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Rome’s Biggest Convert

Eutychus II

Several recently published books have sought to explain the popularity of the road to Rome that some Evangelicals have walked over the past few decades. Among the best are Darryl Hart’s Still Protesting[1] and Ken Stewart’s In Search of Ancient Roots.[2] As helpful as these two studies are in analyzing the attraction of Rome to discontented Evangelicals, both of them seem to have overlooked the real headline event of confessional mobility, indeed the Silver Tuna of Evangelical conversion stories. Begun in 2012 but completed and dedicated just last July, the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California is now the Christ Cathedral of the Roman Catholic Church, after an aging church demographic and a mishandled succession plan rendered Robert Schuller’s showpiece bankrupt. (Language purists will happily observe that this conversion finally renders it a genuine cathedral, because it is now the seat of the bishop of the diocese of Orange County, California, of the Roman Catholic Church.)

Designed by the renowned architect Philip Johnson and completed in 1981, the Crystal Cathedral was dubbed the “largest glass building in the world.” I visited it once, over thirty years ago. The hot and dry Santa Ana winds were putting on an impressive show that January morning, so powerful that they blew off one of the 10,600 silver-tinted panes of glass, which fell one hundred feet to the ground and shattered. Security wisely closed down the campus immediately for safety reasons, but not before dozens of postmodern pilgrims, your reporter among them, scurried to collect souvenir shards, the icons for the New Reformation.

The building’s scale, of course, is breathtaking. It has no flying buttresses, but plenty of room for flying angels in the lavish theatrical productions that were staged. Ninety-foot high doors open the worship experience to the bright California sunshine, evoking memories of the church’s earlier life in drive-in format (“worship as you are . . . in the family car!”). This feature particularly facilitated the conversion process as it allowed for the fluid substitution of idols, when a half-ton steel crucifix replaced an eighty-by-fifty-five-foot American flag.

I realized the true genius of Schuller’s designs during an Hour of Power recording, when it became plainly evident that the cavernous interior really served as a gigantic television studio. The building actually did not seat that many: 2,500 is modest by Evangelical megachurch standards. Willow Creek accommodates 7,500 and Lakeview Church (née The Summit of the Houston Rockets), can pack in over 16,000. To his credit, Schuller never replaced its pews with theater seating.

But how, one might ask, could Evangelical kitsch be recycled into Catholic worship? Anyone who doubts that Catholics have become comfortable with American pop culture would do well to read Thomas Day’s 1990 book, Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste.[3] While it took seven years to fully complete the transformation into a Roman Catholic cathedral, the theological transition may not have been that arduous. A life-size statue of Father Fulton Sheen, the Roman Catholic pioneer of the electronic church, had already adorned the building grounds. Before retirement in 2006, Schuller would often boast of his numerous audiences with Pope John Paul II. And one would search in vain for anything vaguely Protestant in the church’s mission statement. As church historian Dennis Voskuil aptly described the Pelagian logic of Schuller’s “theology of self-esteem,” confession of sin in the worship of the church “would be like a physician’s prescribing whiskey for an alcoholic.”[4] (Yes, the church was a congregation of the Reformed Church in America, but that was an affiliation that Schuller actively advertised only after the Jonestown massacre of 1978.) Who knows? Perhaps the Roman Catholic affiliation will render the teaching of the cathedral more Augustinian.

When Robert Schuller purchased ten acres in Garden Grove in 1955, he claimed it would be the key to ministry in the twenty-first century. Instead, the remarkable odyssey of the Crystal Cathedral is a testimony to how dated is the gospel of church growth that Schuller so aggressively touted and how non-sustainable are the empires of American Evangelicalism.

Even more importantly, it should remind us of what truly constitutes gospel success. Edwards E. Elliott (1914–1979) was an OPC minister who labored from many years in the shadow of Schuller’s conglomerate that eventually expanded to forty acres of prime southern California real estate. Elliott arrived in Garden Grove a year after Schuller, and twenty-three years later he died tragically in a plane crash (returning home from General Assembly), a year before the grand opening of the Crystal Cathedral. The last of many articles he wrote in the Presbyterian Guardian, entitled “Success—True and False,” reflected on Schuller’s ministry at the height of its popularity.

God is the “author and evaluator of genuine ecclesiastical success,” Elliott insisted. It cannot be reduced to “the erection of larger buildings, to house the latest crop of admirers.” Rather, success in the church

is to be measured by a divinely given reed (Rev 11:1). “Rise, measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein.” It is not counting, so much as measuring. There were many out in the court who could have been counted, but they were only temple-treaders, and not worth measuring. Heresies, said Paul, actually are necessary, that they which are approved may be made manifest. The draining off of those who are merely temple-treaders is an important function. What is left is measured for eternity.”[5]

Endnotes

[1] D. G. Hart, Still Protesting: Why the Reformation Matters (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2018).

[2] Kenneth J. Stewart, In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2017).

[3] Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste (Chestnut Ridge, NY: Crossroad, 1990).

[4] Dennis Voskuil, Mountains into Goldmines: Robert Schuller and the Gospel of Success (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 103.

[5] Edwards E. Elliott, “Success—True and False” Presbyterian Guardian 47 (Sept. 1978): 7.

Eutychus II, the son of Eutychus I, serves as a comedian in Troas. Ordained Servant, November 2019.

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