The Rev. Robert H. Schuller handed over the leadership of the Crystal Cathedral to his only son on Sunday, ending a half-century as pastor of a church he started in a drive-in movie theater in Orange County and built into a worldwide ministry.
Schuller, 79, waited until the close of his New Year's Day sermon to announce that Robert A. Schuller would succeed him as senior pastor Jan. 22. He will also take over the popular "Hour of Power," a religious program broadcast around the world.
"Bob needs your prayers," Schuller said, fighting back tears, his strong voice wavering with emotion. "But it is up to the congregation, not this guy or that guy -- to make it happen."
The younger Schuller asked the congregation for help. "I need your prayers. I covet your prayers. From the time I was born, God has equipped me and allowed me to take on this incredible challenge. I am honored and humbled."
Like the pastor sons of evangelists Billy Graham and Oral Roberts, Robert A. Schuller, 51, follows a well-known figure of 20th century American Protestantism. But unlike televangelists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the elder Schuller stayed out of politics.
He set the tone for his upbeat ministry by first preaching from the roof of a drive-in theater snack bar in 1955. Setting aside the fire-and-brimstone sermons then common, Schuller developed a relentlessly optimistic form of Christianity that linked the power of positive thinking and self-esteem with uplifting Gospel messages. The mix was appealing enough to pack his church and attract millions of TV viewers around the world.
His ministry became a model for the thousands of nondenominational congregations -- including some of the nation's largest churches -- that have popped up in recent decades to serve believers uncomfortable with the formality of old-line faiths.
"Schuller is to be credited as one of the inventors of the megachurch," said Donald E. Miller, director for USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture. "I suppose he is also someone who caused critics to raise questions whether this was just about marketing or about the truth of religion."
A devotee of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the power-of-positive-thinking pioneer, Schuller has written more than 30 books, including five New York Times bestsellers. His writing is filled with aphorisms such as "inch by inch, it's a cinch," "turn your scars into stars" and "I will bloom where I am planted today!"
Schuller's message of optimism found favor among world leaders and celebrities, including every U.S. president from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, industrialist Armand Hammer, Mother Teresa, deposed Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and Coretta Scott King.
"Robert Schuller has had a major religious impact, not only in the United States, but in many parts of the world through his writings and television broadcasts," the Rev. Billy Graham said in a statement. The TV programs offered some of the first Christian broadcasting in the Soviet Union.
"Rev. Robert H. Schuller's great legacy will be his creative use of television to bring the message of Jesus Christ to the world," said Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles. "He was always searching for new ways to bring the Gospel message to as many people as possible."
The elder Schuller built the sprawling church complex in Garden Grove, including a glass-walled cathedral with 10,000 panes of glass, so architecturally rich that he received a lifetime achievement award from the American Institute of Architects.
Schuller's presence will still be felt throughout the ministry with its $72-million budget, 500 employees and 3,500 volunteers, according to church figures. Crystal Cathedral, part of the Reformed Church in America, has about 10,000 members; its broadcasts reach millions.
Freed from managing daily operations, Schuller plans to continue to preach at the church and has formulated a 20-year plan he hopes will culminate with him preaching at the Crystal Cathedral when he is 100. His title will be founding pastor.
"I am not retiring," Schuller insisted in an interview Friday.
He plans to raise an endowment of about $100 million to cover the $4 million in annual maintenance needed for the church buildings and grounds. Schuller said this would give the Crystal Cathedral the financial footing to continue for "a thousand years."
When the younger Schuller is installed as senior pastor, it will mark the culmination of a succession plan formalized in 1996.
After his father made the announcement Sunday, the younger Schuller joined him at the altar, and they embraced before an audience of 2,157 people who attended the first of two morning services. An additional 2,200 attended the second service. The church holds 3,000.
Crystal Cathedral members said afterward that while the senior Schuller drew them to the church, his son had grown to be a more confident and powerful preacher. They said they expected the church's upbeat tone to change little.