Dr. Robert Schuller died this past week at the age of 88 of esophageal cancer. It seems to me no small piece of grace that he died the day before Good Friday after years of preaching what he considered the positive message of Jesus. It also strikes me as ironic that he died amid the controversy over the Indiana religious freedom law which I will comment on later.
Schuller was best known for being the first "televangelist" whose weekly church service titled The Hour of Power was watched by 20-million people per week in a time when getting that many people to watch anything was a remarkable feat. He was courted by Presidents, befriended by celebrities, and lived long enough to see the cathedral he had built to much fanfare and criticism, be sold off as the church filed for bankruptcy. Yet how a life ends does not define how a life was lived. Dr. Schuller had a large impact on my life and on the lives of millions of people and, like most revolutionaries, it is difficult to remember that in the context of his time he was a trailblazer.
I met Dr. Schuller in 1984 as a young Presbyterian minister from Ohio when I attended his Institute for Church Leadership. Having just built the much criticized and praised Chrystal Cathedral he was at the time one of the most powerful figures in modern religion. He had a big impact on my life and career, one that carried over long after I left the formal ministry and began a career as an author, speaker and corporate advisor. I have rarely thought about Dr. Schuller in the last 10 years but on the morning he died I had this passing thought come out of nowhere "I wonder when Dr. Schuller will die and how he is right now?"
A plane ride and five hours later, I heard the news on my rental car radio in Los Angeles that he had died. I don't know what to make of the odd coincidence except to say that, in some way few of us truly understand, there is an unseen connection that exists in the world.
Before I tell you how Dr. Schuller influenced my young life, a brief history lesson is in order. Schuller was born in poverty in rural Iowa and became a Reformed Church minister in the mid 1950s. In the spring of 1955 he went out to the newly growing Orange County California to start a new church which he began in March of 1955 preaching atop the hot dog stand at a drive-in theater as churchgoers listened to him through the speaker system in their cars. They had a simple motto -- "come as you are in the family car."
Schuller was controversial from the very beginning. Staid traditionalists criticized his "car" church, called his sermons nothing but "pop" psychology, and would later critique him for raising millions of dollars to build a Chrystal Cathedral. But when I met Schuller in 1984 he was at the height of his influence with a weekly television show watched by 20-million people worldwide who listened to his simple, positive messages about what he came to call "possibility thinking."
In what way was Schuller a revolutionary? First, he marked a stark contrast from the fire and brimstone tone of American Christianity in the 1950s and '60s. Schuller was often quoted as saying the "church was not a house for saints but a hospital for sinners." Rather than rail against people's sins, Schuller tried to call people to the possibility of choosing a more noble life. Now in a day of more tolerance it may seem like no large feat but in a time when few churches preached a positive message he appeared radical. His church also tackled issues like divorce in compassionate ways. While many other churches preached judgment to those who divorced or simply ignored the issue, he began a divorce recovery program that helped thousands of people recover from divorce. Rather than being shunned by the church, his church welcomed them in. They began a suicide prevention line that undoubtedly helped thousands of people step back from the brink of suicide. He had a simple mantra that he repeated over and over: "Find a need and fill it, find a hurt and heal it."
In this way, Jesus and Schuller shared something in common. Jesus was a revolutionary too. He ate with thieves and prostitutes, he preached against the "eye for an eye" religion of his day turning it around to ask that "we turn the other cheek and love thy neighbor as thyself." When a woman was caught in adultery and the crowd rose up to stone her to death which was an acceptable part of life in his time (and sadly still in some places today), Jesus drew the ire of the holy teachers when he said "let he who is without sin cast the first stone." The early Christians practiced compassion and sharing with the poor among them which was radical in the cultures of its time. Most of what Jesus did does not seem radical now but at the time he was ahead of his time both in his message, and the way he treated women especially.
Schuller can be criticized for having not weighed in on the great issues of his time like the war in Vietnam or the civil rights movement but this was not his calling. He felt called to raise the human spirit. He cannot be seen in the context of a world that left him behind. By the late 1990s positive psychology had become the norm so his message seemed passé. Tolerance had become the "politically correct" norm yet Schuller bore the marks of almost constant criticism both for his positive message and for his willingness to take on issues like divorce in a compassionate way.
More importantly, for several decades his message reached into the households of millions of people around the world. Having been the friend of five presidents, he reached out to Bill Clinton during the time of scandal in his presidency and was criticized for it. Once again Shuller reminded people that his mission was not to condemn people but to help them find a better self. Given the mean spirited brand of Christianity witnessed so often today and most recently in Indiana, his message of acceptance and openness would be a welcome relief.
Later in his life he watched his life's work come undone. The message became passé, he tried too hard to pass the church on as a family business to his son, debts piled up and his highest physical achievement the Chrystal Cathedral was sold off to the Catholic Church. Family feuds ensued as well as revelations of excessive salaries and nepotism. Alas, like all of us, it turns out he had feet of clay.
As a young minister Schuller influenced me in myriad ways. After meeting him, I went back and began my own divorce recovery program and hundreds of newly divorced people benefited from the effort. He challenged me to "take on big dreams" and reminded me that "energy flows towards big ideas." Most of all I admired his own courage to buck the trend, look square in the face of the status quo and walk the other way, and how from that first sermon on top of a hot dog stand in a drive in theatre he would reach millions of people for several decades. As he passed away this week I could not help but wonder how many other individuals like me were inspired in some small way to be a better human being because of his work.
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