Finding the Good at Garden Grove

by Browne Barr

Dr. Barr, a Century editor-at-large, is dean emeritus of San Francisco Theological Seminary. He lives in Calistoga, California.

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 4, 1977, p. 424. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. . Current articles and subscription information can be found at  This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Robert Schuller’s gift to today’s church is to be found largely in his genius for winning a hearing from the unchurched. Regardless of our theology or our politics or our location, we can learn from him.

“How did I ever get talked into this?” I wondered as I ate my first early breakfast at the Robert H. Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership. On one side of me was an affable young minister of the Church of God. Across the table was a quietly troubled Assembly of God clergyman, and on my other side were a couple of weary middle-aged mainline types. The meal was accompanied by flourishes of gospel chords reverberating from a piano. Not only was it the first breakfast I had eaten for a long time with other ministers and gospel music; it was the first segregated public meal I had had since I was a boy in YMCA camp. In this institute the women and men were separated from each other for the three breakfasts. The assumption appeared to be that the men were the ministers and the women were ministers’ spouses. Therefore, the small group life arranged at the breakfast table would prosper better in the short time allowed if the ministers were isolated! Perhaps. The groups did work well, but I was glad that my woman ministerial colleague had not come.

It did not seem a very promising beginning, and I was worried. I had cajoled others from our Berkeley church 500 miles away to come with me. Our moderator was there -- a woman, recently interim director of the University YWCA in Berkeley. Our moderator-elect had come too; a San Francisco actuary, he was leaving his business for four days in a rush season. Also with us was a lay program associate who had recently chaired an important task force for a somewhat radically oriented ecumenical center. I wondered how they were doing as the song leader pulled us along in singing, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”


Several times we had almost canceled our reservations. We read a New Republic article, “Jesus in Tomorrowland” (November 27, 1976), which was devastating in raising questions about Schuller’s operation. “His critics contend,” the article said, “that Schuller has done for Jesus what Colonel Sanders has done for the chicken.” I rather like what Colonel Sanders has done for chicken, so this did not alarm me; but the writer, T. D. Allman, also pointed out that “it is a matter of record that Schuller in the past avoided all comment on Vietnam and Watergate.” We also read a somewhat cryptic article in the Wall Street Journal. Then some of us saw Schuller’s “Hour of Power” on television, with the smiling minister affirming everyone’s potential for success while upbeat singers sang and visiting firemen gave testimony. We were sure that a Robert Schuller Institute was not for us.

We decided not to back down, however, because we couldn’t forget the energy we had received even secondhand when two other mainline ministers of our acquaintance told of their experience. Both had been worn down in their work -- one by a resistant, divided, charismatic-afflicted congregation, the other by long years of courageous fighting on all the issues -- Vietnam, gay liberation, Watergate. Both of them had returned with tremendous energy for their ministry, and neither appeared polluted by the “positive” environment. So we had come anyway.

I bear witness only to my own experience, but this I must declare: I have attended scores of pastor’s conferences, most of them in connection with our most prestigious theological schools; yet I cannot think of a single one that was as directly helpful to me as a parish minister as this one. How can that be explained? Part of the explanation lies in the well-designed “Self-Study Guide” participants are requested to complete well in advance. It is an excellent and revealing instrument. But at the conference itself the secret really may be Schuller himself. That was my biggest surprise.

Our delegation had begun to waver again as we neared the tower of Schuller’s Garden Grove Community Church, rising above Disneyland and the Anaheim Stadium and Knott’s Berry Farm. As a final pep talk I had warned the group that we shouldn’t expect much from Schuller himself. He would probably turn us off as he had on TV, but he undoubtedly had corralled some experts in evangelism and music and stewardship and parish management who would be helpful. Well, he had and they were helpful, although they offered little that could not be collected piecemeal elsewhere -- but Schuller was the surprise.

The institute director, Wilbert E. Eichenberger, an able, friendly and ever-present person, warned everyone early in the institute not to go home the first day, writing the whole thing off as an “ego trip” for Schuller -- although that would not upset Schuller, who teaches that every person needs ego-fulfillment. The warning was not needed. The institute is undoubtedly an ego trip for Schuller, and so is many a classroom lecture and magazine article and editorial column for you and me, but he came through time and again during the conference as a decent, warm, ordinary and enthusiastic human being. He also delivered direct, clear, common-sense material of inestimable help to any pastor or lay leader who can get through the Disneyland trappings and the Jesus lingo of the environment (not of Schuller), learn the principles underneath and translate them into his or her own situation.


Within the Protestant ecclesiastical scene in California there are not many contrasts more colorful than that between Berkeley and Orange County: the University of California and Disneyland, an adult class using Bread for the World material and one deep into the Bethel Bible Series, a Georgian church building hosting the Earl Lectures (Tillich, Niebuhr, Bennett, Marty, Lehman et al.) and a 14-story Tower of Hope hosting preachers and teachers of “possibility thinking.”

Those contrasts were stunning, but there is another not to be overlooked. That northern California church, still vital and holding its own, uses some of its empty rooms to shelter another nearby Protestant congregation which can’t continue to support its large and empty building, while the Orange County outfit is so swamped with people that neither additional services nor additional buildings can keep up with them. The hurts of the people in Garden Grove may not be as sophisticated as the hurts of the Berkeleyites, but Schuller claims that any church will grow if it understands the needs of the community in which it is planted and acts realistically “to heal human hearts and fill human needs” through the power of God’s love in Christ.

Many churches like ours have applauded a theology of nongrowth. Growth has been seen to be as vulgar and plastic as Disneyland and, furthermore, sure evidence that the gospel is not being preached with its radical claims; e.g., “Blessed are you when men revile you . . .” (Matt. 5:11). Such defenses seldom recall the text which says, “The common people heard him gladly” (Mark 12:37). Applause for the theology of nongrowth will not last long, however, because it is almost impossible for a drowning community to clap. If the no-growth churches will cast off the burden of pride that is pulling them down, Bob Schuller can be of great help to them.

Indeed, they might in return be able to help Schuller and the evangelicals who follow him, for he has no more grasped the whole gospel than they have. Evangelicals and nonevangelicals alike need to be admonished to “speak the truth to each other, for all of us are parts of one body.” What he does well, we do poorly; what we do well, he does inadequately -- or so it appears to me. But if we do not learn to do better what he does well, how well we do what we now do well will be a matter of irrelevance.


The principles Schuller urges must not be confused with the way they are applied in Orange County by a minister who left seminary equipped with expository preaching and heavy prayer meetings as models of church style and strategy. He has learned on his own that the gospel does not reach the hurting people in Orange County initially by those means. The liberals of my generation had already learned that from Harry Emerson Fosdick but then lost for a while the biblical base and ended up giving self-help lectures instead of sermons -- whether they were “social” or “personal” in emphasis.

The “Hour of Power” comes through as pretty thin gruel to Christians in our church and our tradition. But its style and substance are not designed for us. That service is designed for people who live in or near Garden Grove, Orange County, California, and elsewhere and who have no moral or religious commitment and who are outside the church. It is designed to get them within earshot of the gospel. Schuller says, as I understand it, that they can be reached only in terms of their culture and their experience.

Schuller’s avowed first goal is to reach the unchurched, not to provide a chapel for the already converted. The evidence is convincing that he is bringing the unchurched within hearing distance of the Garden Grove Community Church. In the long run the usefulness of his principles and the test of that church will be the quality of Christian life of those who respond and are “enfolded” into the full and regular life of the congregation.

The institute describes the extensive program of enfoldment for those who do respond and join the Garden Grove Community Church: lay training for ministry, small-group work, pastoral care, involvement in mission, education. Schuller is critical of evangelists who have “little interest in the nurture of . . . souls other than to ‘put a Bible in their hands.’” The pastor must not only convert lost souls; he must organize the church to assist all persons who respond to the gospel in building “their faith and life and applying their faith to society.” The “mainline” churches have much to share with Schuller at this point, and I for one hope he and his associates will listen. I hope such enfoldment will increasingly heighten awareness of the social nature of sin and provide moral energy and direction for realistic Christian citizenship in the world. But for the likes of me and most ministerial readers of The Christian Century, our need is to be humble enough to learn from a genius like Schuller about getting people within earshot in the first place. Most of us have been preaching the gospel to each other long enough.


Questions abound about Schuller’s operation. He feels that he has been unfairly criticized by some members of the theological establishment and their journals. He told me privately that he would grant an interview to anyone at any time if the editor would agree not to delete anything from his replies to the questions. There are other concerns: my delegation strongly felt that his organization needs to have its consciousness raised about sexism. One woman indirectly connected with the institute angrily charged that we must be part of some kind of unisex movement because we and a Methodist campus minister questioned the male-dominated scene. (Schuller wisely suggests that churches should not touch off the “hang-ups” of the unchurched. Well, our delegation had a hang-up on that subject which the institute touched off despite the fact that Schuller is reputedly fighting for the ordination of women in his own denomination.)

Schuller’s concept of local-church government, as I understand it, explains the absence of congregational participation in the decision-making process at the Garden Grove Community Church on the basis of the church’s size -- a position which I think is hard to defend. I suspect that Schuller’s drive and genius would make it difficult for him to live with a more democratic system. The Garden Grove Church is governed in accordance with the Constitution of the Reformed Church in America, and the president of the local church is the senior installed minister. Inasmuch as he does not establish the budget, autocracy is avoided, but the style looks pretty strong-handed to me. That may mean more efficient management, and Schuller is an efficient and effective manager. The church is governed in such a way as to get big decisions made quickly without getting hung up in trivia. I envy that. After all, congregationalism is not the only form of church government.

Yet the dangers in such centralized control are great, primarily for any “president” who forgets the corrupting nature of power. When one senses Schuller’s delightful ability to laugh at himself and to maintain a vigorous kind of personal objectivity, one is reassured. But what of the future? It is not, I think, a system of local church government which augurs well for the long run. I think he needs to reread Reinhold Niebuhr.

The implicit equation of success with numbers and money in Schuller’s operation hides the sound and Christian idea he expounds that feeling successful comes from having high self-esteem -- and that self-esteem comes from the awareness of God’s love for one in Christ. “All of us have ego needs,” he said, “because we have royal blood. We are sons and daughters of God . . . and in Christ the greatest fulfillment is losing our lives in someone else’s problem.” I find in Schuller a theological concern and understanding and creativity absent from Norman Vincent Peale, and I wish there were more understanding of the great distance between the two. I have never known Peale to grapple with atonement, grace and justification, and anyone who has completed, even in his student days, a 300-page topical index to Calvin’s four-volume Institutes of Christian Religion -- as Schuller did -- is scarcely ignorant of the issues in Reformed theology.

Yet I wonder if Schuller’s theological-psychological interpretation of success and failure does not risk a kind of “justification through works.” This suspicion grows when he jokingly asserts his intention, God willing, to live to be 100. It would be good to discuss such questions with Schuller; my experience suggests that he would offer a lively, theologically well-informed and creative response.


The most persistent liberal criticism of Schuller involves his attitude about preaching on social issues. That was ably discussed in an earlier Century article (“The Pros and Cons of Robert Schuller,” by Wilfred Bockelman, August 20-27, 1975). I believe that Schuller is appropriately uneasy in this area and has a long way to go. Although I agree that the pulpit is not the place for partisan political statements, there are specific moral issues that must not be avoided. Surely even the unchurched would respond positively to expression of conviction on moral principles, even if they disagreed about the obvious applications: e.g., idolatry and Watergate. Schuller says that such issues are handled in the Sunday evening Bible study sessions where there is opportunity for discussion and, conversation. I am largely in agreement with him on this point -- but surely there are public moral concerns which in their offense to Christ deserve a public word, especially when one addresses millions in Christ’s name.

The “Hour of Power,” pretty much as televised, is one of the morning services of Garden Grove Community Church. It is all deliberately planned to be upbeat. I questioned the capable and alert minister of music about the absence of any of the penitential themes in the service. “Surely,” I said, “some of the greatest musical literature we have arises from the passion themes.” He explained that such themes are not used in the big morning services because those services are designed to renew people and to give them hope. Schuller had indicated that the crowds came to have their dents pounded out and not to have new ones inflicted.

That philosophy is a sorry commentary on much Protestant worship. It reminds me of a man who said to me about his refusal to join in a prayer of confession in our church one Sunday, “Hell, I’m not that bad!” Schuller understands that man’s feeling. But does he understand the deeper pain and sorrow of the race which are not intensified by the solemn, sad words and music of the Divine Passion and of human confession, but released and liberated thereby? I think even a horn-honking drive-in congregation might discover that such words and music speak to and release sadness and hurt. The sorrow in Christianity does not batter and dent us more but is the prelude to profound restoration. I thought I saw a heaviness in the eyes of Schuller himself that made me wonder if he, too, like most ministers I know, had a longing for the Agnus Dei as well as the Jubilate Deo.


There is another, question. Schuller’s gift to the contemporary church is largely in his genius for winning a hearing from the unchurched. Regardless of our theology or our polities or our location, we can learn from him. At his Institute for Successful Church Leadership we met Christians from a Lutheran church in a midwestern city, from a Four Square Gospel church in a mountain town of 12,000, from an Assembly of God church in a great Canadian city. All of them reported that their churches had been turned around from being self-centered or fractured congregations to new life as strong, growing, outreaching churches. But do most mainline churches and their ministers and mentors really want such a turnaround?

On the first day the members of the institute were loaded into cars and taken to the Orange Drive-in Theater where the Garden Grove Community Church began. Schuller climbed up on the roof of the refreshment stand to address the assembled automobiles and their occupants, including our carful of embarrassed skeptics. He said, in effect, “You will never be the same after these four days are over. You will be changed.” I thought to myself, “Well, these others here with their pious bumper stickers and naïve enthusiasm for this religious huckster may be changed, but not I!”

At the close of the final and moving session our delegation left the church and walked toward the parking lot where we had been caucusing periodically in safe separation, as Berkeley would often like to be separated from the rest of California. No one said anything for a long time. Finally, one member said, “It sure is hard to have your presuppositions shot to hell.” We all agreed.