'Mega Church' Pioneer Steps Aside
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Today, the Reverend Robert Schuller officially turns over the leadership of the Crystal Cathedral Ministry to his son.
From member station KPCC in Los Angeles, Rachel Myrow reports on one of the founders of the modern mega-church.
(Soundbite of church music)
Unidentified Announcer: From the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, join Robert Schuller in an Hour of Power, America's television church, now celebrating our 35th year as the face and voice of positive Christianity to the world.
RACHEL MYROW reporting:
It's a bold claim that tops the Hour of Power, but then the show claims 20 million viewers around the world, and Robert Schuller, at the age of 79, is seen as the model to protestant ministers.
Dr. ROBERT SCHULLER (Senior Pastor, Crystal Cathedral): The world cannot live without a positive faith. We need it.
MYROW: In the 1950s, a few years after Schuller moved from the Midwest to southern California, he made a name for himself by preaching from the roof of a snack bar at a drive-in theater. The showmanship had a purpose beyond just grabbing headlines. From the beginning, Schuller's stated mission has been to bring nonbelievers into the fold. He preaches a sunny blend of Evangelical Christianity and positive thinking.
Dr. SCHULLER: I am somebody. I can do something. I will do something. Only when you do that do you really bring glory to God.
MYROW: Schuller steered clear of both politics and scandal, and while some conservative Christians criticized what they see as his easygoing approach to Christianity, he's made no real enemies. Like a talk show host, Schuller has shared the stage over the years with a steady stream of celebrities. The Crystal Cathedral has hosted musical acts, ministers, politicians, pop psychologists and Hollywood superstars like Charlton Heston, here reading from the New Testament.
Mr. CHARLTON HESTON (Actor): (Reading) Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.
MYROW: This showbiz savvy approach to religion has a lot to do with location says Craig Detweiler who chairs the Mass Communications Department at Biola, a Christian university in Southern California. He notes Schuller's 40-acre church complex in Garden Grove is a mile away from the Angels's Stadium, four miles away from Disneyland.
Professor CRAIG DETWEILER (Chair, Mass Communications Department, Biola University): Entertainment is part of that environment. So when he does a show like the Glory of Christmas or the Glory of Easter that's a big lavish production, in a sense, I think he's just understanding his environment, understanding his people and understanding his congregation.
MYROW: Schuller says he's not retiring but refocusing. He'll write more, train more ministers and raise millions for an endowment to preserve the church complex, especially the landmark Crystal Cathedral.
(Soundbite of bells ringing)
MYROW: His son, also named Robert Schuller, will take over as senior pastor. The younger is no stranger to parishioners of this mega-church. He's been preaching for years.
Ms. FREDDIE CHARLES (ph) (Attendee, Crystal Cathedral): He's a little shy, but he's very warm once you get to know him, and when you do know he's shy, then you take that into consideration.
MYROW: Freddie Charles has been attending the Crystal Cathedral for the better part of a decade.
Ms. CHARLES: I'm hoping he doesn't try to fill shoes, but he creates his own footprint as he goes because they're totally individual people, totally individual men.
MYROW: Schuller senior may be passing his congregation onto his son, but over the past 35 years, the Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership has helped educate a whole new generation of user-friendly ministers. One of the most well known graduates, Rick Warren, runs an even bigger mega-church just 20 miles away. Schuller could hardly begrudge him. After all, the reverend has spent his life urging people to think positive and dream big.
For NPR News, I'm Rachel Myrow in Los Angeles.