By Warren Bird
Robert H. Schuller, left, during the celebration service for the installation of his son Robert A. Schuller (with wife Donna next to him) as senior pastor at Crystal Cathedral in 2006.
“Possibility thinker” and pioneering pastor Robert H. Schuller died April 2, 2015, at age 88. Bold, creative, charismatic and controversial, his life and legacy drew immediate major coverage in both the mainstream press and evangelical stalwarts like Christianity Today.
What most people don’t realize is how much Schuller influenced today’s church, not just the megachurch movement, but churches of all sizes and styles. Few congregations today offer church services in drive-in theaters, where Schuller started, nor do many build architectural wonders like Schuller’s inspirational Crystal Cathedral, yet Schuller’s impact is significant and widespread. As Leadership journal pointed out back in 1997, Schuller was the first in the modern era to:
• Call his denominational church a “community church,” since he felt most seekers didn’t understand or relate to a denominational label.
• Rename a sermon as a “message.”
• Use a nontraditional setting for church worship—in his case, a drive-in theater, followed by a drive-in church.
• Conduct door-to-door research, asking, “Why don’t you go to church?” and “What do you want in a church?” (which Schuller describes in his book, Your Church Has Real Possibilities).
• Use marketing strategies to reach nonchurched people (he did so about the time George Barna was born).
• Train pastors in leadership (Institute for Successful Church Leadership, 1969, later named the Robert H. Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership).
• Televise a weekly church service, the “Hour of Power,” starting in 1970 and not missing a week for decades, a program which conducted many format experiments such as interviews with high-visibility guests.
Few are the pastors who, knowingly or not, haven’t wrestled with the approaches Schuller used—and then to accept, adapt or reject them. As Schuller’s grandson Bobby (Robert V. Schuller), who is today pastoring the successor to the Crystal Cathedral said, “He reached out to wounded, broken people who were afraid of the church experience. It was the beginning of the seeker-sensitive movement.” Indeed the church’s mission was represented by Schuller’s oft-repeated mantra, “Find a need and fill it, find a hurt and heal it.”
Schuller encouraged church leaders to figure out new ways to better integrate mission into their evangelism. He said, “Don’t imitate; innovate. An amazing amount of energy in Christian ministries is repeating what has already been done.”
Schuller’s efforts at pastoral succession started admirably but ended up with a divided family and a bankrupt congregation, as William Vanderbloemen and I chronicle in the book Next: Pastoral Succession that Works. Even so, having lost his wife and ministry partner Arvella in 2014, he leaves behind an extended family, many of whom are leaders in various Christian ministries, a worldwide collection of people who found spiritual help through his writings and pastoral influence, and an enigmatic life story for future generations to study and learn from.