Crystal Cathedral: Empty pews, hollow story

Once again, we the people who care about religion news are seeing another sad round of thin mainstream press stories about the decline and fall of the Rev. Robert H. Schuller and his family's megachurch monument -- the Crystal Cathedral. The cathedral is, of course, poised to become an actual cathedral under the control of the Catholic Diocese of Orange County. That's the reality that looms in the near future.

Right now, the issue is what happens to the congregation and clergy who used to occupy that TV-friendly stage and pulpit. Here is the top of a New York Times update, which is typical of the reports from this past weekend:

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. -- After decades at the pulpit here, the family of the Rev. Robert H. Schuller has cut its ties with the Crystal Cathedral, the Orange County megachurch he founded.

Amid bankruptcy proceedings for the church, the Rev. Sheila Schuller Coleman, Dr. Schuller’s daughter and the head pastor at Crystal Cathedral, announced during a service on Sunday that it was the last time she would preach at the famous glass-paned church. The family will also cease to take part in “Hour of Power,” the program that began in 1970 and at its peak beamed Dr. Schuller’s upbeat message to two million viewers every week.

“This is the last Sunday that we will worship in this building,” Ms. Schuller Coleman said. “With the vulnerable economic situation combined with the hostile relationship with the ‘Hour of Power’ board, the local church has decided that we need to find a new place to worship.”

The key, to me, is the reference to the fact that this major announcement took place during a worship service.

Really? There is little or no evidence that a reporter heard any of the contents of his highly symbolic service. What hymns were chosen by the worship team as it prepared to surrender? Did the younger Schuller draw any conclusions about this scene based on scripture? Did she say ANYTHING in her sermon other than make what amounts to a corporate announcement?

In other words, what does religion have to do with any of this? That's my journalistic point. At some point, I wonder if readers -- nationwide -- are ever going to find out the role that religion and religious faith are playing in the dramatic events that have shaken the Crystal Cathedral in recent years. Is there no doctrinal content to all of this? None? Would the people remaining in the pews agree?

This is not a bad news story, but it is rather hollow. It does provide many key details, such as the fact that the semi-evangelical, semi-mainline older Schuller was drawing roughly 10,000 people a week to worship services in the 1980s. Those were the good old days, of course. This is the scene today, in a building containing a wealth of empty pews:

“Dad said that we would never let the ‘Hour of Power’ board overshadow and take over and tell the local church what we can or cannot do,” Ms. Schuller Coleman told reporters after the service on Sunday. “Quite honestly, that’s been pretty much what’s happened.

“This has all happened literally overnight,” she added. “We still don’t know where we’ll be meeting next week. It might be a park. But it will be somewhere.” Whether the flock from Crystal Cathedral will follow her remains to be seen. Some members cried during the service as Ms. Schuller Coleman explained her plan to leave. And afterward, dozens of people stood in line to speak with her, some hugging her, asking questions about where next week’s service might be or snapping pictures to remember the beautiful building they would no longer occupy.

So there reporters there on the scene, listening and watching. Thus, I will ask: How many people attended? What is the current membership of the Schuller congregation? How many will be left behind?

Trust me, I know that the legal warfare must be covered and that the family announcement is the lede for this story. I get that. Still, what is the point of covering this sad, symbolic act of worship if not to cover -- in some small way -- the content of this worship service? After all, why were the people there? What words did they speak? What words of comfort or confrontation were spoken to them? Who will preach in this pulpit next week?

I know, I know. I am asking too many religious questions. That's kind of my point.

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