In these pessimistic times, even the most optimistic message can falter. So it was that the Crystal Cathedral, the wildly successful forerunner of the modern mega-church movement, filed for bankruptcy protection this week.
To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, to every time there is a message, and a messenger who knows exactly how to get it across. The Rev. Robert H. Schuller saw the potential of drive-in churches in Southern California's car culture, and of using television, rather than solely a local pulpit, to maximize his reach.
But none of that would have sufficed if Schuller had not delivered the right kind of message for his time and place. Orange County in the 1960s and '70s was in the midst of a growth spurt. It was new, shiny, promising. Schuller tapped into that sense of promise with motivational sermons to young families that talked more of self-help than sin. As a sort of spiritual Tony Robbins, he became known for the saying, "If you can dream it, you can do it," and his serenely smiling demeanor seemed to offer assurance that it was true. The towering glass Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove stood out as a glittering symbol of can-do spirit.
But times changed, and so did North Orange County. As with any organization built around a single charismatic man and message, Crystal Cathedral stumbled as Schuller — along with his congregation and the surrounding neighborhood — aged.