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Schuller to Show TV Broadcast in Movie Theaters Worldwide : Religion: Crystal Cathedral minister plans to produce his church services as films after losing access to much of his Russian and European audience.


GARDEN GROVE — Faced with a blackout in Russia and the loss of 90% of his European television audience after losing access to a major satellite network, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller on Sunday disclosed an unprecedented end run to bolster his worldwide broadcast ministry--by returning to low-tech.

At a time when global communications have become instantaneous, Schuller said he will put his weekly "Hour of Power" television program on film to be shown on a delayed basis every Sunday morning in theaters worldwide. His goal is to have screenings in 2,000 theaters within two years.

"I'm here today to tell you God has given us a new dream," Schuller told worshipers at the landmark Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. "We will be the first ministry in history to produce a church service as a movie."

First screenings are scheduled later this month in Australia. By November, half a dozen theaters will be lined up in Holland, Germany and Switzerland, along with 30 theaters in the United States, including eight to 10 in Southern California, Schuller aides said.

The Southern California theaters have agreed to broadcast the services rent-free, they said, but initial costs, which include a nationwide advertising campaign, are estimated at $500,000 through this year.

Schuller, known for his gospel of positive thinking, said that what may have been seen as adversity represents a new opportunity.

Schuller lost access to Europe's Super Channel in January after NBC acquired a 75% stake in the network and launched a major overhaul of its programming. It is seeking to attract a wider audience with a combination of information and entertainment.

Schuller, whose "Hour of Power" reached 200,000 viewers over the network, told his congregation, "They have a 'no religion' policy. They discriminate against Christianity."

Moments later, he added, "If the railroad can't deliver my product, maybe I need a truck driver!"

Three months ago, Schuller lost another 10 million to 15 million viewers when he was taken off government-owned Channel 1 in Russia because, a Schuller spokesman said, the government's financial problems forced it to temporarily cut back on programming. Schuller hopes that Channel 1 will resume his broadcast by the end of the fall.

Still, Schuller said Sunday, his viewing audience worldwide is 20 million, including 2.5 million viewers in the United States and about 2,000 in England and Europe who receive signals from the pay-per-view SKY satellite.

Michael Nason, a longtime aide and spokesman for Schuller, said the one silver lining in the recent developments is that SKY has agreed to descramble its signal to offer Schuller's "Hour of Power" free.

Schuller said he will continue to seek new television outlets for his program, but is more enthusiastic about the possibilities of appearing on the big screen. He joked with his congregation Sunday about being stunned at seeing his own enormous image.

"I could hear him breathe," he said of the theater screen preacher. "He was as close to me as if I were only four feet away. There was a presence there!"

Schuller was not unmindful of the irony of turning to an old medium--celluloid--in a high-tech world. For him, though, it is back to the future--he began his ministry 40 years ago preaching at a drive-in movie theater in Orange.

"I guess you could say Schuller hasn't made much progress. He's back in the theater," Schuller joked between services.

The difference this time is that he will be on 35-millimeter film in full Dolby sound. Schuller believes that his approach is on the cutting edge, Nason said. "It's the biggest thing in evangelism in decades," he said.

Schuller said his weekly worship service, which is taped for television rebroadcast, will be transferred to film and screened about three to four weeks later.

By providing the television program in a theater setting, Schuller is betting that many viewers who do not attend church would be willing to leave their homes to go to a movie.

"You know what," he told reporters, "it might not work at all. But to guarantee failure is not to try. . . . If it catches on, by golly, we can see churches coming back on Main Street!"

Schuller said he would be happy if just 15 to 20 people showed up for a viewing. He is not attempting to start new churches, he said, but draw those who are not affiliated with a church and refer them to a church of their choice where counseling, worship, Bible study and other services would be available.

"It would be the first time some of these viewers can see the eyes and face and touch the hand of someone who is a Christian," Schuller said.

Schuller said no collection plate would be passed, although there would be one in the rear of the theaters for contributions. In Australia, some thought is being given to selling admission tickets, but elsewhere admission would be free. The film would be edited to exclude announcements and the offertory.

It was not immediately known what impact the loss of the Super Channel had on the ministry's annual $45-million budget or how the Crystal Cathedral might be affected.

The landmark church has at times been heavily subsidized by broadcast income. Between 1980 and 1986, the TV ministry gave $14.7 million to the Crystal Cathedral to keep the congregation afloat, according to a published report in 1990.

By late 1991, however, church officials said that the broadcast subsidies had stopped and that the local congregation was self-sustaining with an annual income of $5 million. There is now one budget for both the Crystal Cathedral and Schuller's broadcast ministry.

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