Saturday, August 13, 2016

Crystal Cathedral: Cautionary Tale for Christ's Church

This week, I've attended Lutheran Week, the annual family reunion of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) that includes the gathering of the Women of the NALC, the Braaten-Benne Theological Lectures, the NALC Mission Festival, and the NALC's Convocation. All in all, it's a wonderful "tradition" in this five year old denomination with its commitment to four core values:
  • Christ-centered (We believe that people are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.)
  • Mission-driven (We believe that Jesus has sent us to go and make disciples of all nations.)
  • Traditionally-grounded (We reject presentism that presumes wisdom from past generations of Christian history must be automatically wrong or suspect.)
  • Congregationally-focused (We aren't waiting for our denominational leadership to give us permission to do the ministries to which God's Holy Spirit may be calling us and the denominational apparatus exists to facilitate the ministries of the local congregation.)
It's exhilarating to be part of a denomination devoted to the authority of God's Word over faith, lives, and practices. Exhilarating too, is the NALC's commitment to making, forming, and empowering believers to enjoy personal relationships with Christ through Christ's body, the Church, and to carry Christ into the world!

Last night, we had a free evening and the four of us from Living Water Lutheran Church who are attending Luther Week decided to take the 1.2 mile walk to what was once The Crystal Cathedral of Garden Grove, California. The name was given to what had formerly been Garden Grove Community Church, a congregation of the Reformed Church of America, founded by the late Robert Schuller, after the congregation--with lots of financial help from viewers of Schuller's Hour of Power broadcast--erected a building designed by architect Philip Johnson.

There were rumors for years that the Crystal Cathedral was a financially overextended institution, less invested in being a congregation making disciples in its community than in keeping an institution with a large TV studio afloat. After Schuller retired and his son took over as pastor of the congregation, including offering the Biblical call to repentance and new life through faith in Jesus Christ, global support for the Crystal Cathedral shrank.

So did giving from around the world. The Crystal Cathedral's ministries fell apart, victim of a founder's ego and his consequent edifice complex. Schuller may well have had positive and godly motivations for his approach. But as his ministry fell apart with family members suing each other amid recriminations and taking sides, the Crystal Community Church died.

But now, the six buildings will not become ignored or vandalized, like some oversized Sears store decaying before the forces of urban change.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange has purchased the campus, renaming it Christ Cathedral. I like the name, because it points to the only One Who can save us from sin, death, and futility, rather than to the architectural innovations involved in the design and erection of the building itself.

While the Crystal Cathedral sanctuary will not be fully remodeled for two years, other buildings are being used. We noted that in one building, a youth group was gathered, a group of adults were studying Scripture, and a choir rehearsed. One building has been dedicated to pastoral care.

It's exciting to see this place being repurposed by a Christian denomination. But the Crystal Cathedral is also a cautionary parable.

The first priority of Christ's Church is not to build empires or even impressive buildings. (In fact, there wasn't any such thing as a permanent church building structure in the Christian movement until the fourth-century AD.)

The Church is charged by Jesus with one mission only, to, in the power of the Holy Spirit, call people to become disciples of Jesus so that they can live each day with the freeing forgiveness of God and can look forward to an eternity with God. Buildings can be used as tools to facilitate that mission. But they are only tools, not ends. To think otherwise, is really faithless to Jesus Christ.

Below are some pictures I took on the Christ Cathedral campus last night.

To the left in the picture above is the frequently-televised "cathedral" itself. On the right, is the famed tower.

Here, a sign explains plans for turning Crystal Cathedral into Christ Cathedral. I wonder whether several nearby businesses will change their names, including the Crystal View Apartments and the Crystal Car Wash. 

This statue portrays Matthew 19:14, when Jesus said, "Let the children come to me."

I liked this shot showing the Prayer Tower, SoCal palm trees, and the moon clearly visible on a cool night. It's hard not to love southern California.

This statue portrays the Good Shepherd, which is how Jesus describes Himself in John 10:11-17.

This statue's subject is the flight to Egypt by Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. You'll find that bit of history portrayed in Matthew's gospel.

This sculpture portrays Moses bringing the Ten Commandments given to him by God at Mount Sinai (Exodus)

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]


Dave said...

Hi Pastor Mark,

A couple of things to add. Robert A. Schuller (fils) is not some shining example of Christian life, he just looks that way next to his corrupt and hypocritical father.

The bulk of the Crystal Cathedral's problems came from Robert Schuller père's looting of the finances to support his family and friends.

For example, the producers of the "Glory of Easter" spectacle were paid huge sums to produce the show even in years (2009 and 2010) when it did not run. Many people were kept on the payroll even when they did no work for the church (those dreaded "consultants").

The Schullers diverted $4,000 each month from church donations into a share of a fancy home in Newport Beach, to be paid to the owners until their deaths, at which point the house would revert to the Schuller family. As of the date the Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy, they had paid out $1.25 million for 8.5% of a home that might be worth $1 million total.

Their housing allowances—even taking into account the fact that the real estate market in this county is absolutely ludicrous—were shockingly high. One of the assistant pastors lived in a $3 million dollar home in Newport Coast. That's quite a parsonage!

And while I don't think anyone expects ministers to live in poverty, nor should they, it seems a bit suspect that Robert A. Schuller (fils) lives in a $3,000,000 beachfront home in Laguna Beach. His car allowance was a Mercedes S500. His sermons may have been more Christ-centered than his father's, but his lifestyle is ridiculous.

The entire operation was a house of cards, financially speaking. It angers me to think of these people sending what little they had—the surrounding community, which started the church in the first place, is not moneyed—because they believed in supporting where they worship, only to have these selfish, egotistical monsters prey on them.

Dave said...

After Robert H. Schuller (père)'s fall from fame (I won't call it grace, that isn't my call), he handed the keys to the ministry over to his daughter Sheila, who swept through the entire staff, school and all, and forced them all to sign anti-gay pledges. (It is illegal in California to fire someone for being gay or being a gay ally, incidentally, so this was never going to have any enforceable power behind it.) She single-handedly destroyed the worship services with her high-handed, judgmental sermons (which rarely mentioned the Bible, I should add).

The trade involved trading the Crystal Cathedral for what was once St. Callistus Roman Catholic Church on the corner of Lewis St. and Garden Grove Blvd., about three quarters of a mile south.

Part of the reason the Diocese of Orange is taking so long to revamp the church is not just the installation of things necessary to a Roman Catholic place of worship like a tabernacle; they're also having to redesign the entire lighting and HVAC system, because the Crystal Cathedral's electric bill was $100,000 a month. My understanding is that they are trying to turn it into an Energy Star-certified building and taking advantage of energy conservation incentives from Southern California Edison.

Incidentally, Bobby Schuller, the son of Robert A. Schuller and grandson of Robert H. Schuller, is the pastor of what's now called Shepherd's Grove. It is a relatively Bible-centered church, but is still at least somewhat tainted by the family name.

I won't pretend to shed a tear for the Schullers. They have already received their reward in full (Matthew 6:2). The Roman Catholic Church, for all the issues we have with them as well (this diocese was one of the major loci of the abuse scandal, sending accused priests to Tijuana instead), will be a much better tenant of what is now Christ Cathedral. Holy Family Cathedral, the current episcopal seat, will go back to being a parish church (though it will retain the name due to church canon). And since so much of my family went to St. Callistus before the trade, and since I spent so much time in St. Callistus, I know the congregation will support it.

Orange County is the home of many enormous corporate churches (Mariners, Saddleback, Calvary Chapel, The Rock/RockHarbor, Eastside), and the Crystal Cathedral will remain standing as a cautionary tale for them.

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks for the additional information, filling in the blank spots in my memory.

$3mn is, in fact, an obscenely high housing allowance.