Interview: Rev. Schuller Reveals Where His Church, America's Churches are Headed

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Nearly two years after succeeding a world renowned pastor and televangelist, the Rev. Robert A. Schuller is walking in his own shoes rather than trying to fill the "big shoes" of his father, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller. Now, as senior pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., the younger Schuller takes over the helm of a ministry built by his father over the span of more than half a century.

But rather than retrace history, Schuller is taking the ministry forward with plans to broadcast messages through the "Hour of Power" to every part of the globe as a church designed for the world.

And now with a new book out (Walking in Your Own Shoes), Schuller has revealed how he's created his own pair of shoes as he leads his global ministry in what he feels is a new era in the Church.

CP: What's the purpose behind writing this book and what kind of audience were you directing it towards?

Schuller: I was installed as the senior pastor of the Crystal Cathedral a year ago January, so it's coming up on two years. When I received that opportunity, I was actually the second installed pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in its almost 60-year history. My father started the cathedral in 1955 and when I was installed, many people came to me and said, 'You have some big shoes to fill.' And I kind of chuckled and I said, 'You're right. I do have some big shoes to fill. However, I cannot fill those shoes, period.' First of all, you have to realize my father's shoes won't fit me. He wears a 10-1/2, I wear 12. So that's not going to work.

Secondly, I said 'I can't walk in his shoes; that's not going to help us at all because that means we're just going to retrace history. We need to create some new shoes that I can walk in, that will take us into the current decade and into the future and make a positive impact in this community. So I'm going to have to walk in my own shoes, not my father's shoes and I have to walk in the shoes that God's created for me and not the shoes that we've been used to.' As a result of that, this whole concept of walking in our own shoes started. And the fact is that this true for everybody – that nobody can walk in another man's shoes. History is history; the present is the present; and the future, the future. And a result of that, we have to discover the direction that God has for our own lives and fulfill that calling that God has for each of us.

CP: Your church is part of the Reformed Church in America, but as you described in your book, your father has built a very non-traditional church that has grown to be one of the largest in the denomination. What do you think attracted so many people and does that same attraction apply today?

Schuller: It definitely does. What my father did when he started the Crystal Cathedral is he put the cathedral on the cutting edge of meeting the needs of people where they are. And that is still without question the case regardless of whether you're in Africa, or India, or Europe, or the United States … if you're meeting the needs of your community and reflecting your community, your church is going to be successful. A church doesn't have to grow to be successful. A church needs to meet the needs of its community and fulfill again its calling and its destiny. And for each community, that can be a different prescription for success…. A healthy church in a growing community will grow. A healthy church in a non-growing community won't grow because it doesn't have the influx of people. There's different rules for different environments.

CP: How many members do you have currently?

Schuller: It depends on what you call a member because we have our international membership and we have our local membership. We have those who support the "Hour of Power." Our average attendance on a weekly basis is about 6,000.

CP: Today we're seeing many older generation leaders leaving their posts to their sons or other younger leaders. Billy Graham's sons and grandsons who are preaching have said they're not trying to fill Billy Graham's shoes. You've also now succeeded your father and you say that you haven't stepped into your father's shoes but different shoes. How do you think this new generation and these different shoes you're all wearing will shape the future of America's churches?

Schuller: We're all asking the same question. And the question is 'What are the shoes that God wants for me?' And if we walk in our shoes, and we're listening to God's call and living by faith and walking in the journey that He has for us, we will succeed. Success isn't a number board as much as it is accepting the calling to fulfill the destiny He has for our lives. And we don't necessarily choose that destiny. We choose whether or not to walk by faith. But we don't choose where that destiny's going to lead.

CP: So what do you think the future of the churches will look like?

Schuller: I think we're in a new era in the Church. And that era is 'denominationless.' I think the Church is actually going to reflect what Jesus Christ has envisioned the Church being since day one. I think it's going to be a body of believers, not necessarily congregated in a specific location, but those who have a sincere faith and a heart and love for Jesus Christ, who are committed to him, and worship God and worship the tri-nature of the Holy Spirit [and] Jesus Christ in unique ways that is yet to be determined and at different times. It's not going to be a Sunday morning church anymore.

Church is going to 24 hours a day. It's going to be experiential and lived out in daily lives. If people ask me 'Where's your church?' I'll often say 'What time of the day is it?' This is a good illustration of my point. So, okay it's 9 o'clock Wednesday. Elder John is over at his store selling suits. So part of the church is over there. Sister Mary's just getting back from dropping her kids off at school, so that part of the church is over there. I can go with every member of the church and say that's where the church is. And that is in effect what I'm talking about where the Church of Jesus Christ is recognized not as an institution, not as a building, but is recognized as the individuals that make up the body of Jesus Christ living by faith and caring for one another and loving one another.

CP: So you feel we will not place so much emphasis on titles or organizations and such?

Schuller: I think that's true. As it is already, I don't think there's strong allegiance to denomination. And I think that's appropriate and right. I think our allegiance needs to be to Jesus Christ. And the denominations are there to serve the body of Jesus Christ. What our denomination does for our church, it helps us in our governance, organization, our spiritual growth and many of the things that are taking place today. When our denomination started almost 400 years ago, there weren't other institutions or parachurch organizations that would assist the churches. As a result, that was the role of the denomination – to assist all the different churches by providing them with spiritual materials to help them with their Sunday School lessons [and] with academic growth for the pastors to give them some control and directions.

That's not necessarily the case anymore because society is so much different and there's so many more opportunities. So the denominations are really asking themselves the question 'What is our role today?' And I think it'll be a very interesting study to see where they move and I think we're going to see denominations unifying and still having a major role. There's still a role and a function for the church on the corner, but I think it's a shifting and an adjusting role we need to be aware of and move with.

CP: You mention Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan, noting that Magellan accomplished his mission but his success was essentially built on the journey Columbus took. How would you tie that to yourself and other evangelical leaders today who are experiencing success – however you want to define success?

Schuller: I could've gone off from Magellan to the various additional discoverers who kept defining the maps and making them more accurate. As Christian leaders we need to continue to see ourselves in the same way – not caught in the history, but part of the history and with a continuation into the future so that we continue to build the kingdom and not recess into the kingdom. And throughout history there has been recessions and the dark ages was clearly a recession. We're not going back there. Christian leaders need to be aware of the fact that we're moving forward and meet the needs of people where they are today as opposed to where they were. The encouraging case is that that is indeed the case and that's what's happening.

When I look at the Internet and the changes that it brings to our society and I also see the churches embracing that. You can go to our website with the Crystal Cathedral and you can watch our broadcast online. We have a tremendous prayer community. We have thousands of people, it's a self-sustaining community where people are going online and asking people for prayer. None of this was possible before the Internet. To link all these people – these prayers are from India, from Africa, Holland, every corner of the globe – it's just beautiful to see how all these individuals from all around the world are linking together. The world is becoming extremely small and … I think a tremendous amount of that has to do with the fact that the Internet has linked the entire globe together and it has become an equalizer.

CP: You're the only son in your family. Were you expecting from the start that you would eventually succeed your father?

Schuller: I think so. But at the same time, I still had the option of whether I want to walk in that direction. So it wasn't something forced on me by any stretch of the imagination. It was something I chose for myself. As a young man I decided I wanted to be a minister when I grew up. I went straight from high school to college. When I was in college I went there for one reason and one reason only – that was for a piece of paper. It's called a certificate of graduation. And that piece of paper would allow me to go to seminary. I went to seminary and spent four years there. I went to seminary so I could be ordained. I did that all with one purpose in mind – so I could go into ministry.

CP: I actually have yet to hear you preach, but how would you describe the messages you deliver each week. What do you try to convey to listeners?

Schuller: First and foremost, I want to encourage, uplift and inspire people. That's really my calling – to inspire people. I define the word 'inspire' from my Greek studies which means to breathe the breath of life. So I want to inspire people. And for me, that is communicating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a positive way. I always start with a text that I think is inspiring and uplifting and motivating and communicate that message in a contemporary way that people can appreciate and try to bring in the history and education to the process, communicate an awareness and understanding of the Bible that people can hold onto.

CP: Do you also bring in any of the suffering and sacrifice messages of Jesus and the cross?

Schuller: It depends on how that's defined. The suffering of Jesus Christ is a true thing that took place historically and I think the suffering of Jesus Christ is very real and I think we need to recognize that as individuals. I think what's more important, however, is for us to understand what that means. And for us as individuals it means that grace of Jesus Christ abounds. So I communicate not so much the suffering of Jesus Christ like The Passion of the Christ movie. When I think of that movie, I think 'Wow, man, that's tough.' And we need to be aware of it. But what's more important than that is what it means for us. And what it means for us is that we can live victorious lives if we confess Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord – that the direction that God has for our lives can be discovered, realized, lived and we can be people God's designed us to be. And I that's what I think the Christian life is all about – living the life that God wants us to live. So I don't think God wants us to focus on the suffering of Jesus Christ as much as He wants us to focus on serving Jesus Christ.

CP: Do you also feel that the culture today is more receptive of the positive messages and people are maybe turned off by messages of suffering and the cross?

Schuller: There's nothing wrong with talking about the cross because the cross is the symbol of hope and talking about the suffering of Jesus Christ is just one small piece of the whole Gospel message. And to focus too much on the suffering of Jesus Christ is to put emphasis on a small area which is insignificant compared to the larger area of serving Jesus Christ.

CP: You have a conference called "Rethink" coming up in January. It seems you have some big name speakers lined up from a wide range of fields, not necessarily just from the church or ministry. Can you tell me why it's so important to hear all these gurus from conservative evangelicals to emerging church leaders and media moguls?

Schuller: What we're trying to do is pull all these people together, again, to help us rethink the role of the church in meeting society where they are today. The conference is really designed not as an opportunity for people to come and listen to these speakers as much as it is an opportunity for people to come and question these speakers and interact with them. It's much more interactive than any of the conferences we've had in the past.

CP: So what role does your father play now in the ministry? And how is he doing?

Schuller: My father's doing really well, thank you. He is the founding pastor of the congregation so he'll continue to worship with us Sunday mornings and he'll read scriptures and interview people once in a while and then he still delivers a message probably six to eight times a year.

CP: What are you next plans for ministry? You've already written a book and you're leading Crystal Cathedral. What do you hope to build on top of the church your father has established?

Schuller: What we want to do is we want to bring the 'Hour of Power' to the entire world. We're doing that on the Internet but in addition to that we want to broadcast on stations literally around the world. We've covered the United States – we have for the last 35 years – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Russia (since 1990), most of the East bloc countries. We're moving into China and we'll continue to grow in China. Our focus for the next decade will be India. We're currently in South Africa; we want to spread across the continent of Africa and the continent of South America and Central America. So that's our growth areas.

And in addition to that, what we're doing in America and in Europe is we're continuing to develop house churches. What we're calling those are 'Houses of Power.' We have the 'Hour of Power.' We want to connect people because the church is people who are connected so that no matter where they are, they can worship together because the Bible tells 'where two or three are gathered, there I will be also.' So it's imperative people gather but it doesn't have to be more than two or three. You don't have to gather in communities of hundreds. You can gather in communities of twos or fives and worship God. You can watch the 'Hour of Power,' you can sing the hymns, collect offering and then find service needs to use this offering to reach out and touch needy people and become little house churches. We currently have about 1,000 Houses of Power. Then what we're doing beyond that is just communicating the message that the Crystal Cathedral is a church to the world because the Crystal Cathedral is literally a church that has no walls. It has 10,000 windows and it has the world's largest doors – 90 feet tall, 40 feet wide. And the church is shaped like a star – one point facing north, another east, another south, another west. And so the cathedral, without the intent of being designed this way, was designed for the world because we want people to realize that nobody is too bad to come in. That's why we have these huge doors.