Reverend Robert H. Schuller is a retired American pastor, motivational speaker, televangelist, and author whose career has spanned five decades. Rev. Schuller is also founder of the Crystal Cathedral Ministries and the television show “Hour of Power,” watched in over 165 countries by millions of people. Starting from humble beginnings, Rev. Schuller rose to be one of the most watched televangelists in the world. Rev. Schuller’s close relationships with renowned architects, Richard Neutra, Philip Johnson, Richard Meier, and Gin D. Wong, led to a collection of unique buildings on the 34-acre Christ Cathedral Campus (formerly the Crystal Cathedral campus). Rev. Schuller will long be remembered for his remarkable legacy.
Robert Harold Schuller was born on September 16, 1926 in Alton, Iowa. His father was a poor farmer with a sixth-grade education and his mother a hardworking farm wife. Rev. Schuller’s Dutch immigrant grandparents stressed the value of hard work. The family attended the First Reformed Church. In his autobiography, “My Journey: from an Iowa Farm to a Cathedral of Dreams,” Rev. Schuller writes that he was born “at the dead end of a dirt road with no name and no number.” The farm had no electricity or plumbing. But from the age of four, Schuller knew that he wanted to be a minister.
Enrolled in Newkirk High School, Schuller found that he was poor at sports but did well in English and debate. He also loved to participate in school theatricals and musical performances. He graduated from high school in 1943 and went on to attend Hope College (a Reform Church school in Michigan). He excelled in English, speech and debate, and was introduced to psychology and Calvinist theology. One summer, as part of a religious singing quartet tour with three of his friends, Schuller traveled to California. The beauty of the mountains and the coast affected him deeply, and he had a premonition he would someday return. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree, he went on to Western Theological Seminary. While at Western, he continued his study of psychology and became a scholar of Calvinist theology, creating the first topical and scriptural index to Calvin’s writing. Schuller felt that the Calvinists’ dark view of humanity was a product of Calvin’s followers, not Calvin himself. Schuller instead found “A theology of hope and joy, liberating humanity from shaming, blaming, cowering Christianity.” After receiving his degree, he was then ordained by the Reformed Church in America.
Schuller met and married musically talented Arvella DeHaan and pastored the Ivanhoe Reformed Church in Chicago for five years. The church had only 38 members when they arrived, so to build the congregation, Schuller went door to door in the neighborhood. Attendance increased, but people didn’t return for his weighty, theologically argumentative sermons. Because he had won a prize for this type of sermon from professors in college, he was puzzled. Arvella said, “Who are you trying to impress? Your professors aren’t the ones who need your message.” Schuller then received a copy of Norman Vincent Peale’s book “The Power of Positive Thinking.” While Schuller had previously thought Peale’s sermons too simple and emotional, the book changed his way of preaching. As Schuller reflected upon what he considered the positive, simple, story-telling style of Jesus and delved into his school-day entertainer’s side, his sermons changed to simple, emotionally positive and encouraging messages. These messages resonated with his congregation, which grew from the original 38 members to nearly 500 in five years. During this time and because of Schuller’s expanding congregation, a new sanctuary was designed by Chicago architect Benjamin Franklin Olson. Olson was the first who encouraged Schuller to pursue architectural excellence, telling him that he should never let financial considerations force him “to compromise on the fine details of design” when building a church. “Art—not money—must have the last word,” said Olson.
After five years in Chicago, Schuller was given orders to head to California and form a new Church. In 1955 the Schullers drove to Orange County, California with their two children (Sheila and Robert Anthony), $500 in assets, and their worldly goods towed behind their car in a small trailer. Orange County had a population of 500,000 in 1955, Disneyland would open soon, and tract housing began to replace the orange groves and dairy land. Yet Schuller was doubtful about finding enough people to create a Dutch Reformed congregation.
“There were millions of Presbyterians in the United States, but only 200,000 Dutch Reformed, ” Schuller wrote in My Journey, “I’ll be lucky if I can find six people from my denomination living here. Then I had my ‘revelation,’ which would be a revolution in the new-church development: Bob, this town doesn’t need a Reformed Church. What it needs is a positive-thinking mission that will meet the needs of the people here who don’t go to church!”
Orange Drive-in Theater
After their arrival, the Schullers set about finding a building suitable for a church service. However, they were unable to find a hall or building to rent in Orange County, but they did discover the Orange Drive-in Theatre. No one had ever held a church service in such a place, but, Schuller realized, drive-in movie theaters were only used at night. Schuller rented the Drive-in for Sunday during the day. His unique call to the congregation was “Come as you are in the family car!” Standing atop the tarpapered roof of its snack bar, Schuller conducted his first open-air sermon to one hundred people, all in their cars. Schuller believed this drive-in ministry, its ties to the outdoors, and his experience preaching outside atop the concession stand helped inspire him to later build the all-glass Crystal Cathedral. He often stated, “It was there that I fell in love with the sky!”
An early advertisement from the Orange County Register announced the new ministry’s appeal: “The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car.”
Schuller’s wife Arvella provided music for each service from an electronic organ. The organ was portable and mounted on a trailer that the Schullers towed to and from their home to the service. Worshippers at the drive-in listened to the Schullers via portable speaker boxes mounted to their vehicles. Church guidebooks for services included instructions not only about when to sing, speak, and stay silent, but also for mounting the speakers onto car windows.
As one congregant recalled about the experience: “Smoke and be in church at the same time, at a drive-in during the daytime. What a trip!”
“I came out to Southern California in 1965 from the great city of Cleveland. When we came here, we settled in the city of Orange. And we thought this was really peculiar. Who goes to church outside?
—Trudy Mazzarella, Director of Docent Ministry, Christ Catholic Cathedral Corporation
“When I was young, I thought it was the coolest thing the world that these people could go to church in their car.”
—Father Christopher Smith, Rector and Episcopal Vicar, Christ Cathedral
In spite of criticism about the appropriateness of holding a church service at a drive-in movie theater, the congregation kept growing. It was soon chartered as the Garden Grove Community Church. To house Schuller’s expanding congregation, a 250-seat traditional chapel was designed by architect Richard Shelley, and even though the building didn’t have funding, Schuller proceeded on faith. The church was built and paid for. However, Schuller’s drive-in ministry still had a number of faithful attendees who had handicaps that prevented them from attending a normal church, so the 29-year-old pastor and his wife kept both locations going, with two sermons each Sunday morning and music at each. In Schuller’s spare time, he went door-to-door in Garden Grove and the surrounding cities, asking people what they were looking for in a church and inviting them to attend his services.
New campus and the Arboretum
As the Garden Grove Community Church congregation continued to grow, Schuller searched for land to build what he envisioned would be a collection of buildings. He purchased a 10-acre plot in nearby Garden Grove. Schuller decided to combine the two services by building the world’s first walk-in/drive-up church. The idea met great resistance, and some church members quit, but Schuller persisted. He hired famous modernist architect Richard Neutra to design the Arboretum, a building that would combine the two congregations smoothly. Schuller also felt it was important to have a smooth incorporation between the natural world and the interior space, a main tenent of Neutra’s ‘biorealism’ philosophy. The parking lot would hold 500 cars that would all be oriented toward an indoor/outdoor platform. This platform would allow Schuller to preach to the indoor congregation and also those in their cars.
Schuller considered himself and architect Neutra visionaries. “There was a mutual chemistry,” Schuller remarked in a 2009 interview. “We were both driven by a compulsion to excellence. Neutra was fascinated by something that was different (the drive-in concept.) ‘I am not a Modern architect,’ he said. ‘I am a Classical architect. I deal with space and light and the emotions,’ ” Schuller recalled. “We talked often. What does a human being need? How does architecture relate to self-esteem? How can design be in harmony with Nature?”
The Arboretum’s unique indoor/outdoor design was completed in 1960 and the sanctuary was dedicated in 1961. The 22,000 square foot building with its wings (Large and Small Galleries) is a serene, peaceful modernist gem.
Tower of Hope and Ministries
In 1968, in addition to purchasing an additional 10-acres on the north side of the property, Schuller worked with Neutra and Neutra’s son Dion to design a building to hold his congregation’s expanding ministries. The 13-story Tower of Hope was built and with its 90-foot-tall neon cross, was the tallest building in Orange County for more than a decade. The Tower was named after the New Hope Suicide Prevention Crisis Line, the first church-sponsored 24-hour suicide prevention telephone hotline, started by Arvella Schuller. Schuller’s expanding ministries focused on helping those in need, including children, students, singles, older people, Hispanics, people in grief, and people struggling with addictions. They also participated in community partnerships that provided food, clothes, and other assistance to the needy. The ministries worked with the Orange County Rescue Mission, The House of Hope for abused women, the downtown L.A. Mission, and many others. There were full spectrum literary and ESL programs, and volunteers collected and distributed thousands and thousands of cans of food and items of clothing to those in need.
Televangelism and Church leadership
Schuller began broadcasting the first television episodes of his sermons in 1970. He broadcast his first show at the encouragement of a fellow preacher and friend, the Reverend Billy Graham. “He told me there was no televised church service in California, so we prayed about it,” Schuller said. “Then we went from there.” These sermons were filmed in the Arboretum and called the “Hour of Power.”
Schuller launched the weekly “Hour of Power” in February 1970 on Los Angeles’ KTLA-5, naming his wife Arvella executive producer, a rarely achieved role for a woman at that time. She continued in this role for many decades. Schuller created a religious entertainment and musical event, sensing the possibility of televisions’ power, rather than just setting up a camera at the back of the church, as others had done. By 1975, the “Hour of Power” was airing in all 50 states. Over time, Schuller’s program became the world’s most widely watched hour-long church service.
“[Arvella Schuller] was the power behind the ‘Hour of Power’. Her music, vision, and care for the message has touched countless hearts.”
—Bobby Schuller, Minister Shepherd’s Grove Community Church.
Schuller had also heard from pastors who were eager to replicate the Garden Grove Community church’s success, so in 1969 he began the first-ever series of training sessions for pastors in church growth. In 1970, Schuller founded the Robert H. Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership, which graduated more than 20,000 students from various Protestant and Catholic denominations. The New Yorker magazine said in 2008 that Dr. Schuller’s ministry was the “phenomenon” behind the mega-church movement.
From Crystal Cathedral to Christ Cathedral
Donations from loyal and grateful “Hour of Power” listeners and the continued growth of the congregation led Schuller to the decision to build the acclaimed Crystal Cathedral. Schuller picked famed architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, whom he felt shared his esthetic sensibilities. Schuller wanted to continue his established indoor/outdoor sanctuary, and also create a visually stunning building to augment the growing “Hour of Power” television show. Made entirely of mirrored glass and white-painted steel trusses, the Crystal Cathedral was fully paid for on the day that it opened by churchgoer and “Hour of Power” listener donations.
“There is something spiritual about architecture,” Schuller said. “It can create an emotional impact into the human personality. I have learned as much [about the nature of reality] from my association with architects and architecture as from my theological education. Architecture helped make me the person I am.” For his patronage of architecture, Schuller was made a lifetime member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), a rare honor for someone outside the profession.
Schuller’s media outreach grew to include religious pageantry shows inside the Crystal Cathedral, such as “The Glory of Christmas” and “The Glory of Easter.” These holiday shows became world famous with millions of viewers and visitors.
Schuller took television religion to a new level, according to Stephen Winzenburg, communications professor at Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa, who studied religious broadcasters. “Schuller knew you […] had to have fantastic settings, great music and powerful preaching.” Schuller claimed he had no inkling of the impact his foray into television would have.
Schuller’s congregation, the Crystal Cathedral Ministries, and the campus continued to grow. Schuller worked with renowned architects and designers to develop more buildings and gardens. These include Crean Tower (which houses the Arvella Schuller Carillon), Mary Hood Chapel, the Family Life Center (now the Pastoral Center), and the Welcoming Center (now the Cathedral Cultural Center). Gardens with fountains, the Walk of Faith, and the ecumenical Memorial Gardens add peace and beauty to the campus. “There were those who believed—and still are those who believe—that fountains, waterfalls, magnificent flower gardens, and sweeping lawns were extravagant, a waste of money,” Schuller writes. “But money isn’t the issue. It never is. The issue is the well-being of the human psyche and the human soul. Nature is a beautiful gift of God.”
However, when the economic climate brought a downturn in the Crystal Cathedral finances and creditors from the pageant shows sued for payment, Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral Ministries filed for bankruptcy in 2010. For a time it appeared that the campus and all its magnificent religious buildings, its gardens and cemetery, might be purchased by a secular organization. However, Schuller spoke to the bankruptcy judge personally when it came time to sell the campus, urging the judge to allow the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange to continue the Christian legacy of the campus. The judge allowed the sale in 2012. The Diocese purchased this architecturally significant campus, blessed and enthusiastically supported by Schuller. The transition of changing this Protestant campus to a Catholic Campus continues, and the Diocese will honor Schuller’s amazing legacy, especially Christ’s message of love to the world.
“We hope to be able to fulfill the promise that Rev. Schuller shared with me, which was that it would be his hope that this great Cathedral and its campus would serve as a gathering point for the greatest Christian and Catholic thinkers in the United States to come to one place and to consider and to ponder some of the weightiest questions that are facing our Christian faith. And we believe that as Catholics, we will have the opportunity to do exactly that.”
—Rob Neal, Chairman, Architectural Renovation Committee, Christ Catholic Cathedral Corporation.
The Reverend Christopher Smith, the Catholic episcopal vicar and rector of the newly minted Christ Cathedral, recalls as a child watching from his grandparents’ backyard as the young, energetic evangelist preached from the roof of the drive-in theater’s concession stand. Smith is now in charge the transition as the diocese transforms this religious and architectural touchstone into a center of Catholic faith and the true heart and center of Orange County. The diocese hopes to honor Schuller and the history of his ministry with a museum that begins with the drive-in movie theater and ends with the Catholic acquisition. The diocese may also move its archives, which are currently not publicly available, to the cathedral grounds, stated Smith. “I just hope that we attend well to all the different people who are affected by this and also that this place be seen as a place where everyone is welcome to find hope and consolation and inspiration, whether they’re Catholic or not,” Smith said. “That’s the bishop’s desire – that we are a real credible witness to Christ in the world through our work here.”
Schuller’s influence as an inspirational religious leader is decades long, and his Christ-centered teachings have worldwide reach. As a pastor, speaker, motivator, and author, he is appreciated by countless millions worldwide for his ability to encourage and inspire.
Schuller has written more than thirty books, including bestsellers such as “My Journey; If It’s Going to Be, It’s Up to Me”; “Prayer: My Soul’s Adventure with God”; “Power Thoughts: Achieve Your True Potential Through Power Thinking”; “Tough Times Never Last, But Tough People Do!”; “The Be-Happy Attitudes”; and “Hours of Power.”
Schuller has been honored with numerous awards, including: the Freedom Award; the Horatio Alger Award; Freedom Foundation Awards; Clergyman of the Year; Awards of Excellence for Religion in Media; the Napoleon Hill Gold Medal Award for Literary Achievement; The Golden Plate Award; the Outstanding American Award, presented by The Los Angeles Philanthropic Foundation; the 20th Annual Humanitarian of the Year Award; and honorary membership to American Institute of Architects. Both Dr. and Mrs. Schuller were honored with The Edith Munger Leadership Award presented by the Munger Center for Psychological Services. Dr. Schuller’s honorary doctorate degrees include those from Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, California; Hope College, Holland, Michigan (his Alma Mater); Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa; Pepperdine University, Malibu, California; Barrington College, Barrington, Rhode Island; Ashland College, Ashland, Ohio; and Hanyang University, Seoul, Korea.
Schuller’s positive messages and writings will live on as a source of strength and hope, motivating and encouraging people of all nationalities, races, creeds, and faiths. Millions thank Schuller for his many gifts. His legacy will live on.