Today, I attended morning services at both Crystal Cathedral with Robert H. Schuller and Saddleback Church with Rick Warren, about 20 miles-but-worlds-apart in worship format. It was an interesting peek at different segments of evangelical Christianity.
Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California is best known for its distinctive glass architecture creating an impressive aesthetic experience both within and without the structure. Inside is a huge pipe organ which along with the facility’s acoustics made the 45 member choir sound like ten times that many. The choir sang traditional hymns and Dr. Schuller’s daughter, Rev. Dr. Sheila Schuller Coleman, emceed the program. The auditorium was maybe two-thirds full with seemingly one-half the women and some of the men dressed in bold Valentine’s Day red. More interestingly, I was close to being the youngest person in the service. While a few younger adults attended this was very much an older audience.
Dr. Schuller is 83 years of age and still preaches with a degree of energy. But he also evidenced his age today by making mistakes in three separate statements. The program was constructed around today’s celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Dr. Schuller’s television and radio program, “Hour of Power.” While the service had its high points, in particular the choir, the overall experience of the service seemed lethargic to me and even a bit forced. I found it uncomfortable and wondered if others did as well.
It wasn’t long ago, within a few months, Dr. Schuller installed then removed his son, Dr. Robert A. Schuller, from heading the ministry and the flagship program. According to press comments, attendance and donations had been dropping and the ministry was drifting. But this was happening before Jr took over and is apparently continuing because recent staff cuts and program airtime reductions have been implemented. Dr. Sheila Schuller is now heading the ministry and as I noted today’s service. She seems nice, but she is not an inspiring speaker and at times lost her place or her pace in the program sequence. I’m not sure I understand why she’s been anointed to step into leadership. Not because I have anything against a female leader, but because I believe the ministry would be better served by announcing and completing a search for the next qualified senior pastor of the church.
I mentioned the service seemed “forced,” meaning it felt like they had a brand they had to keep promoting. And they do, it’s Robert H. Schuller and Positive Thinking-Possibility Thinking, so every few minutes someone emphasized the word “positive” or “possible” in a way that didn’t work for me. God or Jesus was mentioned from time to time, and when they were it was done in a biblically appropriate manner. But Schuller’s legacy, which was mentioned, and being positive and having hope were the bold print part of the message.
Saddleback Church with Rick Warren was a substantially different experience. The service on the main campus, one of five now plus the online church, was packed into a relatively modest-number-of-seats auditorium with the feel of a black box theater, music was lively, the congregation was vibrantly engaged, and all but a couple of choruses focused upon Jesus by name, the blood, forgiveness, or God’s love. The service was amazingly diverse with every age represented from crowds of children and young families on the campus going to their own facilities to the elderly in wheelchairs or literally on oxygen in the worship center. The congregation was as racially or ethnically mixed as you’re likely to find anywhere including sports events.
Rick appeared twice on video—today was his day to visit the outlying campuses—and a guest pastor spoke. This was not a big disappointment to me because I’ve heard Rick before. The message by a guest speaker was thoroughly grounded in Scripture—people were encouraged to open Bibles—and focused upon God’s forgiving us, thus making it possible and essential for us to forgive others, i.e. “Jesus’ pattern should become our practice.”
If I had to guess which church ministry would survive the sudden loss of its senior pastor I’d say Saddleback, despite Rick Warren’s national persona. At Crystal Cathedral, you can find huge paintings of Dr. Schuller on the visitor center wall, his quotes scripted on those walls, and people in the program or even the ushers repeatedly mentioning his name or what he said. Nothing wrong with paintings or quotes per se, but again, it’s become the brand.
At Saddleback, you can find Rick’s books in the book store, but the only picture I saw of him was a small one-among-many in the bulletin. Same can be said of the respective websites. Saddleback isn’t marketing Rick Warren. It’s marketing life lived authentically in and for Jesus Christ.
There are at least two additional reasons I believe Saddleback would survive the unexpected loss of its senior pastor better than Crystal Cathedral: leadership and young families. Crystal is still struggling through a generational leadership change that has not yet really transitioned. The leader is in his 80s and either never really let go or had to come back because the ministry has been for 40 years heavily focused on his persona and program. It’s difficult to undue constituent loyalties in a quick or short time. Saddleback, on the other hand, has a long list of pastors on staff and it’s knee deep in deacons who can and do lead an incredible array and complexity of ministries. In other words, Saddleback has a leadership bench to draw from in a time of crisis or transition, and despite what critics have said, Saddleback isn’t of, by, and for Rick Warren. He’s an evangelical star, but at the church the spotlight isn’t on him, it’s on Jesus. The church’s future can also be seen and foretold in those hundreds of families and thousands of children bee-hiving the campus and finding spiritual niches in the programs Saddleback offers.
Visiting both churches in one day was a worthy experiment, and I’m glad I did it. And I should say, I didn’t write this piece to be critical of Dr. Schuller. I respect much of what he’s accomplished for the Lord. But I’m also concerned for the future of that ministry. Saddleback has its own challenges, but leaders and congregants are bent upon meeting those challenges as God directs, which is a great thing to see.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2010
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