Bobby Schuller on the Crystal Cathedral exodus

Q&A | Now leading the <em>Hour of Power</em>, Robert Schuller’s grandson talks about the lasting parts of his family’s ministry
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 3/25/15, 11:20 am

When Bobby Schuller’s grandfather, Robert Schuller, founded Garden Grove Community Church in Southern California in 1955, he immediately attracted attention. The church met in a drive-in theater, and the novelty of it generated both local and national news coverage. Schuller’s church grew, as did his radio and television ministry. By 1980, he had moved into the famous Crystal Cathedral, an iconic structure designed by world famous architect Philip Johnson. But all was not well in the Schuller empire. 

The elder Schuller was often at odds with leaders in his own denomination, the Reformed Church in America, as well as leaders in mainstream evangelicalism. In the mid 2000s, a power struggle ensued within the family. The chaos drove away church members and viewers of the church’s TV program, Hour of Power. In 2012, the ministry filed for bankruptcy protection. Into this chaotic situation entered young Bobby Schuller, then barely 30 years old. His theology, temperament, and leadership style are far less flamboyant than his grandfather’s. Under his leadership, the finances and reach of the Hour of Power program have started on an upward trend again. The church also is growing, with attendance of about 1,500. I had this conversation with Bobby Schuller at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville, Tenn., in early March.

You are the son of Robert Schuller and the grandson of Robert Schuller, the founder of the Crystal Cathedral. Does that mantle weigh heavy on you? I think it weighed heavier on me when I was more of a kid going to Christian school in the ’80s. In the ’80s, Dr. Schuller was the biggest thing. The Crystal Cathedral had just been built, Hour of Power had massive influence. It, at the time, was probably the most watched Christian program in the world. Even though I would go by Bobby, I would be in school and people would say, “Robert Schuller, is that your real name? Did I get tricked?”

You say you went to Christian school. You were raised in a Christian home with this fairly significant spiritual legacy. When did you make the Christian faith your own? The irony about going to Christian school is that, for me, it actually almost pushed me away from the faith. … All of the bad guys, your teachers, they’re the Christian ones, and all of the good guys, your peers, the guys that play sports and stuff, well, they’re not. You build this false narrative in your head. The summer I left Christian school, I went to this convention, actually, and this guy I met played piano for me. There had to be 16,000-17,000 people there. … I don’t even remember what he said, but the act of love was so meaningful for me that as a 16- or 15-year-old I just said, “You know what? I’m done riding the fence. I’m really going to make faith my own.” Since then, my life was completely turned around. I started just devouring the Bible and any other material I could get, started sharing my faith with others. And so I’ve been on fire for the Lord ever since.

Who was the guy? What was the conference? I’m hesitant to say his name because he’s such a different tradition than me. It was actually Jesse Duplantis, who is this guy from Louisiana. He’s the prosperity gospel guy. … I met him in a hotel. We were just talking about piano. He was the nicest, warmest guy ever, and that was really what won me over. He said, “Come over to this convention I’m doing.” I went in there, and I saw all these people raising their hands and worshiping, and it was just a really powerful experience. I didn’t have any loyalties, any particular Christian traditions or denominations, and this guy just touched me deeply. I’ve actually never had the chance to share them, but it was actually someone in this Pentecostal, prosperity-gospel tradition that’s so different than the one I’m in that actually brought me to faith, which has actually taught me the value of respecting people that are not always in your exact camp.

You mentioned that your parents are divorced. I guess you could say it was a minor scandal within the evangelical world. Was that a tough experience for you in your life as a teenager? Yeah, it was a horrible experience. It happened when I was only 2 1/2, so I never actually remember my parents being married. It for sure was a scandal. It was a lot less accepted back then. My parents were married when my mom was 18 and my dad was 19, so they probably had the odds against them from the beginning. They were just so young. They stuck it out for about 10 years. There was nothing like an affair or anything like that. … The good part about that story is they both married people who adopted me as parents. My stepmom, Donna, and my stepdad really stepped in. All four of my parents, as weird as that sounds, were incredibly loving and supportive. … It was a horrible thing that happened, but out of that I feel like God blessed my life by at least giving me two families that were so loving and supportive. I was happy about that.

You went off to Oral Roberts University, right? As a high school student at Broken Arrow High School in Oklahoma, as a 17-, 18-year-old, I would go to this worship service and experience this incredible worship [at Oral Roberts University] where students would gather for four or five hours with incredible music and just a love for God. I had all these other colleges I wanted to go to. Because of my family, I probably could have gone to almost any school I wanted to. We had friends at Stanford and Harvard, I mean it would have been easy. Yet, I didn’t want to go to a place that would change me into those of kinds of students. I wanted to be like these students at Oral Roberts that had a passion for God. So I chose that school, and that’s where I went.

After you graduated from Oral Roberts University, what did you do? I actually went to business school. I wasn’t there in training for ministry. [I] wanted to actually go into trading securities and had some doors opened for me to get an MBA. I was a real-estate appraiser working for a real-estate investment firm and then interning with a securities firm in the summer. I was very serious about going into finance. I just didn’t love it. I felt like I was good at it, but I would see these guys who had been in it for years. They were making tons of money, hand over fist, but they were either unmarried or their marriages were horrible. They had showers in their offices because they’d literally stay overnight. They’d work 80 hours a week. They’d be in the office at 3:30 a.m. That just wasn’t something that appealed to me, especially in California [where the] stock market opens three hours earlier.

Then what I was doing was actually volunteering with ministries, and that was something that gave me life. I loved sharing the gospel. I loved leading worship. I was a musician, still am. That was something that gave me life. I started just praying, Lord, I want to go into ministry. When my dad stepped into the Crystal Cathedral, I called and said, “Daddy I want to help you bring young people.” He said, “Well you know that’s great, but you have to talk to our chief of staff because we have this nepotism thing now that’s in place.”

I started working as a college pastor with all of my student loans. I paid for my college all myself, and I went in with, I think it was some $40,000 dollars in student debt. I worked at a Barnes & Noble while I was going to college to help pay for things. I got this job at $23,000 a year at Crystal Cathedral, but it was just all so good for me, and that’s where it started. I went to Fuller Seminary and received an [master of divinity].

How did you decide to go to seminary? When I went to Fuller, I actually went kicking and screaming. At the time, I was at the Crystal Cathedral, which is part of the Dutch Reformed Church in America. We had, I think, 15 ordained, called pastors on staff that were all peers. They were all very cool and helpful … All of them, including my grandpa said, “If you’re going to be a pastor here, you need to get an education.” In the Reformed tradition, education is just so important, and I just didn’t have it. I went begrudgingly, and I’m so glad I went. I think it’s really good for any Bible-teaching pastor to have maybe not an M.Div., but some kind of biblical training, especially in languages. It was just so, so good for me because there was so much I was ignorant about and so many claims that I had that I think were just either completely wrong or skewed the wrong way.

When you got out of Fuller, tell me what was going on in your life and what was going on at the Crystal Cathedral by then. The year I got my degree, I was supposed to be ordained in our denomination. There was going to be an ordination service on July 11. Everybody was going to come. There was a whole thing. My dad and grandpa was both going to be there to lay hands on me. But on July 9, my grandpa and dad had this big falling out between each other in this board meeting that resulted in my dad leaving. Two days later, we were supposed to have this ordination thing, but we postponed it because we thought this was all going to flesh out and they were going to work it out or whatever. They didn’t. I never had this service. I have an ordination in the [Reformed Church in America] but not the call to ordination. That’s actually coming up in a few weeks.

What year was this and what was the nature of that conflict? I think it was 2009. There wasn’t really any big thing you can really put your finger on, other than my grandpa was obviously a driven, type-A person. My dad’s the same way. There was a handoff to my dad as the new lead pastor and chief, and yet there were still the family dynamics of my grandparents wanting to do this or wanting to do that. They just kept butting heads on things that were honestly trivial and small, but it was enough to cause the emotions to flare and for my dad to leave. … The good thing was, he and my grandpa did work it out. It was actually Father’s Day that I gathered the two of them at my house, and we had this long talk. Since then they were super close. My grandma was there as well. From an emotional standpoint, they worked it out, but it ended up leading to having a number of leaders [at Crystal Cathedral] between my dad and I. … [There was] just no real leadership, a lot of scramble, and as it was happening, people just started leaving the church. People stopped watching the program. 

In a frantic desire to get more people to watch the program, they switched to contemporary music that even wasn’t done very well. That was the final nail in the coffin because the people loved the choir. They loved the traditional music. … I mean people just abandoned. Then the church went into bankruptcy. While all of that was going on, I had left when my dad left and I had planted my own church called Tree of Life. I had started an outreach program for the poor called St. Patrick Project. We were doing these things. I had my own ministry and I had tipped my hat to the Cathedral and thought it was long gone.

How did you get involved with the Crystal Cathedral again? When all of this stuff happened with the Cathedral, they sold the church to the Catholics. The church had maybe 150, 200 people in worship service in this grand place. The local church, the congregants, asked me to pulpit-fill. … I talked to my grandparents and my dad and they said, “Sure go for it.” I started doing both churches. As I started doing that, people started coming back and the church started to fill up. People started to watch the Hour of Power and started to support it. We thought it was going to go out of business, and it didn’t. There was about a year and half where I was just a volunteer pulpit-filler. Eventually they said, “It’s time to fish or cut bait.” The congregation gathered. They voted unanimously for me to become the lead pastor. That was great. There wasn’t one person in the congregation who said, “No we don’t want this man to lead us.” I took that as such a great affirmation that this is what God was calling me to do, and now I’m the chief of the ministry and leading us into the future.

Your congregation had to move out of the Crystal Cathedral and into a nearby building that was a former Catholic church. What is the church called now? The Shepherd’s Grove.

And you still record the Hour of Power there? Everybody thinks the Crystal Cathedral is the greatest thing my grandparents built, but it wasn’t. It was the Hour of Power. The huge reach of that ministry is amazing. The fact that God kept it intact is such a great thing. I miss the Crystal Cathedral, but honestly, my message is so grassroots and people-oriented that the design of the Crystal Cathedral, as amazing as it was, was probably not a good fit for me as a person. I was used to preaching barefoot in an American Legion Hall with no pulpit, Calvary Chapel-style. With the Crystal Cathedral I actually felt, in the brief time I was there, like I was a curator of a work of art of something.

At some point, it’s almost like it’s a double-edged sword. It draws people. It gives you gravitas as a pastor. It also can be a distraction, I think, for people, where the real value can be put in the building rather than in your faith. Not a lot of people did that, but there’s always a risk to that. The cool thing about our building now is it still seats about 1,200 people, and there’s a lot of stained glass. It’s beautiful and modern. Nothing needs to be fixed. It’s new. We’re happy to have the home that we have now.

How many worship services do you have? We have two services right now. One is the traditional service that is recorded as the Hour of Power. Then we have, we call it a contemporary service. It’s really a folk band, and that meets at 11 a.m., and that’s the Tree of Life Church. We brought that church over, which is mostly millennials, young people, young families, and we’ve merged them into one church called Shepherd’s Grove that has two different types of worship services.

A lot of young pastors are straying from what most people would called historical positions or biblical orthodoxy on things like same-sex marriage. Do you have an opinion about some of these issues? I think one of the big dangers is in the goal of being missional. That’s usually where it begins is the goal being missional, reaching people right where they’re at. Sometimes we slip on our principles, whatever they are, and I think that’s constantly a danger, especially for millennials or young pastors, in general, [who] want to be accepted. They want to say something new. They want to be fresh. Sometimes that means prodding and being controversial, and then they get rejected by the normative Christian group and so they feel pushed out. They become more reactive because they’re young. I’ve seen that happen a lot with young pastors. It can seem to go both ways where they’re either really mean and legalistic and pharisaical in their approach and slamming their fists, or they just become so open-minded their brains fall out.

Really, I think what millennials need to do is be mentored by older pastors that are at least 45 or 50, if not older, and really hear from them and submit themselves in accountability to a pastor they want to be like. That would be my biggest word of advice to young pastors. That’s what I do myself. I have four mentors that I lean on, all of whom are older, and they don’t all agree on everything. They don’t always agree with me, but I’m held accountable in my ministry and my personal life. I think it all begins there. It’s not going alone, but really having a veteran preacher stand by you to help you to give you the confidence you need to be faithful in the things that are important.

Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s full interview with Bobby Schuller on Listening In.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is president of MinistryWatch and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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