(RNS) One of America’s largest and best-known churches, Saddleback Church, celebrates its 35th anniversary this week. As we contemplate the legacy of Saddleback founder Rick Warren, many people don’t realize that it was another pastor from Southern California who schooled Warren in key lessons.
Warren has told me about this man he learned from, and others — including Willow Creek Community Church founder Bill Hybels — have said the same. The man they learned from? Robert Schuller.
Schuller, founder and pastor of the Crystal Cathedral and one of America’s first televangelists, died Thursday (April 2) at the age of 88 after a battle with esophageal cancer.
While some may only remember Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral for its infamous bankruptcy and failed succession, that’s not the lesson I believe we should take from his legacy.
Schuller was the forerunner of the church growth movement of the 1980s and 1990s. He had a profound influence on today’s megachurch pastors like Warren and Hybels and many others who studied his church growth strategies. Schuller’s spiritual sons and daughters have planted churches that have redefined the landscape of evangelical Christianity in the United States and have impacted the world forever.
As America continues to see a rise of those who claim “none” as their spiritual affiliation, church leaders — and leaders everywhere — would do well to contemplate Schuller’s legacy and the three lessons we can learn from it.
1. Create nonthreatening space where people feel comfortable.
From a small farm in Iowa, Schuller started his church literally by knocking on doors. He later opened a church in a drive-in movie theater so that people could come to church without being noticed and literally drive away if they felt uncomfortable. This was the dawn of creating church environments that are welcoming to those who do not normally go to church.
Leaders who create a safe space where people who might otherwise feel threatened can feel comfortable are leaders who build trust, create lasting relationships, and make an enduring impact.
2. Dream bigger than you’ve ever dared to dream.
Schuller was a pioneer of television on the airwaves. With the advent of the new medium, Schuller rightly spotted that as a significant communication breakthrough. In the history of Christendom, every breakthrough in church growth was preceded by a communication breakthrough: the Apostle Paul planted churches after Rome built roads, and Gutenberg’s printing press advanced the widespread manufacture and spread of the Bible.
Schuller recognized that he was living during a communication breakthrough, and he dreamt bigger than anyone else during that time. He leveraged the introduction of the household TV set to become the most watched preacher in the world. Long before there was a Joel Osteen, there was an Hour of Power. Schuller dreamed of a cathedral that would be like none other. He dreamt of a ministry that would reach across nations.
Leaders should look to Schuller’s legacy of dreaming past the conventional and thinking past what’s possible, and they should be encouraged to believe that there is more in them than they’ve ever dared to discover.
3. Provide hope in a world that needs it.
Easter Sunday marks what Christians believe to be the turning point in all of history. While there are varying interpretations of the meaning of Easter, even among Christians, there is a rock bottom about Easter for the entire church: Easter marks a day of hope. It is the faith’s signature holiday that points to the church’s belief that in the end, hope prevails.
Many critics of Schuller point out that he was all about positivity, blue-sky thinking, his infamous “possibility thinking” always looking on the bright side of life in a world that can be pretty gloomy.
But the very hallmark of Christianity is that hope has overcome despair, and Schuller made that hallmark the cornerstone of a ministry he built that reached farther than anyone who had come before him. In a world filled with terrorism, discrimination, hatred, bigotry, and oppression, there is more room than ever for hopeful voices that think about possibilities of success and not probabilities of failure.
News of Schuller’s passing will probably come and go quietly, but it is most fitting that he died on the dawn of Easter weekend. As Christians across the world celebrate their belief of Jesus rising from the dead, people who are in despair, or leaders who are in decline, can believe that they too can find hope, growth, and new life, and they may well find that encouragement and inspiration by remembering the legacy of Robert Schuller, the forerunner of church growth and spreader of hope across the nations.
(William Vanderbloemen is the co-author of “Next: Pastoral Succession That Works” and president/CEO of Vanderbloemen Search Group, a for-profit that leads in executive search for churches, ministries, and faith-based organizations.)
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