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Cracked crystal

Pessimistic times trump Rev. Schuller's optimism.

October 20, 2010

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.

New charismatic preachers arrived with new messages. The prosperity gospel — the belief that right-acting worshipers will receive material rewards — gained a huge television following as delivered by Paul Crouch, for example, at Trinity Broadcasting Network, also in Orange County. In more affluent, more recently developed South Orange County, Saddleback Church offered music lessons for children and fitness classes for women. Its charismatic preacher, Rick Warren, gave the invocation at President Obama's inauguration. Televangelism is still big in American religion, but for the truly modern churchgoing family, Saddleback now has iPhone apps.

In this environment, Crystal Cathedral must overcome both a harsh economy and its own demographic shifts to survive. Schuller's attempt a few years ago to install his son as the leader of the church fell apart. Then one of his daughters was named senior pastor; other members of the family also hold important posts. Church officials have made it clear that Crystal Cathedral will no longer be as much about one man and his optimistic sermons. Religion may be eternal, but its mortal messengers are not.

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