Guideposts Remembers Dr. Robert H. Schuller

The televangelist's weekly "Hour of Power" program was once viewed by as many as 1.3 million viewers in 156 countries.

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- Posted on Apr 2, 2015

Rev. Robert Schuller in 1963

On April 2, 2015, Rev. Dr. Robert H. Schuller, long-time pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, passed away at 88. Rev. Schuller readily acknowledged Guideposts founder Norman Vincent Peale as an influence on his ministry.

Dr. Peale was, in turn, an admirer of Dr. Schuller's work--so much so that in the early 1960s, Peale preached at the dedication of Dr. Schuller's new church in Orange County, south of Los Angeles (Schuller's first California services were held at a drive-in movie theatre).

We offer Arthur Gordon's profile of Dr. Schuller, first published in the August 1963 edition of Guideposts, as a tribute to a life well lived and the many lives he impacted in a positive way.

It all started eight years ago last March. The owner of a drive-in theater not far from Disneyland stood in the bright California sunshine listening suspiciously to a stranger from Chicago.

“I was called to this area by several Reformed churches to start a new church,” the stranger said and introduced himself as Robert Schuller. “May we use your drive-in theater until we can build our own church?”

As the theater owner looked at him dubiously, the minister explained that the people would sit in their cars to worship. “I could use the roof of the refreshment stand as a pulpit,” he said.

Robert Schuller went on to say that he had an old electric organ which could be hooked into the theater’s speaker system. He would advertise services in the local paper. “There’s a persistent idea in my head,” he said. “It’s the idea that the greatest churches have yet to be born. Perhaps, here, we have a real opportunity…”

Still doubtful, the theater manager hesitantly agreed. That Sunday, 12 cars appeared.

“Only 12 cars,” one pessimist said, but the young preacher smiled. “That’s 12 more than last week.”

The next Sunday there were a few more cars. In one of them was an old rancher who had lifted his totally paralyzed wife into their car and driven 20 miles to the only kind of service she could attend. No one could know then that without Warren Gray and his invalid wife Rosie, the design of things to come could not have been accomplished.

The drive-in services continued to draw more people each Sunday; a living church fellowship began to grow. Eighteen months later, a beautiful little chapel was dedicated in Garden Grove as the permanent home for a congregation that until then had known only a drive-in theater.

Then the question arose: what to do with the drive-in ministry? How could you forget about people—and there were many by now—like Rosie Gray? After some debate, the church board voted to keep the drive-in ministry going “for as long as Rosie is still with us.”

Nobody expected Rosie to live more than a few weeks, but God kept Rosie alive. Two years passed; Robert Schuller conducted two services each Sunday. It was hard work, but he kept at it because now the idea in his mind had become a vision: a multi-purpose church set in a spacious, landscaped area with part of the congregation worshiping in the sanctuary while the rest worshipped in their cars.

The church he envisaged would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The whole idea seemed fantastic since there was only $1,100 in the church’s bank account. Nevertheless, the official board appointed a committee to find ten acres for a new church.

A site was found, but it was expensive. The terms would be $19,000 down and the balance over 15 years. The board voted, by a narrow majority, to take $1,000 out of the bank and open a four month escrow, hoping that somehow, in the next 120 days, the additional $18,000 could be raised.

The escrow was scheduled to close at 4 P.M. on a Friday. By Wednesday, the pastor had a total of $16,000. He felt confident and secure. Two families had promised him $1,000 each any time he needed it. But on Thursday, when he called them, both told him sadly that they were unable to help after all. On Friday morning, in mounting panic, he tried to have the escrow extended. The bank officials said that this was impossible. When he phoned his wife to tell her the bad news, Robert Schuller was sick with despair.

“Honey,” his wife said, “call Warren Gray.”

“That’s impossible,” he replied. “Warren was operated on for cancer only two weeks ago. He’s not even out of bed.”

“Please, Bob,” his wife insisted, “I have a feeling you should call him.”

The dime clinked thinly in the pay phone. The sick old rancher’s voice sounded weak, but suddenly it grew stronger. “You wait right there, Reverend. I have some securities I can cash in the Santa Ana bank… No, of course, I’m not too sick! I have to get up sometime!”

It was 2:30 when the gray-haired rancher, walking stiffly and carefully, came into the bank. Ten minutes later, he handed his pastor a check for $2,000. All he said was, “We need a church for Rosie, you know.”

Robert Schuller's Garden Grove Community ChurchSix months later, they broke ground for the new church. The next day, Rosie Gray died.

“They also serve,” said Robert Schuller, conducting her funeral, “who only stand and wait.”

Since then, there has been a succession of miracles. Up from the orange groves has risen “a great glass cathedral,” designed by Richard Neutra, one of America’s foremost architects. Now, each Sunday, 1,000 people sit in the sanctuary, looking out across green lawns where 12 towering fountains, symbolic of the 12 Apostles, leap out of a block-long reflection pool.

Beyond the fountains, in a garden-like drive-in area, another 2,000 people are able to worship in their cars. Every sort of person from every walk of life is there-as Christ intended. As the service begins, the huge sections of the glass-walled church slide silently open as if the hand of God were pushing aside man-made walls to let His spirit in. The minister in his pulpit can be seen by every worshipper inside and outside the great building. The majesty of a cathedral, the serenity of a garden and the soaring architecture combine to make a most extraordinary church.

Who wants to go to a “drive-in” church? Disabled veterans, parents with handicapped children, mothers-about-to-be as well as mothers with new babies, people of other faiths who draw strength from the services but do not want to “go into the church,” bereaved people who can — without embarrassment — let their tears flow in the privacy of their car, tourists who want to worship but feel they are not dressed appropriately and always the aged and the infirm.

The Garden Grove Community Church finds room for them all. “And this,” the 36-year-old pastor predicts, “is only the beginning.” With his architect, he is planning an 18-story “Tower of Hope” that will contain offices for a Christian counseling clinic. On the 17th floor will be “the upper room,” where members of the church will conduct a 24-hour prayer vigil. Here, the lights will never go out.

And on the very top of the tower will be “the Little Glass Chapel in the Sky,” always open for meditation and prayer. Somehow, some time, we’ll be able to build it,” says the young pastor.

No doubt they will. As Robert Schuller says, “When you step out on faith and ask the Lord to take over, you had better be ready for miracles—because miracles are going to happen.”

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