For Once Mighty Megachurch, A Fast Fall With debt topping $43 million, the Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy protection Monday. Church officials say the recession has forced it to order layoffs and cut the number of TV stations airing Hour of Power. But with characteristic optimism, they insist the church will emerge from this crisis.
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A Fast Fall For Once Mighty Megachurch

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A Fast Fall For Once Mighty Megachurch

A Fast Fall For Once Mighty Megachurch

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The Crystal Cathedral has declared bankruptcy. The towering glass symbol of the power of televangelism has struggled with an enormous debt load, more than $43 million. But leaders of the Southern California church say it will emerge from this crisis.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Robert H. Schuller was a farm boy from Iowa with big dreams. Shortly after becoming a minister in the Reformed Church of America, he set out for Orange County, California, with his wife and $500 in his pocket.

Dr. ROBERT H. SCHULLER: We had no money. I was told there were no places to rent in town, and I picked up a napkin and a piece of paper, and on an impulse, I wrote down one to 10. One, let's rent a school building. Two, let's rent the Masonic hall.

HAGERTY: Number 10 on the list was a drive-in movie theater. The year was 1955, and Schuller went door to door looking for congregants.

According to Dennis Voskell, who wrote a book about the Crystal Cathedral, Schuller hit pay dirt when he invited Norman Vincent Peale, the father of positive thinking, to preach.

Mr. DENNIS VOSKELL: The roads were clogged. Dr. Schuller kind of got launched effectively in Southern California because of that.

HAGERTY: Schuller developed his own positive theology, telling people they can live their dreams by following Jesus. As his church grew, his friend Billy Graham suggested he put his sermons on television. "The Hour of Power" began airing in 1970 with this sort of message:

(Soundbite of TV show "The Hour of Power")

Unidentified Man #1: I am somebody. I can do something. I will do something. Only when you do that, do you really bring glory to God.

HAGERTY: Thousands of people joined his church, and millions more watched on television around the world. Flush with cash, in 1980, Schuller hired the famous architect Philip Johnson to build a glass and steel sanctuary. Voskell remembers when he first walked into The Crystal Cathedral.

Mr. VOSKELL: Well, I was rather dumbstruck. You know, I've been in a lot of buildings around the world, and that one was one that really was awe-inspiring, and it accomplished his purpose of bringing God and nature, the world around us, closer together in a worship setting.

HAGERTY: The cathedral came to symbolize the megachurch movement, with its elaborate musical productions and pageants featuring live animals. But in the last few years, the tide turned.

Jonathan Walton of Harvard Divinity School says everything fell apart at once.

Mr. JONATHAN WALTON (Harvard Divinity School): On the one hand, you had an aging congregation, right, that was largely devoted to the father's charisma that dates back to the movie theater.

HAGERTY: But the church needed younger viewers, and in 2006, Schuller made his son, Robert, the senior pastor. Walton says the son's style did not appeal.

Mr. WALTON: Some thought he was too professorial, and that's in very contrast to his kind of father's positivist pop psychology.

HAGERTY: The son was removed from his position, but the downward spiral continued. Donations dropped by 30 percent even as the church was carrying a huge mortgage and its expensive television ministry. The 2008 recession was enough to give even Dr. Schuller�pause.

(Soundbite of applause)

Dr. SCHULLER: Well, here we are, in a different time that we've ever lived through in the United States of America. And I detect a spreading pessimism.

HAGERTY: In the past two years, the church pulled "The Hour of Power" off of many TV stations and slashed dozens of jobs, but it wasn't enough.

The church filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy yesterday. Yet spokesman John Charles is, not surprisingly, upbeat.

Mr. JOHN CHARLES (Spokesman, The Crystal Cathedral): This is a positive ministry built on Dr. Schuller's words of positive thinking. Even though this is not good news, we don't dwell on the negative, and we will build on this and go forward.

HAGERTY: Whether that's enough will be up to providence and the economy.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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