The Pros and Cons of Robert Schuller

by Wildred Bockelman

Mr. Bockelman is director of communication for the American Lutheran Church, with headquarters in Minneapolis.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 20-27, 1975, pp. 732-735. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


It is no more possible to be a nonprophetic church than to be a nonevangelistic church. When there are injustices in a community and the members of a church are in positions of power, it is their Christian witness also to use their positions in the secular world to work for justice.

My first impression of Robert Schuller was negative. That was before I had met him. A pastor friend of mine had attended Schuller’s Institute for Successful Church Leadership in Garden Grove, California, and while he was generally positive about his experience there, he reported two emphases that bothered me: (1) Schuller avoids preaching on anything that is controversial, and (2) Schuller says, "Don’t let laypeople get too involved in decision-making in the congregation."

My next experience with Schuller, although I didn’t get his name at the time, came when I flipped the television dial one Sunday morning and saw a man dressed in an academic robe reading a histrionic first-person soliloquy on the American flag.

When people began talking about Robert Schuller and the "Hour of Power," I little by little put two and one together. This was the same Schuller my pastor friend had heard. And he was the same guy who gave the schmaltzy reading about the flag. So he now had a Sunday morning TV program that was sweeping the country. I avoided it and him.

And then one afternoon one of the men at the American Lutheran Church office said to me, "Hey, do you suppose you could shake your schedule free to go to Garden Grove to attend the First American Convocation on Church Growth, led by Robert Schuller?" I was told that the week before, at a meeting of representatives of mainline denominations, someone had said, "We can’t stand Schuller’s theology; but he’s growing and we’re losing. We’d better take a look at him and find out why." I was asked to "go and take a look."

A ‘Success Story’

Robert Schuller is an ordained minister of the Reformed Church in America. He is a graduate of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan. Twenty years ago he was sent by his church body to start a mission in Orange County, California. He held his first services in a drive-in theater, with the roof of a snack bar as his pulpit, and with a portable organ that he and his wife hauled on their trailer.

That was the beginning of Garden Grove Community Church, which today has a membership of over 7,000 people. It is known as the first walk-in, drive-in church in the country. Located on a beautifully landscaped 22-acre plot, its contemporary building, seating 1,700 people, is filled twice every Sunday. One all-glass wall of the church faces out on a parking lot, where worshipers in nearly 1,000 cars can see the preacher virtually as well as the 1,700 people inside. The combined attendance at the two Sunday morning services exceeds the membership of the church.

A 14-story tower, topped with a 90-foot cross, houses the offices of the dozen ministers and other staff members and the church’s education facilities. The congregation’s hour-long Sunday morning television service, "Hour of Power," is seen in 45 cities throughout the country by an audience of from 2.5 million to 10 million. The church’s 1975 budget is over $1.2 million. An architect’s plans for a million expansion program call for a new church to seat 4,100 people.

This is a success story, and Robert Schuller is in the business of sharing the "secret of his success" with others. Five years ago he started the Robert H. Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership. These four-day institutes are held three times a year; each is limited to an enrollment of 200. Pastors pay $165 plus meals and lodging (wives may accompany them for an additional $40 plus meals and lodging). In observance of the fifth anniversary of these institutes, the First American Convocation on Church Growth was held last winter; it was attended by more than 400 pastors, spouses and lay workers.

While Garden Grove Community Church, the Church Leadership Institutes and the Church Growth Convocation are all separate and distinct entities, they are all closely related, and the personality and theology of Robert Schuller pervade them all.

Schuller’s Basic Emphases

From my observations, Schuller’s approach has five basic emphases:

1. Possibility thinking. This technique is as much a trademark of Schuller’s method as positive thinking is for Norman Vincent Peale. As Schuller explains it, when God gives you a task, he also gives you the wherewithal to carry out that task. In the first place, God will probably give you a bigger task than you would ever have dreamed possible yourself, because God generally sees greater possibilities in you than you do yourself.

In possibility thinking the first two questions to be asked are not "How much does it cost?" and "Can we afford it?" New programs proposed at Garden Grove Church must meet three tests: (1) Would this be a good thing for God? (2) Would it be helpful to people who are hurting? (One of Schuller’s key phrases is, "Find a hurt and heal it.") (3) Is anybody else doing the job? If someone is, forget it! Help them, cooperate with them, but don’t compete with them. If no one else is doing the job, or if someone is doing it badly and is not willing to cooperate, then move in. Schuller operates on the assumption that if the answer to the first two questions is Yes, then the money will be found to do the task. A favorite saying of his is that "the shoe doesn’t tell the foot how big it should grow."

2. Leadership by the pastor is the key. This concept is perhaps best expressed in excerpts from Schuller’s book Your Church Has Real Possibilities.

If I were a capitalist financing an enterprise, I would insist that the unchallenged leadership be placed in the hands of full-time thinkers and planners. As a pastor heading up a church, I insist on the same.

Leadership definitely does not belong in the hands of part-time thinkers. So the place of leadership logically and naturally rests in the lap of the minister and the salaried staff leaders in the church!

Leadership responsibility in the church belongs in the hands of those who place the church first in their lives, Schuller insists, and "no matter how dedicated the members of a local congregation are, the church does not take first place in their lives." Further, "The most dedicated elder, deacon or trustee -- with rare exception -- considers the church to be the third priority in his life," says Schuller. Business comes first, family second, and church possibly third, but "the local pastor places the church foremost in his life!"

Schuller insists on appointing the church’s committee chairmen himself. But he also insists that he is not a dictator, for the board must approve his appointments. He reports to the church board and the board reserves the right to overrule his recommendations. (A reading of his book indicates, however, that he has labeled those who oppose him as "negative thinkers" and has gotten them off the board.)

3. Impress the unchurched. Schuller makes no bones about the fact that his church has some rather schmaltzy furnishings -- like a number of water fountains that begin spraying when he presses a button in the pulpit -- and that their purpose is to impress the unchurched. "It’s obvious that we are not trying to impress Christians," he says. "They would tend to be most critical of the expenditure of money we have made. They would tell us that we should give this money to missions. . . . We’re trying to impress non-Christians and non-churched people. We are trying to make a big, beautiful impression upon the affluent nonreligious American who is riding by on this busy freeway."

This approach carries with it some corollaries. Don’t expect to find deep theology in the sermons. Instead, look for things that will attract the unchurched. For example, Schuller often invites big-name people to share the platform with him on Sunday. When he asked a newly elected president of the American Medical Association to speak to the congregation, a letter of invitation was sent to each of the 200 medical doctors living in Orange County. After Schuller discovered that there are 3,000 life insurance salesmen in the area, he asked W. Clement Stone to speak and invited all the life insurance salesmen.

4. Don’t be controversial; always be positive. This rule naturally follows from an attempt to reach the unchurched. The pastor who preaches on controversial subjects may be tempted to take a public stand that would be at variance with the thinking of half the congregation and thus turn them away. In fairness to Schuller, however, it must be said that he believes that the educational program of the church is the proper forum for controversial subjects. In the setting of the Sunday morning worship hour it is unfair, he feels, to take advantage of a captive audience of persons who have no opportunity to raise questions or talk back. In the give and take of a classroom, controversial issues are discussed.

5. Have a good staff and educational program. There are those who will accuse Schuller of egotism, and he readily admits that he has a strong ego. (By the way, how many church leaders can you list who do not have a strong ego?) But Schuller recognizes that he must have a strong staff, and for them to be attracted to a strong program, they too must have ego satisfaction. He follows through on the principle that his Sunday morning job is to reach the unchurched and to attract them to church. Once they are attracted to the church, they cannot become members without enrolling in a comprehensive educational program. In addition to the Sunday morning educational program, there are also weekday and evening programs. One night during the week 1,100 members come regularly for class.

The congregation sponsors a Center for Advance Lay Leadership, with an exhaustive catalogue listing all the courses offered as well as those required for participation in an area of service. Completion of 98 hours of instruction is required for a church member to be commissioned for an area of service, and 42 of those 98 hours are in the Bethel Bible Series.

The congregation also has a strong program centered on helping others. Much is made of the metaphor of the body as a pattern for organizing the local church. The blood circulatory system of the church is evangelism. But a large building filled with great crowds of people -- even people converted to the Christian faith -- is still not a great church. Converted people must become educated Christians. Education provides the skeleton. A nervous system is essential to care for the daily needs and hurts of these members of the body -- and that system consists of brothers and sisters practicing love and compassion with each other first, and then extending that practice around the world.

Evaluative Questions

One cannot evaluate a movement like Schuller’s without also asking, "What kind of vacuum has developed in the mainline denominations that their members must go outside to find something they feel is lacking in their own church?"

Sophisticated theologians may scoff at the shallowness of the theology proclaimed by Schuller on Sundays when he tries to reach the unchurched, but the fact is that his message is more exciting to many unchurched people than is that of the theologians. Pastors who attend one of Schuller’s institutes are equally excited. One of them told me this story (and I heard similar accounts from at least a dozen other pastors with whom I talked at the Church Growth Convocation):

"A couple of years ago I was at the end of the rope. I was discouraged in my ministry. I had lost all enthusiasm for the work. I was ready to resign. As a last resort I went to one of Schuller’s institutes. Two months after I got home, my congregation said to me, ‘What has happened to you? You are a new man. If they ever have another institute like that and if you could come back with half the enthusiasm you have shown after this one, we’ll pay not only your expenses, but your wife’s too.’"

While my first negative impression of Schuller was somewhat modified after a week’s exposure to his institute and the testimonies of other pastors who spoke in glowing terms of how their own ministries had taken on new life after they followed some of Schuller’s principles, I still have some deep theological problems with these principles.

At stake is the criterion for measuring church growth. All the speakers at the Church Growth Convocation were pastors of large congregations who told their stories of how to bring more people into the Kingdom. Figures on growth in membership, church attendance, and budget are not to be minimized. But how can one measure what happens to people once they have joined the church?

When I asked one of the staff members at Garden Grove how the church fulfilled its prophetic function, he quickly replied: "We are a nonprophetic church." Thinking that he may have understood my meaning of "prophetic" as referring to some extreme emphasis on end-time prophecies, I explained that I meant "How does the church address the social issues of the day?" Again his answer was, "We are a nonprophetic church. Our people witness on the job by telling others about Christ and the church and by helping heal the hurts of society and by tithing."

But it is no more possible to be a nonprophetic church than to be a nonevangelistic church. When there are injustices in a community and the members of a church are in positions of power, it is their Christian witness also to use their positions in the secular world to work for justice. Sometimes this may mean the cross and rejection -- dealing with controversial issues, if you will -- but that also is a part of what the church is all about.

The approach of many conservative churches has been to cop out at this point with the rationale that it is the church’s responsibility to bring people to Christ and that once they have been converted they will take it upon themselves to work for justice in society. The point, is, this second step does not happen automatically. There must be some instruction on how one can work for justice, and that too is a part of the church’s function. The great commission in Matthew includes the injunction "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you."

Before I went to Garden Grove, I had been introduced to a member of Schuller’s staff. The person who introduced us said: "Here was one of the most successful insurance men in California, and then Schuller got hold of him and turned him around so that he gave his life to Christ instead, and now he is a full-time member of Schuller’s staff." It was that "instead" that got me, as though he couldn’t serve Christ in a secular occupation but had to do so in a church organization. I certainly don’t blame anyone for wanting to change jobs. The theological point, however, is that God is also at work through the secular institutions in our society. Insurance companies swing a great deal of weight in the investment business and are instruments that can act either for or against economic justice. Christians who work in the secular world may after a time decide that they would rather work for a church organization, and they should not be faulted for that. It’s bad theology, however, to suggest that one has to be employed by the church to serve the Lord instead.

I’m sure that Schuller and all the other spokesmen at the Church Growth Convocation would agree that a person must express his Christian conviction in his daily occupation. They do a good job of bringing people to Christ and teaching them the implications of the second article of the Christian faith. But there seems to be an almost total lack of understanding of the implications of the first article -- that it is in the societal structures of the world where a Christian puts his faith to work and where its depth can be measured. For example, Garden Grove Church carries on an excellent program of teaching reading to underprivileged children in the community. That is legitimate "church activity," a part of the "nervous system" of the congregation, ministering to the daily needs and hurts of people. Is the church equally forthright in becoming involved in the political structure in order to bring about a school system of equal opportunity to all races? Or is this the point at which the "nonprophetic" stance and Schuller’s insistence on avoiding controversy would take over?

I also have questions about a definition of the church that assumes that the local pastor places it "foremost in his life" while for "the most dedicated elder, deacon, or trustee -- with rare exception" -- it has, at best, third priority.

To resort to less ecclesiastical metaphors, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, or don’t argue with a satisfied customer. The members of Garden Grove Church and the pastors who have attended Schuller’s institutes are indeed satisfied customers. But as a reporter-commentator I think it’s fair to raise the question as to whether they’re getting the right kind of pudding.

And if the answer should be No, then we are left with two equally difficult questions: Why do so many people like it? And who on the church scene is providing something more nourishing?