Crystal Cathedral sees risky future without church

By Amy Taxin

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Nov. 18 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

SANTA ANA, California — The sale of the Crystal Cathedral to the Catholic church could mark an end to the storied televangelist ministry broadcast around the world that came crashing down in hard times.

While the church's spiritual leaders vow to carry on in a new location, the cathedral's own financial expert says it is impossible to see the future once the congregation loses its famed, glass-spired home.

What began more than 50 years ago as a weekly prayer service atop a drive-in movie theater snack bar in Orange County evolved into a televangelist empire broadcasting from the striking sanctuary that became an icon of the Rev. Robert H. Schuller's ministry.

The church raked in millions in donations through its "Hour of Power" television program to pay for the elaborate building and 40-acre grounds in Garden Grove filled with Biblical messages and statues. But it saw revenue plummet in 2008, and despite massive budget cuts, sought bankruptcy protection last year.

Now, congregants question the future of the church without the building they have come to love — and that has given the ministry its name. And many worry the "Hour of Power" broadcast — the source of 70 percent of the church's revenue — is doomed once the congregation moves to a new location that is unfamiliar to viewers and pales in comparison to the glimmering church that lets worshippers see the sky and swaying palm trees through its glass-paned walls.

"People think the ministry isn't about a building. Usually they're right. But that one represents Jesus Christ, positive thinking, and if you believe in yourself and believe in the Lord there isn't anything you can't do," Sherwood Oklejas, a congregant who opposed the diocese's bid, told a federal bankruptcy court judge at a hearing on the church's future. "If the ministry no longer has the Crystal Cathedral to operate from, in my opinion, it will not last at all."

The Crystal Cathedral is selling its property to help pay creditors more than $51 million and emerge from federal bankruptcy protection. After weeks of intense bidding, a federal bankruptcy judge on Thursday night approved the church's sale to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. The diocese plans to use the building designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson as a long-sought countywide cathedral.

Oklejas is one of many congregants who rallied for the church to accept a competing bid on the property from Orange County's Chapman University that would have paid up to $59 million and let them continue using the church — which they see as critical to their ability to survive.

But the ministry's board of directors flip-flopped at the last minute and instead backed a $57.5 million offer from the diocese, arguing the sale will preserve the campus as a religious, not an educational, institution — as donors intended.

Under the plan, the Crystal Cathedral will be able to lease the building for up to three years, but then must move to a new location, possibly a smaller Catholic church up the street that the diocese will vacate.

Crystal Cathedral leaders insist the ministry founded by Schuller under the auspices of the Reformed Church in America will survive even without the landmark building, noting its educational programs and efforts to help the homeless will continue — just at a new location.

"Crystal Cathedral church is not a building. A church is comprised of people who are dedicated to practicing through words and works," senior pastor Sheila Schuller Coleman — the daughter of the founder — said in a statement.

Church attorney Marc Winthrop said the congregation could even keep its name, though U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Robert N. Kwan said he didn't see how that would be possible.

Losing the church is an especially hard hit because the congregation's identity is so tied to the building, said William Dyrness, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere