A Cathedral of Crystal

July 29, 2019 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Credit: Wikipedia

Yesterday marked a new day for one of the most famous architectural landmarks in the United States and, really, in the world.  Yesterday, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated its first Mass in what was once dubbed the “Crystal Cathedral.”

The Crystal Cathedral was the brainchild of famed televangelist Robert Schuller.  He moved to Orange County, California in 1955 to plant a church.  And oh, did he ever.  He launched his congregation at the Orange Drive-In Movie Theatre, where he preached from the roof of the snack bar to people as they sat in their cars.  “Come as you are; pray in the family car,” was his slogan.  From there, he went on to launch and build Garden Grove Community Church.  Though his new church building featured a more traditional sanctuary, it still allowed worshipers to remain in their cars in the parking lot and listen to worship if they did not wish to go inside.

By the 1970s, the church had outgrown its current facility.  Thus, in 1977, Robert Schuller joined with famous architect Philip Johnson to construct the Crystal Cathedral at a cost of $18 million.  What began as a drive-in movie theatre mission plant was now a world-famous megachurch.  During the 1980s, the TV program that Robert Schuller hosted from his Crystal Cathedral, The Hour of Power, was the most watched religious program in America.

But trouble and turmoil bubbled up when it was time for the church’s founding pastor to hand over the reins.  At first, his son was to become the new senior pastor.  Then his daughter led the congregation for a short time.  Then his grandson took over.  The tumultuous transition took a severe toll on the congregation, which had to file for bankruptcy.  What was once, arguably, the most famous worship space in America soon fell silent on Sunday mornings.  Yesterday, however, the Crystal Cathedral sprung back into action as a space for worship, although it has been remodeled and renamed by the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Orange as Christ Cathedral.

The story of the Crystal Cathedral is a cautionary tale of the kind of damage rocky leadership transitions can do to tender congregational ties.  It is also a cautionary tale, however, of the danger of having a larger-than-life pastoral personality displace the person of Christ in a congregation.  It doesn’t really matter whether the displacement takes place intentionally or unintentionally.  The effect is the same.  When the people in the pews become more enamored by a church’s leader than by the Lamb of God, when the leader leaves, the people will, too.

As a pastor, I know how difficult it can be to lead strongly while also pointing humbly to Jesus.  It can be difficult because people naturally tend to gravitate toward someone they can physically see, like a pastor, instead of someone they cannot, like the One who is now enthroned in the heavenly realms.  It can also be difficult, however, because there is a part of me that wants people to look at me and to me – to love me.  It is at these times that I must remind myself that the goal of ministry is not to get love for me, but to encourage love for Jesus.

John the Baptist once said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).  This is a statement of how to do ministry, yes, but it is also a reality of ministry.  If you’re a pastor, like it or not, you will eventually decrease.  No one’s ministry lasts forever – except for Jesus’.  So, point people to the Minister and the ministry that will long outlast yours.  His ministry will stand, long after our world’s cathedrals of crystal close.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jon Trautman  |  July 29, 2019 at 11:04 am

    One of my favorite quotes on leadership is by Drucker…”management is about doing things right; leaderrhip is about doing the right things” This is, in my opinion, so relevant to this post. Pastors/clergy, as you and Bill do, need to focus on the ultimate leader and teacher; Jesus will do the right things.

  • 2. gjsat  |  July 29, 2019 at 1:47 pm

    P Zach – this is a powerful article that applies not only to Pastor’s but to all of us who may, at some point, and for whatever reason, get “full of ourselves” and think we are “bigger than the game itself”.

    We are not. I was reminded of the words of Jesus from Matthew as I read this article: Matt. 20: 26-28: “…whoever would be greatamong you must be your servant, andwhoever would be first among you must be your slave, evenas the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve …”.

    Easy to say, obviously sometimes much harder to! Always love and appreciate your insights! G

  • 3. Sharon Devora  |  July 30, 2019 at 3:55 pm

    What an insightful statement you presented here. Concordia lived through this, going from Merkens to Thompson, and as the senior pastor’s secretary I was right in the midst of it. I remember thinking at one time what would some of these people do if Merkens had died instead of retired — would they just leave the church because “god” was not there any more? Concordia survived because of the faithfulness of some church members and the tenacity of Pastor Thompson, who endured as long as he could. The transition from Thompson to Tucker was easier. Of course we know God is always in charge, and I believe he sent the right man at the right time: Merkens was aggressive and got the church going. Thompson was a business man type (his first degree was in Business Administration) and he got Concordia organized into an operational plan that has really changed little, and moved us out to the new location, and then God sent us Tucker who has a heart for people and was just what Concordia needed at that time. So now you have my perspective on Concordia’s history. By the way, Merkens was a personal friend of Robert Schuller!


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