Schuller, 79, rose from obscure origins in rural Iowa to become one of the most influential preachers in the world. About 10,000 people attend services at the Crystal Cathedral, his enormous glass church in Garden Grove, Calif., every week. At least a million visit it every year. More than 30 million people in 184 countries tune in to his weekly Sunday-morning “Hour of Power” services on TV. He’s published 34 books and befriended political leaders, popes and celebrities.
Although Schuller credits God with helping him build the ministry, he also says that succeeding at church is no different than succeeding at anything else. It’s all a matter of problem-solving.
“Find a hurt and heal it,” he said in a recent interview with IBD. “Find a need and fill it. Let people know you’ve got something they need.”
Schuller’s particular approach to finding and filling human needs was formed largely in college, where he majored in psychology. One important influence he cites is Viktor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
The existential Jewish Holocaust survivor might not seem to have much in common with the sunny Christian televangelist. But Frankl’s “case for tragic optimism,” which emphasizes turning suffering into achievement and guilt into an opportunity to do better, bears a discernible relationship to Schuller’s “possibility thinking.”
An example of “possibility thinking” appeared in Schuller’s founding of his church. Newly ordained by the Reformed Church of America, he was sent by one of his denomination’s most famous members, Norman Vincent Peale, to plant a church in Orange County. But he was told it was “impossible” to find a hall for the new congregation.
Recalling it 50 years later, Schuller still seems incensed.
“It’s very irresponsible using that word without qualification,” he said. “No adjectives. No adverbs. No parenthetical phrases.”
At a restaurant on the drive out five decades ago, Schuller jotted down 10 alternative options for locating his new church. He got down to No. 9 when one finally worked. He set up his pulpit atop the snack bar of a drive-in movie theater.
The next problem was actually gathering a congregation to drive into it. The Reformed Church of America was an old denomination with declining American membership; Schuller feared that calling on only the Reformed faithful would give him a shrinking church. So he decided to find out how to draw in the unchurched.
He did this by canvassing the neighborhood. Schuller says he knocked on 3,500 doors the first few years. When residents told him they didn’t go to church, he asked them why not.
A Tailored Message
Their answers set Schuller’s style to this day. Many of them were unfamiliar with the Bible, so Schuller stopped quoting only from chapter and verse and “preached the essence.” They didn’t like feeling that they were being talked down to, so Schuller stopped calling his homilies “sermons” in favor of the more neutral “message.” And they complained they heard too much politics from the pulpit, so he steered clear of political subjects.
This doesn’t uniformly endear him to his fellow Christians. Reviewing his autobiography in Christianity Today, Episcopal priest Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans wrote that “it is fair to ask whether anyone who wrestles with the Jesus of the Gospels can talk about the hope of heaven without including God’s continuing concern for justice in the here and now.”
Schuller says that his preaching owes as much to his optimistic psychology as to his faith. But his psychology extends to his Bible reading. The Bible that his organization puts out, for instance, highlights all the positive passages in blue to encourage readers to remember them. The trend continues in the books Schuller’s written, with titles such as “Tough Times Never Last, but Tough People Do,” “The Be (Happy) Attitudes” and most recently “Don’t Throw Away Tomorrow.” His approach has turned his drive-in church into a multimedia empire.
The church’s rapid growth meant Schuller had to deputize some administration to others. Schuller, wise enough to know he’s no personnel director, delegates most of the hiring. His input, he says, is contained to the areas he knows — the message of his ministry and the development of his 500-acre campus to help people carry it out.
Some wags have called this Schuller’s “edifice complex.” He shrugs off the snipes, aware that the unique, parklike compound he created — within throwing distance of Disneyland — has only increased his renown and the audience for his message. On any given day there, foreign and domestic tourists can be found milling about and taking pictures.
Kristi Zabriskie, who worked as a pastoral intern for Crystal Cathedral’s Care Ministries in the early 1990s, says she never met Schuller, but she can see the impact he had on people’s lives. She recalls counseling a man who called the cathedral’s suicide-prevention hot line, the world’s first 24-hour, church-sponsored hotline.
“Because of the high profile the Crystal Cathedral had, he was willing to think maybe there was one last hope,” she said.
To guide the work of his employees, Schuller resolutely remains in charge of the church’s direction. In this arena, he says, his motto for handling church growth is “Never surrender leadership.”
Staying true to his vision isn’t always easy, especially when members of his board have disagreed with him. Then — especially when he’s certain his idea is right — he carries forth until he’s accomplished his goal.
“It’s the only way to get things done,” he said.
Yet Schuller knows the value of flexibility and in more recent years has sought consensus for most decisions. This might have something to do with the fact that he realizes that he’s not going to be around forever; he retired last month as head of the Crystal Cathedral.
Schuller has planned for the inevitable, however. His son is being groomed as his successor, and his grandson, Robert III, is also showing promise as a preacher.