The New Reformation. I can remember reading it and wondering how this could, in any sense, be the product of someone who was actually a Christian minister. Not to mention a Christian theologian or someone writing a theological work. It wasn't theological, and that was the point. But you didn't have to read between the lines to see in the book of repudiation of Augustinian, Pauline, New Testament theology, reformation theology as seen in the historic creeds and confessions of reformation Christianity, the gospel as preached in almost every megachurch of my knowledge, when I was a young man, in the United States.

Albert Mohler:

The Gospel I heard preached was a gospel about sin, and Christ, and salvation. It began with a biblical understanding of sin. But that's exactly what Robert Schuller was trying to deny and replace with something else. At various times in his ministry, he tried to argue that he wasn't as radical as he often appeared. He would say things like, "Well, some have said I've called for a new reformation." Well, some have not only said that. Robert Schuller said that in the subtitle of his book. To say that he was slippery is an understatement. He said in that conversation in the 1980s with theologians like Kenneth Kantzer and David Wells that he believed in hell. He tried to make clear he believed in a traditional Christian understanding of hell, except that was incompatible with just about everything he said, everything he wrote, and everything he preached.

Albert Mohler:

In this book, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, he wrote these words, "Sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem." Now, he had more to say, but is basically the very same verse of the very same hymn that he wrote, "Sends a fundamental lack of self-esteem that inhibits the full development of the human personality." Schuller argued that it was a lack of self-esteem that separates the human creature from the Holy God. But that's, of course, the opposite of what the scripture tells us.

Albert Mohler:

In the very same paragraph he writes, "And what is hell? It is the loss of pride that naturally follows separation from God, the ultimate and unfailing source of our soul's sense of self-respect." Later the same paragraph he writes, "A person is in hell when he has lost his self-esteem." Schuller asked, "Can you imagine any condition more tragic than to live life and eternity in shame?"

Albert Mohler:

One of the parables I would underline when it comes to Robert Schuller is the fact that there are different ways to reject the Christian faith in its doctrinal and confessional substance. You can deny it with outright denial, or you could basically deny it with either silence on crucial issues, a lack of addressing these issues whatsoever from the pulpit. Professors Mulder and Marti make very clear that when it came to Robert Schuller's preaching, he explicitly did not want to preach on anything he defined as controversial. I would put it differently. I think there's good evidence that Robert Schuller never wanted to preach on anything that his audience would not want to hear.

Albert Mohler:

Was Robert H. Schuller a heretic? Technically speaking in the history of the Christian church, a heretic is primarily one who obstinately rejects a doctrine central and essential to Christianity. The issue is that Robert Schuller never faced a church court on this issue. Responsibility for that would have fallen to the Reformed Church in America. Huge questions about that. But then again, most denominations face some very huge questions about a lack of theological accountability for the ministers in their midst. But judged on the impact of his ministry and the substance of his writings and preaching. What came out was heresy, not the hard heresy of the theological liberal in Heidelberg. But rather the softer liberalism that came from a preacher preaching under a lot of glass in Garden Grove, California.

Albert Mohler:

My mother-in-law had it right when years ago, when Robert Schuller was on television, she described him as Schuller the jeweler. What about all that glass, the 10,000 panes or so of glass in the Crystal Cathedral designed by one of the world's most famous architects, Philip Johnson, the great symbol of Robert Schuller's ministry. It's now a cathedral, still a cathedral. Well, a cathedral in a whole new sense. It's now a Roman Catholic Cathedral, the cathedral there in Orange County of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. Ground Zero of his new reformation of self-esteem is now a Roman Catholic Cathedral in California. Robert Schuller and his wife Arvella are buried there on the campus. A parable in one person, everywhere you look, and in every way you can conceive, that was Robert H. Schuller.

Albert Mohler:

Many thanks to my guests, Gerardo Marti and Mark Mulder for thinking with me today. If you enjoyed this episode of Thinking In Public, you'll find more than 100 of these conversations at albertmohler.com under the tab Thinking In Public. For more information about the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For more information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I'm Albert Mohler.

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