Opinion

The Crystal Cathedral

'I continue to be struck by the role of church polity'

It might be arguable, but the case could be made that Robert H. Schuller of Orange County’s Crystal Cathedral stands as the most famous Dutch Reformed individual in North American history. At its peak, the Reformed Church in America’s Crystal Cathedral congregation counted 10,000 members. “Hour of Power” appeared in 170 countries – allowing Schuller a level of gravitas that earned him audiences with Mikhail Gorbachev and Bill Clinton. Moreover, Schuller continues to have relevance, even after his passing in April 2015. Numerous megachurches, including Willow Creek (Illinois), Saddleback (California) and Lakewood (Texas), trace a lineage back to the Crystal Cathedral.

Though there are many insights to be gleaned from the arc of Schuller’s ministry, I continue to be struck by the role of church polity. Consider: Schuller went from a drive-in movie theater, collecting less than $90 in his first offering, to the highest profile ministry in the world (getting credit from some for a role in the fall of communism) to bankruptcy and the forced sale of his beloved campus (to the Diocese of Orange) within the space of 55 years. Though the “fall of the House of Schuller” had numerous antecedents, the minister’s unwillingness to play by normal church polity rules surely played a role. In truth, Schuller had a volatile relationship with the RCA. The scale and profile of Schuller’s ministry outstripped anything the denomination had experienced before (including Schuller’s mentor, Norman Vincent Peale’s reign at Marble Collegiate in Manhattan) and allowed the pastor a vast leeway. When the denomination invited an anti-apartheid leader to the 1985 General Synod hosted at the Cathedral, Schuller refused – citing the potential offense taken by his broad global television audience. The minister’s temerity forced the talk to be moved down the street to a hotel. 

Accountability
Though he sometimes found the denomination an antagonist, it provided safe harbor in the 1980s when fellow televangelists embroiled themselves in a series of sexual and financial scandals. Schuller rose above the fray by citing his chief distinction: accountability to a denomination. On an episode of “Nightline” in 1987, the Orange County minister distanced himself from Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker: 

“I happen to belong to the oldest Protestant denomination with an unbroken ministry in the United States of America, the Reformed Church in America. And I have to present a full financial report to the denomination and we have been in business a long time. I therefore am financially accountable, I’m morally accountable, I’m theologically accountable, I’m ethically accountable. . . . I’m accountable first to church board, and then I’m accountable to an international board, then I’m accountable to a denomination, and if I fall in error, I can be de-frocked.”

Thus, at times, Schuller expressed pride in his RCA affiliation. However, he also bristled at polity constraints that limited his ability to keep the church in family hands. In truth, despite the minister’s Southern California cosmopolitanism, he still had a bit of Iowa farm boy in him. His son, Robert Anthony Schuller, explained to me that his father assumed he would hand the Cathedral down to his children, just as generations of Midwest farmers had done with their land, animals and implements. To that end, in the late 1980s, the elder Schuller had the Cathedral congregation sell the campus to the “Hour of Power” corporation, thereby skirting the RCA policy of classical control of church property. Classis California shrugged, intimidated by its largest, most powerful congregation. 

Though the details are too tangled to recount here, the transition from father to children foundered at the Cathedral. By 2010, the ministry declared bankruptcy. In the wake of the ministry’s spectacular collapse and bankruptcy, Schuller found himself pushed out by the church’s board. In an escalation of hostility, the minister eventually sued his former ministry. 

‘Network Christianity’
Just as the Cathedral faded from prominence, sociologists of religion marked the rise of “Independent Network Christianity” (INC) wherein accountability has been replaced by informal associations and magnetic personalities. In fact, the authors of The Rise of Network Christianity: How Independent Leaders Are Changing the Religious Landscape cite Schuller as a “prototype” of the autonomous religious leader. In INC, Christianity has morphed into “a sort of multilevel marketing strategy” wherein denominational authority has been replaced by “spiritual covering” for those within an informal alliance. At its base, INC is about anti-institutionalism.

The significance of INC is that it has perhaps even infected denominations that purport strong Presbyterian polity: In the Christian Reformed Church in North America, as congregations seek classical affiliations that have more to do with affinity than geography, there seems to be a disregard for authority structures that mitigate local congregations’ worst impulses. The case of the Crystal Cathedral serves as a reminder of the positive guardrails offered by submission to authority and robust institutional responsibility. 

  • Mark is professor of sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology and Social Work at Calvin College. His book The Glass Church: Megachurch Strain and the Ministry of Robert H. Schuller will be published by Rutgers University Press in 2019.

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