Tuesday 27 September 2016

Robert Schuller

USA TV evangelist whose 'Hour of Power' broadcasts pushed 'possibility thinking'

Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30

Robert Schuller delivering one of seven candlelight Christmas Eve services from the Crystal Cathedral pulpit in Garden Grove, California Photo: AP
Robert Schuller delivering one of seven candlelight Christmas Eve services from the Crystal Cathedral pulpit in Garden Grove, California Photo: AP

Robert Schuller, who has died aged 88, was one of America's most prominent television evangelists, and the founder and presenter of Hour of Power, a relentlessly upbeat weekly religious programme which, at one time, broadcast to 20 million households around the world.

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Schuller started his ministry in 1955 from the roof of a snack shop at a local drive-in cinema in Garden Grove, California. His motivational speaking and motto - "Come as you are in the family car" - struck a chord with the "baby boomer" generation that flocked to suburban Orange County in the late 1960s and 1970s.

He began broadcasting Hour of Power in 1970 and in 1978, commissioned the architect Philip Johnson to design a huge "Crystal Cathedral": a soaring confection featuring 10,000 windows of silver-coloured glass, seating for 3,000, 90ft doors that opened at the touch of a button and one of the world's largest pipe organs. Outside, drive-in worshippers could follow services from behind the wheel on a giant screen at the church's "in-car worship centre".

At the height of his fame, Schuller's twice-daily services drew thousands of worshippers. His sermons, a blend of religion and pop psychology, were relatively light on gospel and scripture. Instead, they majored on the power of "possibility thinking" and emphasised self-esteem and self-improvement.

In 1994, he staged a Glory of Christmas nativity spectacular to celebrate his 40 years as a preacher, turning his church into what one visitor described as "a cross between a zoo and the set of Les Miserables".

Eight flying angels accompanied a 200-member chorus in Hark the Herald Angels Sing; a local American football team mounted on real horses played a detachment of Roman soldiers; the Star of Bethlehem was represented by a 2,000-watt searchlight shining out of the crib, and the Magi arrived on real camels.

Schuller managed to avoid being implicated in any of the sexual and financial shenannigans that undermined support for his rivals in the late 1980s, and in the mid-1990s, he became a spiritual guru to president Bill Clinton.

Schuller was first invited to stay overnight at the White House in 1995 and, as he recalled, during the night, Clinton paid him a visit. After talking for a while, the two men got down on their knees and prayed. "I almost cried," Schuller recalled.

Afterwards Clinton adopted one of Schuller's favourite lines from the Bible - "Thou shalt be called the repairer of the breach" - as his personal mantra and used it in key speeches, even laying his hand on the passage when he was sworn in for his second term in 1997. Other sayings that Schuller was said to have passed on to Clinton included "God plus me equals a majority" and "nothing great ever happens on the okay level".

Schuller's teaching, however, provided no defence against the charms of Monica Lewinsky, with whom Clinton had an "inappropriate relationship" at around the same time, and indeed one criticism of Schuller's theology was that it largely ignored the thorny issue of sin. Schuller said that he wanted to put "strong wings on weary hearts", and was shrewd enough to know that his success depended on giving people a message they wanted to hear, one that did not harp on original sin, guilt and penitence.

As he once observed, non-churchgoers are kept out of church by a sense of guilt, "the same way an overweight man avoids stepping on a bathroom scale". So Schuller made sure that their encounters with God left them untroubled by such negativity.

"The classical error of historical Christianity is that we have… started from the 'unworthiness of the sinner', and that starting point has set the stage for the glorification of human shame in Christian theology," he wrote in his book Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, one of more than 30 bestselling self-help manuals he published over the years.

The "real sin", he once said, "is not trying".

But Schuller's appeal began to fade in the new millennium. In 2011, he was forced out of the church he founded, amid what insiders said was a dispute over financial management and a series of bitter family rows.

The cathedral itself was sold to the local Roman Catholic diocese, which renamed it Christ Cathedral, and in 2012, Schuller lost a legal battle to claim back more than $5 million from his former ministry for alleged copyright infringement and breach of contract.

If Schuller wanted some supportive advice in his hour of need, observed one journalist, he could always consult some of his own books. They included Life's Not Fair But God is Good and The Power of Being Debt-Free.

Robert Harold Schuller was born near Alton, Iowa, on September 16, 1926, to poor Dutch immigrant parents. Ordained by the Reformed Church in America in 1950, he served as pastor of Ivanhoe Reformed Church in Chicago from 1950 before moving to California where he and his wife, Arvella, an organist, started their drive-in ministry in 1955.

Arvella died last year and Schuller is survived by his son and four daughters. He died on April 2.

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