Mega-Church Meltdown

Mega-Church Meltdown

Crystal Cathedral Ministries, the gleaming Southern California mega-church conglomerate, has filed for bankruptcy, citing pressures from creditors and deep shortfalls in donations to its Hour of Power television appeals.

Once a pioneer in media ministries, thanks to the gentle charisma and entrepreneurial fervor of its founder, Reverend Robert Schuller, the Crystal Cathedral defined destination architecture in its era, with glass-sheathed buildings that pushed upward from the flat landscape by Richard Neutra and Philip Johnson, and a later addition to the Garden Grove campus by Richard Meier.

Those improbable architect-client combinations were rare cases where modern and postmodern design could be compatible with Evangelical Christianity. Who knew? As debts mount, could those structures have been part of the problem, and could they now be sold and put to other use, or seized by angry creditors?

The ministry’s future did not always look so grim. In 1955, the Iowa-born Schuller of the Reformed Church of America found a religious dimension in suburbia’s motor culture, before Orange County became a suburb. He turned a local drive-in movie theater into the country’s first drive-in church on Sunday mornings when he preached from the roof of a concession stand, and his wife Arvella played the organ by his side. Transforming a place that the movie industry categorized as a teenage “passion pit” into a sacred place required an act of faith and $10 rent every Sunday. The wager paid off.


Schuller also bet that commissioning Richard Neutra in 1958 to build a glass drive-in/walk-in church one mile away from Disneyland would give the ministry a unique profile. It did. Worshippers drove to the church with the high steeple and to the parking lots with terraced sight lines, and televised services began in 1970. Even with the church in bankruptcy, the Hour of Power still airs globally every Sunday. Only Face the Nation, Meet the Press, and 60 Minutes have been on the air longer. Schuller’s program has had a longer life than many buildings.

Neutra’s airy design—with a reflecting pool, walls that slid open, and a cross atop the Tower of Hope that could be seen for miles—established an affinity with Schuller’s message of love, light, and “possibility thinking” (his new, improved version of “positive thinking” from Norman Vincent Peale). The Jewish architect’s notions of bio-realism and therapy through architecture seemed a world away from Schuller’s Midwestern Calvinism that judged individuals by the “bottom line” of their achievements, yet the bond between the two was strong.

While graceful, the Neutra designs could only be called pioneering in Orange County. By 1964 Neutra’s Tower of Hope and Disneyland’s Matterhorn nearby were the two tallest points in the county. Neutra’s memorial service in 1970 was held at Garden Grove.

As the ministry grew, another act of faith sought to differentiate the campus from the sea of concrete around it. Arvella Schuller was inspired by Philip Johnson’s Fort Worth Water Gardens (1974) and Johnson was hired to design a new glass church that would be larger than the Neutra structure, where TV had taken over much of the space in the same way that residential subdivisions and commercial sprawl displaced the old drive-in theaters. Client and architect found a kinship again.

Johnson, an atheist who called himself “an artist and a whore,” became Schuller’s architect, and in 1980 the preacher got a new $21 million silvery glass house, the Crystal Cathedral, one of Orange County’s major tourist attractions. Worshippers sat in Johnson’s radiant space during the Hour of Power, or listened in parked cars, or watched it all as television panned from his stage set to fountains outside. The cathedral’s corporate sheen was reminiscent of Johnson’s Pennzoil building in Houston, and upscale enough to convince the congregants that they were the Episcopalians of Revivalism.

By 1990, Johnson added The Bell Tower or Campanile, including melodramatic life-sized sculptures that reminded you that the man who loved modernism also shared cultural roots with the Liberace Museum.

Thanks to Armand Hammer (providing introductions to Mikhail Gorbachev) and Rupert Murdoch (satellite access to the former Soviet Union), Schuller’s global reach widened. The architecture made for better television, according to Erica Robles, author of a forthcoming book on the Crystal Cathedral, architecture, and the media.

In 2003, the Crystal Cathedral campus expanded even further, and at greater cost, with a $40 million International Center for Possibility Thinking, a generic visitors center in embossed curved steel and glass designed by Richard Meier.

The dream-team campus’ financial collapse defies familiar tales of greedy right-wing evangelists enriching themselves and spending lavishly on homes and luxuries. The Hour of Power had no strong right-wing political agenda. Crystal Cathedral leaders were paid reasonable salaries and most of the construction, albeit by celebrity architects, was funded by contributions. In the past two years, as Robert Schuller’s children miscalculated on internet expansion and funded a lavish, money-losing production called Creation, those contributions fell 24 percent. (Most creditors are media firms or vendors, not builders.)

There’s no clear prophetic element to the Schuller fall from grace besides the inherent risk in passing the reins of an empire to one’s children. Charisma isn’t transferable, nor is it always genetic, as the Schullers have learned to their chagrin. Another lesson is that the risk to any mega-church depends on how leveraged it is, and on its dependency on the personal appeal of a single pastor.

So far, none of Schuller’s wealthy patrons has risen to ease the debt, although one might have found the money if Schuller’s message echoed Tea Party rhetoric. A revenue trickle comes from opening its parking lots to the public, yet a worsening crisis could force the Crystal Cathedral back to its roots. “A lot of those drive-ins didn’t make money showing feature films,” said Erica Robles. Possibilities range from flea markets to biker shows, to mergers with Christians who have capital. If I were choosing, the Meier building would be the first on the block. Jim Coleman, the Crystal Cathedral’s creative director and Robert Schuller’s son-in-law, swears that there are no plans to sell any of the campus architecture. “We are faithful people. Remember, the Israelites had their backs against the Red Sea when Moses took them there,” he said.

Where on the dark side might the Schuller empire end up if things don’t work out the way they did for Moses? What if they scheduled an apocalypse, and no cars drove in? Surely, icons for sale wouldn’t be a sin. God knows.