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Gerardo Martí: What the Fate of the Crystal Cathedral Teaches Us About Church Growth

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Photo courtesy of Dr. Gerardo Martí

Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral Ministries had widespread influence and an attendance of thousands before it eventually filed for bankruptcy. Author and professor Dr. Gerardo Martí believes one key lesson church leaders should take from Schuller’s story is to beware of allowing a need for growth to drive their ministries.

“Robert H. Schuller was one of the most prominent leaders who not only built his own church but provided a paradigm for how to have a successful church,” said Martí on the Stetzer ChurchLeaders Podcast. Dr. Gerardo Martí is professor of sociology at Davidson College and co-author of “The Glass Church: Robert H. Schuller, the Crystal Cathedral, and the Strain of Megachurch Ministry.” 

“What Robert Schuller seemed to have solved,” said Martí, “was how to have a stable and strong church that you would be able to count on being there for generations. And the surprising aspect of this ministry that influenced thousands of other church leaders is how quickly it imploded.”

You can listen to our full interview with Dr. Gerardo Martí here: Gerardo Martí: What Pastors Need to Learn From the Collapse of Robert H. Schuller’s Megachurch.

Crystal Cathedral: A Key Lesson for Church Leaders

In 1955, Robert H. Schuller founded what became Crystal Cathedral Ministries (CCM) in Garden Grove, Calif. Part of the Reformed Church in America, the church eventually grew to have an attendance in the thousands. In 1977, construction began on a building with a groundbreaking design that allowed for walk-in and drive-in services. The construction of the Crystal Cathedral cost $18 million. It now seats 2,800 people, features 10,000 windows and allows for 1,000 musicians. 

Schuller eventually started a television program called “The Hour of Power,” which is still running today. His grandson, Bobby Schuller, now hosts the program, which is one of the longest-running and most-watched television programs in the world. The cathedral’s famed pipe organ, made famous on “The Hour Of Power,” recently returned to its home after nearly 10 years away and $3 million in renovations. 

Yet Crystal Cathedral Ministries filed for bankruptcy in 2010. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange bought the famous building in 2011 and changed its name to “Christ Cathedral.” CCM is now Shepherd’s Grove Church and part of the Presbyterian Church (USA); Bobby Schuller is lead pastor. 

“[Robert H.] Schuller shifted our understanding of the management of church,” said Martí. “He didn’t just say, ‘Look, we just need to trust Jesus and pray together.’ He really believed that you needed to have a strategic plan and to think further out. But I think what he got caught in was that he believed that people gave only when things look good. And so he created visions of things that were not yet accomplished, things that were in the future.”

Martí explained that Schuller got “caught in a cycle of having to make that vision bigger and bigger, more and more ambitious.” As he did so, the vision became “harder and harder to achieve. And you are straining the people under you to make that happen. You’re asking for more volunteer hours, you’re asking them to double their tithing, you’re asking for more and more…Schuller really believed that he was building the modern pyramids.”