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California and the West

Addition Planned at Crystal Cathedral to Feed More Than Parishioners' Souls

September 06, 1998|ELAINE GALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GARDEN GROVE — The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, who 40 years ago popularized the drive-in church, has another idea for blending faith with the culture of convenience: a food court at his Crystal Cathedral complex.

And it's not just any food court. The dining area will be the centerpiece of a circular structure designed by famed architect Richard Meier, who also created the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

The 50,000-square-foot building will include an exhibition hall honoring the world's great "Christian capitalists" and will be flanked by two other architecture gems: the Richard Neutra-designed Garden Grove Community Church and Philip Johnson's Crystal Cathedral.

Schuller's plans come as a growing number of religious institutions nationwide attempt to lure more parishioners and cultivate a church community by offering meals and snacks after services.

The Faith Community Church in West Covina, for example, is building a food kiosk that will serve espresso, hot dogs and soft drinks to churchgoers who don't have time to grab a bite on their way to worship.

"People are more likely to fellowship with other people if they have a cup of coffee in their hands," said George Rauscher, a pastor at the church. "In our culture, eating together tends to break down barriers and encourages people to talk to one another. That's what a lot of sharing the gospel is about."

A scattering of other churches have already opened snack concessions, and the Mariners South Coast Church in Irvine is also considering some type of food service as a convenience to members.

The Crystal Cathedral's food court is seen as especially significant given the church's popularity and landmark status, experts said. About 250,000 people now visit the church annually, and officials expect bigger crowds when the new center is completed in 2000.

"When the tourists come here, we want to feed their tummies and their souls," said Crystal Cathedral spokesperson Claudia Holloway.

The church hasn't selected vendors or determined whether the menu will feature chow mein or tamales--or both. But don't expect fast food. "There will probably be a smorgasbord of food," Holloway said.

Although officials say church members are excited about the additions, some critics say that Schuller's vision irrevocably blurs the secular with the ecclesiastical.

"It smacks of the mall mentality gone crazy," said Benjamin J. Hubbard, professor and chairman of the department of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton. "You shop for religion and then swing by the food court."

Schuller started his career preaching from a tar-papered pulpit on top of a snack bar at the former Orange Drive-In Theater in 1955.

In the early 1960s, he commissioned Neutra to design the Garden Grove Community Church, a striking example of postwar Modern architecture with its massive glass walls and rectangular concrete tower. In 1980, Schuller opened the doors of his 12-story glass and steel landmark, the Crystal Cathedral. The cathedral--with its 10,000 glass panes--draws thousands of parishioners every week.

Margaret Crawford, chairwoman of the history and theory program at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, said it's fitting that Schuller is among the first pastors to embrace food services.

"Schuller is always in the foreground of entrepreneurial religion," she said.

Meier said he was drawn to the project by Schuller's earnest love of architecture.

"He understands that people come to be a part of a place," Meier said. "Outstanding works of architecture have a drawing capacity."

Linking food and fellowship was significant in Meier's design for the center.

"It's a much-needed facility at Crystal Cathedral because people come not only on Sundays and holidays but they also come daily," he said. "It's necessary to have a place to sit and read, have lunch and enjoy the wonderful climate in Southern California. . . . It's only natural that they should have something to eat while they're there."

Beyond feeding hungry church-goers, the food court should help lure the curious into the church and perhaps reignite latent spirituality, Crystal Cathedral officials said.

"We'd be remiss if we didn't try to draw them in with all the tourists that come through campus," Holloway said. "Now people who are curious can stay longer and break bread together with their friends."

But she stressed that the church will retain some clear barriers between the food services and religious services. The sanctuary itself will remain food-free--a policy adopted by other churches that serve food.

"We have to remember that the purpose for being here is to worship God," Rauscher said. "And that requires something a little more solemn than popcorn in the upper seats."

Experts said the food concessions reflect large churches' efforts to make worship more convenient.

"We've moved a long way from the notion of a little country church," Hubbard said. "These huge churches are the waves of the future. They are full-service. You've got Christian counseling, child care. . . . Why not Christian food courts?"

Such services are increasingly necessary, Rauscher said, to help churchgoers make churchgoing a part of their busy lives.

"If people can pick up a croissant and a cup of cappuccino at church, it makes it easier," he added. "If you make it too difficult, people just won't come to church. They'll go to Universal Studios instead."

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