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Crystal Cathedral's tale of two ministries

As the landmark Orange County megachurch fights to survive bankruptcy, this is its untold success story: a Spanish-language service led by a dynamic Argentine pastor who inspires comparisons to church founder Robert H. Schuller.

June 19, 2011|Mitchell Landsberg and Nicole Santa Cruz

The two lines begin forming outside the Crystal Cathedral before 9 on Sunday mornings. It is a mostly immigrant crowd -- Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, among others -- and they stand patiently, unfurling umbrellas against the sun.

When the doors open for the 9:30 English-language service, the lines don't budge. It isn't for a lack of seats inside -- so few people are there that cameramen have trouble finding crowd shots for the "Hour of Power" television program, which has been broadcast from the Garden Grove megachurch since 1970.

At 11, a second English service starts, also sparsely attended. The lines outside grow longer.

By the time that service ends, each line stretches the equivalent of a city block -- people of all ages dressed in their Sunday best. Just before 1, the doors reopen and, row by row, the cathedral is filled.

As the Crystal Cathedral fights to survive its descent into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, this is its untold success story: a Spanish-language service led by a dynamic Argentine pastor, Dante Gebel, who inspires comparisons to the church's founder, Robert H. Schuller.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, June 21, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Crystal Cathedral: An article in the June 19 Section A about the success of the Latino ministry at the Crystal Cathedral stated that Pastor Dante Gebel's services were broadcast widely throughout the U.S. and the Spanish-speaking world on the Telemundo network. They are broadcast by Telemundo in the U.S. but in other countries by Enlace TBN, Gebel's office says.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 26, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Crystal Cathedral: An article in the June 19 Section A about the success of the Latino ministry at the Crystal Cathedral said that Pastor Dante Gebel's services were broadcast widely throughout the U.S. and the Spanish-speaking world on the Telemundo network. They are broadcast by Telemundo in the U.S. but in other countries by Enlace TBN, Gebel's office says.

Since Gebel arrived two years ago, the cathedral's Hispanic Ministry has grown from no more than 300 people to 3,000, far outstripping the traditional ministry led by Schuller's daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman. The brash, shaggy-haired Gebel is seen on television in some 70 countries; his Facebook page is "liked" by more than 800,000 people.

Yet even this may not be enough to save the architectural and religious landmark, long known for its lavish spending and now caught short by plummeting revenues. Crystal Cathedral Ministries recently filed a reorganization plan that calls for selling its 40-acre campus to a real estate developer and leasing back its core for $212,000 a month. In October, the church said it owed creditors more than $50 million.

The hard reality is that Gebel's popularity is unlikely to generate the money needed to rescue the Schuller empire. And Gebel -- an independent contractor, not a church staff member -- is quick to say that he has no great attachment to the Garden Grove church and could leave at any time.

"I haven't been called to save the Crystal Cathedral, so that isn't my goal," he said in an interview in his office on the cathedral grounds. He thinks about just one thing, he said: "Preaching to the Hispanic people."

He likens the cathedral, with its soaring, light-filled vault, to a borrowed tuxedo. "I would say the same thing here as in Bolivia or Argentina," he said, "but here, I have a better suit."

It is hard to imagine a contrast more striking than the one between the English and Spanish services at Crystal Cathedral.

The two identical English services, which the church still calls its "main" services, follow the general format developed by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, who began preaching in 1955 from the roof of a snack shop at the Orange Drive-in theater. The service is bright and easy, featuring an interview with an inspirational speaker and a liturgy heavy on motivational advice and light on Scripture. There is almost no congregational participation.

It is a style that was perfectly tailored to the World War II generation settling into Orange County's new suburbs in the 1950s and '60s. With its optimistic emphasis on "possibility thinking," it was as bold and contemporary as the churches Schuller would build -- icons of modernism designed by Richard Neutra and Philip Johnson.

Schuller's vision seemed boundless. The cathedral, with 10,000 panes of glass and walls that peel open at the touch of a button, cost $20 million in 1980. Extravagant Christmas and Easter pageants featured professional musicians, donkeys, camels and costumed flying angels.

By the late '80s, church attendance had begun to decline but Schuller kept building, adding the $250-million Family Life Center and the $5.5-million, 234-foot-high Prayer Spire. The $40-million Welcome Center and museum opened in 2003.

Schuller faced criticism for spending freely on buildings, salaries and travel, but it was integral to his message, summed up in an aphorism inscribed on a Welcome Center wall: "I'd rather attempt to do something great and fail, than attempt to do nothing and succeed!"

In recent years, the congregation has dwindled, tastes have changed and the Schullers' squabbles have alienated some followers. The founder's son, Robert A. Schuller, succeeded his father in 2006 but was pushed out two years later. He was replaced by his sister.

The former schoolteacher has won over many congregants with her warmth and seeming sincerity, but others have been put off by her sometimes awkward efforts to reinvigorate the church, as when she recently asked worshipers to go home and find unneeded "stuff" to put on EBay "and turn it into money that will help us rebuild our wonderful, wonderful ministry."

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