It has been a while back that I did a series of those I am thankful for in my Christian Heritage. One of those people is Robert Schuller. When I was a very young Christian I received his book, “Your Church Has A Fantastic Future” in something that I ordered as a freebie. I read it and it made a huge impact on my life and ministry. Dr. Schuller started The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove California in an old Drive In Theater.
I was blessed to be able to see the site when I was in California on a business trip a few years ago with my son Michael. I will have to say that it was not as impressive a sight in person as it is on television, it seems that everything is dressed up for TV. However, it was an impressive ministry to see. I highly recommend the book to anyone who needs ideas for ministry or just needs to be encouraged.
I am including the link to the site of The Crystal Cathedral as well as an interview from Outreach and Evangelism Today for your reading pleasure. http://www.christianitytoday.com/outreach/articles/howschullershapedyourministry.html
I thank God for Robert Schuller and others who dare to break the mold and be different for Christ.
How Schuller Shaped Your Ministry
The grandfather of the seeker movement changed the way pastors approach culture.
Whether you admire or dislike his ministry techniques or possibility-thinking theology, probably no one has shaped the way pastors relate to the unchurched more than Robert Schuller.
Forty-two years ago, Schuller and his wife, Arvella, moved from Chicago to Southern California to start a church—and, unintentionally, a new way of doing church. With about 50 people attending the first service, Garden Grove Community Church (affiliated with the Reformed Church of America) was born.
Today the legendary Crystal Cathedral sits on a sprawling oasis of palm trees and fountains and statues in the middle of Orange County’s concrete jungle.
Schuller pioneered the use of marketing techniques to reach the nonchurched. It would not be overreaching to say that without Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral, there would likely be no Willow Creek Community Church, no Saddleback Community Church, or the thousands of other seeker-oriented churches around the country. The cliché—the pioneers are the ones with the arrows in their backs—is certainly true of Schuller. “I didn’t know I was going to get criticism,” he says. “I thought I’d get pats on the back.”
In the modern era, he was the first to
• call his denominational church a “community church,” since most seekers didn’t understand or relate to a denominational label.
• call a sermon a “message”.
• use a nontraditional setting for church worship—in his case, a drive-in theater.
• conduct door-to-door research, asking, “Why don’t you go to church?”.
• use marketing strategies to reach nonchurched people (about the time George Barna was born).
• train pastors in leadership (1969).
• televise a weekly church service.
Leadershipwanted to hear Schuller’s insights on reaching a changing culture. Like Schuller in 1955, editors Kevin Miller and Dave Goetz traveled from Chicago to Garden Grove, California, to sit with the pastor and possibility thinker.
How has Southern California changed since you arrived in 1955?
Robert Schuller: Forty years ago, this town had a population close to sixty thousand. Orange County was largely white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. It had a few barrios and no ghettos.
Today Garden Grove has a population of a hundred and fifty thousand, of which 38 percent are Asians—Vietnamese, Japanese, Cambodians, and Chinese. Thirty-seven percent are Hispanics, and 20 percent are people like me. The balance includes blacks, Ethiopians, Turks, and other groups.
When I started, many nonchurched persons were conditioned by a culture dominated by Judeo-Christian values. Their collective memory systems were still receptive to a message from the Judeo-Christian value system. That’s no longer true.
Has your strategy changed?
I came to Southern California to start a mission. I think we still have to be a mission church; I said that at the first Institute for Successful Church Leaders in 1969. But if you’re going to be a mission church, then you have to dare to stand in the center of a contradiction, because it’s a contradiction to be a church and a mission. Jesus was a contradiction: he was God and man. How could he be both? But I believe he was.
You haven’t stepped into truth until you dare to step into a contradiction. But if you succeed as a mission, you create a church.
It seems as if you have put more energy into the mission side than the church side.
That is true. But there reaches a point where you’ve got a church. It’s a constant process, a constant balancing act.
To succeed as missionaries in the next century, we have to integrate mission into evangelism. I’m against evangelism that doesn’t have a mission heart.
You’re against evangelism?
No, I’m against the type of evangelism that doesn’t include compassion. People in our culture think everybody is selling something. Evangelism can come across as selling. But mission is totally different: “May I wash your feet? Can I help you? We don’t share the same faith, but I’m so sorry your little daughter died.”
When you think of it, Jesus’ spirit was more a spirit of mission than it was of evangelism. He didn’t rattle off numbers like we do today. Evangelism often focuses on numbers like business focuses on sales. I think we have to abandon that type of evangelism and let mission take its place.
People living out the gospel—is that what you mean by “mission”?
Yes, yes, yes. Without counting numbers. I’m a friend of Billy Graham and of the evangelical movement. Everyone says, “We’ve got to win the world to Christ.” But that can’t be done. Robert Schuller, a possibility thinker, says it can’t be done.
You mean “winning the world for Christ” is too ambitious?
It’s not biblical. We’re to witness to the whole world for Christ, not win the whole world to Christ.
I’ve said we have to think from a market mentality. And that’s still true. But it had better be non-manipulative. There are different forms of marketing. There are dangerous marketing principles, and there are smart marketing principles.
If the dignity of the person is the core of our anthropology, then we need a theology of evangelism that wins people without manipulating, without threatening, without appealing to their negative emotions.
Instead of “winning the world for Christ,” what motto would you put in its place?
The “positive remnant.” That phrase is coming to me with tremendous power and force. It’s a great Old Testament concept—the people of God as a blessing to others.
What are some needs today that the church can be meeting?
The same needs that have always been there. I don’t think persons change.
“How did I get into self-esteem theology?” was not a question you asked, but it’s very important. My Uncle Henry was a missionary to China. He got me to think like a missionary. From him I learned, “Give them a bowl of rice.” In China, the people were not Christians and didn’t want to hear about our religion. They had a religion older than ours. So, what do you do? If they’re hungry, you feed them.
I asked Uncle Henry, “Where do I get the rice, the basic food you need to live?” I concluded that the rice of the soul is dignity; you cannot live without dignity as a person. So, everything in this ministry has been built around that.
Architecture says, “Find your basic building block.” Theologians have never done this; they haven’t asked, “What’s the ultimate, final building block?” I believe it’s dignity. God didn’t start by creating a loser and then getting him born again. That’s backward. Adam was created in the image of God.
What are the ministry values you hold dear that perhaps haven’t gotten any press?
What do you think they are?
Well, for one, the use of architecture and statuary to communicate. We noticed that the church campus has several statues. There’s the Job statue, which communicates, “If you’re suffering, you’re welcome here.” Also, there is the statue of the woman caught in adultery—”If you’re a sinner, you’re welcome here.”
I picked the images I think are at the heart of the gospel. One reason I put them on the campus was to try to preserve the tradition of this ministry for future centuries.
I made a decision never to leave the denomination. I feel strongly about that. I am real concerned about losing our heritage. That’s why I tend to be confessional. It’s the only reason why I wouldn’t dare to be independent.
In Your Church Has a Fantastic Future, you write about your conscious decision while building the Crystal Cathedral to bolt the cross into the wall instead of making it removable. Why?
It was a way of saying, “This is a church. We’re going to be a mission, but we’re not going to be doing it with duplicity. I think duplicity is a form of deception. I don’t think I would advocate operating a mission, even though it’s in hostile territory, and taking down the cross.
Through TV, I speak to more Muslims today than anyone else in the world. And the cross is what offends the Muslims. But I have to let people know who I am and then treat them with dignity and respect.
What advice do you have for the emerging generation of church leaders as they attempt to reach the culture for Christ?
First, be point people, but don’t abandon tradition. Creativity will always fail if it ignores tradition. I think a leader is a point person. But leadership is the force that sets the goals. In all the books on leadership, everyone assumes that leadership is in a person. That’s not necessarily true.
Second, don’t imitate; innovate. An amazing amount of energy in Christian ministries is repeating what has already been done.
Third, don’t compete. Explore what isn’t being done. See all positive Christian ministries as your ministry, as if you owned them. If we are Christians under the lordship of Christ, we should view other positive Christian ministries as our own.
Fourth, don’t let eschatology stifle your long-term thinking.
Fifth, be beautiful. If I had one prayer, it would be that in seventy-five or one hundred years, Christianity in its renewal and its revival would become known by the love of the followers of Christ—so that if someone uses the phrase “he’s a Christian” or “she’s a Christian,” everybody would think, They’re such nice people. That’s not true today.
Sixth, remember you’re in a mission age, and that’s never going to change. It will be a mission age until the trumpet sounds. If you realize that, it changes everything.
Seventh, focus on the remnant.
Eighth, don’t try to win the whole world to Christ. Just witness to the whole world for Christ.
Originally published in Leadership journal, April 1, 1997