At troubled Crystal Cathedral, a tale of two ministries

LOS ANGELES TIMES

By Mitchell Landsberg and Nicole Santa Cruz

June 19, 2011


The two lines begin forming outside the Crystal Cathedral before 9 on Sunday mornings. It is a mostly immigrant crowd — Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, among others — and they stand patiently, unfurling umbrellas against the sun.

When the doors open for the 9:30 English-language service, the lines don't budge. It isn't for a lack of seats inside — so few people are there that cameramen have trouble finding crowd shots for the "Hour of Power" television program, which has been broadcast from the Garden Grove megachurch since 1970.

At 11, a second English service starts, also sparsely attended. The lines outside grow longer.

By the time that service ends, each line stretches the equivalent of a city block — people of all ages dressed in their Sunday best. Just before 1, the doors reopen and, row by row, the cathedral is filled.

As the Crystal Cathedral fights to survive its descent into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, this is its untold success story: a Spanish-language service led by a dynamic Argentine pastor,
Dante Gebel, who inspires comparisons to the church's founder, Robert H. Schuller.

Since Gebel arrived two years ago, the cathedral's Hispanic
Ministry has grown from no more than 300 people to 3,000, far outstripping the traditional ministry led by Schuller's daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman. The brash, shaggy-haired Gebel is seen on television in some 70 countries; his Facebook page is "liked" by more than 800,000 people.

Yet even this may not be enough to save the architectural and religious landmark, long known for its lavish spending and now caught short by plummeting revenues. Crystal Cathedral Ministries recently filed a reorganization
plan that calls for selling its 40-acre campus to a real estate developer and leasing back its core for $212,000 a month. In October, the church said it owed creditors more than $50 million.

The hard reality is that Gebel's popularity is unlikely to generate the money needed to rescue the Schuller empire. And Gebel — an independent contractor, not a church staff member — is quick to say that he has no great attachment to the Garden Grove church and could leave at any time.


I haven't been called to save the Crystal Cathedral, so that isn't my goal," he said in an interview in his office on the cathedral grounds. He thinks about just one thing, he said: "Preaching to the Hispanic people."

He likens the cathedral, with its soaring, light-filled vault, to a borrowed tuxedo. "I would say the same thing here as in Bolivia or
Argentina," he said, "but here, I have a better suit."

It is hard to imagine a contrast more striking than the one between the English and Spanish services at Crystal Cathedral.

The two identical English services, which the church still calls its "main" services, follow the general format developed by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, who began preaching in 1955 from the roof of a snack shop at the Orange Drive-in theater. The service is bright and easy, featuring an interview with an inspirational speaker and a liturgy heavy on motivational advice and light on Scripture. There is almost no congregational participation.

It is a style that was perfectly tailored to the
World War  II generation settling into Orange County's new suburbs in the 1950s and '60s. With its optimistic emphasis on "possibility thinking," it was as bold and contemporary as the churches Schuller would build — icons of modernism designed by Richard Neutra and Philip Johnson.

Schuller's vision seemed boundless. The cathedral, with 10,000 panes of glass and walls that peel open at the touch of a button, cost $20 million in 1980. Extravagant Christmas and Easter pageants featured professional musicians, donkeys, camels and costumed flying angels.

By the late '80s, church attendance had begun to decline but Schuller kept building, adding the $250-million Family Life Center and the $5.5-million, 234-foot-high Prayer Spire. The $40-million Welcome Center and museum opened in 2003.

Schuller faced criticism for spending freely on buildings, salaries and travel, but it was integral to his message, summed up in an aphorism inscribed on a Welcome Center wall: "I'd rather attempt to do something great and fail, than attempt to do nothing and succeed!"

In recent years, the congregation has dwindled, tastes have changed and the Schullers' squabbles have alienated some followers. The founder's son, Robert A. Schuller, succeeded his father in 2006 but was pushed
out two years later. He was replaced by his sister.

The former
schoolteacher has won over many congregants with her warmth and seeming sincerity, but others have been put off by her sometimes awkward efforts to reinvigorate the church, as when she recently asked worshipers to go home and find unneeded "stuff" to put on EBay "and turn it into money that will help us rebuild our wonderful, wonderful ministry."

The senior Schuller, now 84, remains an occasional presence at the church but no longer controls day-to-day operations. He was not available to comment, his secretary said. He remains on the ministry's board as chairman emeritus but doesn't have a vote, according to a person with knowledge of the board who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Some of the church's early members, now in their 70s and 80s, still attend services, but their children aren't there, much less their grandchildren. The church's efforts to update its approach with new music — a gospel-influenced choir backed with guitar, bass and drums — has alienated some older worshipers without attracting many new ones.

"If I wanted to hear rock 'n' roll, I'd go to a nightclub," groused a retired airline pilot one recent Sunday.

Nobody complains about the music at the Spanish service. It is pulsing and loud, driven by bass and drums, and it sets a tone: From the outset, the crowd is on its feet, swaying and singing, arms and eyes raised heavenward. Even the ushers dance in the aisles.

As people are still taking their seats, the Jumbotron shows a fast-paced video of testimonials and clips of past services. A timer counts down the seconds to the service, creating a sense of anticipation.

"When one comes, one doesn't want to stop coming," one woman proclaims. The screen features large shots of the pews throughout the service, from every angle, featuring people singing, clapping and praying.

The success of the service reflects the increasingly Latino demographics of central Orange County. But like Schuller in his prime, Gebel casts a wider net, drawing regular visitors from Bakersfield to Tijuana. He hopes to add a second service this summer, and few doubt his ability to fill it.

His goal: 10,000 people a week by January.

Like Schuller and his daughter, Gebel focuses his sermons on motivational topics, but his style is otherwise very different. His Christianity is far more mystical and overtly spiritual, his sermons deeply rooted in the Bible. It is not uncommon to see people collapse in an ecstatic trance after Gebel has laid hands on them.

One recent service featured a guest appearance by self-proclaimed prophet and faith healer Cindy Jacobs, who purported to cure ailments that included deafness, depression and infertility. Her brand of fundamentalism once would have been unlikely in a Schuller pulpit. Coleman said she wasn't aware of Jacobs' visit and had never heard of her, although programs featuring Jacobs' name and face were widely available around the church campus.

Using a Spanish interpreter and citing God as her source, Jacobs prophesied that Gebel's ministry would grow to 10,000, then 20,000, then spread nationally, leading a Latino-based revival of Christianity in America.

Gebel, by his account, was ordained in Argentina by the Assemblies of God, one of the largest Pentecostal denominations in the world. He prefers to call his approach "charismatic" rather than Pentecostal. In any case, it is far from the relatively button-down mainline Protestant world of the Reformed Church in America, the denomination to which the Crystal Cathedral belongs.

On a recent Sunday, Carlos Lossi, a 32-year-old construction worker from Eagle Rock and a native of Guatemala, stood in line for the Spanish service. He had arrived at 9 a.m. to get seats near the front.

"Any time you bring a friend, they stay," Lossi said. "Something is going on here. This is only the start."

"What we might be seeing," said Richard Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, "is the cutting edge of Protestantism. It's an exciting thing."

Gebel's success could undoubtedly support most churches. But the Crystal Cathedral is a virtual empire whose success was rooted in the "Hour of Power."

"The local church is not nearly large enough and doesn't have the capacity to carry it alone," said Fred Southard, the Crystal Cathedral's former chief financial
officer. "It takes a television ministry."

As viewership has declined, so have donations, with the national recession also playing a role. According to the bankruptcy filing, overall donations to the church were down 24% in 2009 alone.

Gebel's services are broadcast widely throughout the U.S. and the Spanish-speaking world on the
Telemundo network. They are, however, no cash cow: The core audience, Gebel noted, is in Latin America, where people aren't accustomed to sending money to the U.S.

"Generally," he said with a laugh, "they are expecting it to be the other way around."

According to Coleman, donations to Gebel's services raise about $500,000 a year, a fraction of the cathedral's budget of more than $30 million. Overall donations have remained at about $2 million a month and more than $7 million in December, not enough to maintain the cathedral's huge campus and far-flung operations.

In a recent interview, Coleman said she knows the church has to change and that younger people are needed to revitalize the congregation, but she gave few specifics.

She wants the cathedral to become a "center of hope" for Orange County, providing showers for the homeless and a computer lab that will help people find jobs. The church already has a Monday lunch program for the needy.

"It's really truly very much a humanitarian track," she said. "That's what my heart beats for."

Coleman said Gebel is central to her plan.

"I can't do a Spanish-speaking service, I don't know the culture, I don't know the language," she said. "Dante does. And Dante does it better than anybody."

Asked if she'd give up one of her two Sunday morning services so that Gebel could expand, she said it would be difficult, because the "Hour of Power" depends on two tapings. But she didn't rule it out. Much speculation rests on whether the church might do that, in effect recognizing that its future has a Spanish accent.

"I wonder," said Juan Martinez, associate dean of the Center for the Study of Hispanic Church and Community for Fuller Theological Seminary, "will the current congregation allow that to happen? Maybe. But even if they do, I'm not sure that will be enough to get them out of the hole they are in."


Southard, the former Crystal Cathedral financial chief, said he doubts the church can survive.

"Now, if Schuller had maintained his age and energy and everything, he probably could have done it," he said. "He had the appeal, and he had whatever it takes to bring in the donations. But no one else is able to do that — I mean … there's no one in the organization that can."

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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