When the history of the 20th century American church is finally written, one name is likely to stand out as more influential than almost any other name from that era: Robert H. Schuller. In addition to founding the “Hour of Power,” which is the longest running “evangelistic” television program in the world, he was also the architect of a new style of preaching that de-emphasized teaching on the subject of sin in favor of teaching that “Jesus met needs before touting creeds.” As the ministry began to experience unprecedented growth, the “Crystal Cathedral” was erected as a new base of operations for the expanding church. At the time of its completion, Schuller has this to say:
“We are trying to make a big, beautiful impression upon the affluent non-religious American who is riding by on this busy freeway. It’s obvious that we are not trying to impress the Christians… Nor are we trying to impress the social workers in the County Welfare Department. They would tell us that we ought to be content to remain in the Orange Drive-In Theater and give the money to feed the poor. But suppose we had given this money to feed the poor? What would we have today? We would still have hungry, poor people and God would not have this tremendous base of operations which He is using to inspire people to become more successful, more affluent, more generous, more genuinely unselfish in their giving of themselves.”
But the recent years have not been so kind to Schuller’s ministry. In 2006, as he continued to advance in age, Schuller made the decision to hand the ministry over to his oldest son, Robert A. Schuller. Less than three years later, however, on October 25, 2008, Schuller removed his son from that position citing “a lack of shared vision.” In a news release made public to the mainstream media, he is quoted as saying:
“Different ideas as to the direction and the vision for this ministry …[have] made it necessary … to part ways in the Hour of Power television ministry”
As the internal tension within the church leadership continued to mount, the congregation was rocked by its second public suicide in just five years. It appears as if all of this may have been too much for the congregation to bear. As many within the body began to leave en masse, the annual revenue stream took a serious turn southward . In an attempt to combat the problems brought on by the dwindling income, Schuller and the leadership team made plans to sell off approximately $65 million in property to pay off mounting debt. But things were moving too fast and the national economy had entered a nasty downward spiral.
In July of 2010, Robert H. Schuller announced his retirement as the Principal Pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, while maintaining his position on the church’s board of directors. His daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman, was
installed as the new Principal Pastor just three months before the church was forced to publicly announce that it was seeking bankruptcy protection. Making matters even worse, a lawsuit has been filed by creditors, alleging that the Schuller family has borrowed more than $10 million from the church’s endowment fund for the purpose of funding extravagant salaries and other church-related expenses. One would think that these sorts of financial straights would serve as a wake-up call to the leadership of the Crystal Cathedral, but in an almost unbelievable turn of events, recent emails suggest that nothing has been learned.
As Robert H. Schuller’s wife, Arvella, struggled with pneumonia in November of 2011, the leadership of the church saw fit to distribute an email asking for the congregants to provide the family with low-sodium “meals for the next three to four weeks.” The email went to say:
“[The meals] are to be sent to the church in order to be transported to Arvella. The limo drivers could pick up the dinners or meet in the Tower Lobby around 4:30 p.m.”
In the words of Bob Canfield, a church member: “They’ve completely depleted the church’s funds. But they have shown that they have absolutely no remorse for what they’ve done. They’re still being chauffeured around in limos. We, the congregants, have nothing.”
Last week, almost two years after filing for bankruptcy, the Crystal Cathedral was sold, by court order, for $57.5 million to the Roman Catholic Church. In a recent episode of “The Hour of Power,” Pastor Sheila Schuller Coleman had this to say to the nearly 20 million viewers:
“Some of you have been asking me ‘Where’s your Dad?’ and I just need to ask you to continue to pray for my Dad … You can understand, it’s just too painful for them to be here right now.”
All of this, of course, is nothing new in the era of the modern, evangelical mega-church. When Pastor Ted Haggard of New Life Church was caught in a sex-scandal, it was also revealed that his church was $25 million in debt.
So the question is: what are we to make of this? Is it possible that we are beginning to see the cracks in the mega-church movement? Is it possible that the non-denominational model is actually setting these men up for failure, by creating environments in which larger than life personalities are provided with minimal accountability? And if that is true, how can we possibly begin to reverse this trend, even as these churches continue to grow in size and power?
 Robert H. Schuller, Your Church Has Real Possibilities! (Glendale, California: Regal Books, 1974), 117.
 Robert H. Schuller (October 26, 2008). “America’s Television Church ― The Church of Tomorrow (news release)”. Crystal Cathedral. Retrieved 2008-10-27.