The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, a California clergyman who started his ministry by preaching in a drive-in movie theater and transformed it into an empire, building the landmark megachurch the Crystal Cathedral, writing best sellers and, through television, exhorting millions to believe in themselves, died on Thursday in Artesia, Calif. He was 88.
His family confirmed his death. Dr. Schuller learned in August 2013 that he had esophageal cancer.
Like other empires, Dr. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral Ministries faltered after he stepped down as its leader in 2006. Crushing debt from lavish overspending, a changing religious broadcast industry, an aging audience and a mishandled family succession all contributed to its filing for bankruptcy in 2010. The Crystal Cathedral was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County in 2012.
But for more than 40 years, Dr. Schuller was an apostle of positive thinking and a symbol of success, a charismatic shepherd who as one of television’s first preachers reached audiences around the world with a hopeful message of self-healing and self-empowerment. (One of his books is titled “Turning Hurts Into Halos.”)
His ministry represented a new wave in mainstream American Protestantism, one that held out hope not just for achieving personal salvation, its traditional concern, but also for solving personal problems. Dr. Schuller proclaimed a “theology of self-esteem” and a belief in the power of “possibility thinking.”
Typically wearing lavender and purple vestments and a broad smile, he became a Sunday-morning fixture in countless homes, a kind-faced, white-haired pastor delivering sermons on “Hour of Power.” Inaugurated in 1970, it became the nation’s most watched weekly religious program in the 1980s.
Probably nothing symbolized the ambition of his enterprise more than the Crystal Cathedral, a glass-sheathed edifice he built on 40 acres in Garden Grove, Calif., and opened in 1980. It cost $18 million (the equivalent of $51 million today).
One of the country’s first megachurches, the cathedral gave Dr. Schuller an imposing pulpit from which to reach his global flock, not to mention a roomy stage for his showmanship; the church’s Christmas pageant came complete with live camels and horses and angels overhead on cables.
His own religious upbringing was of the conventional sort. Robert Harold Schuller was born on Sept. 16, 1926, on a farm in Alton, Iowa. He was raised in the Dutch Reformed Church and educated at two of its institutions, Hope College and Western Theological Seminary, both in Holland, Mich. After graduating in 1950, he became a pastor in Chicago.
Five years later, he had joined the postwar exodus to booming Southern California, where he hoped to establish a church that would attract people who were not churchgoers. Scouting for a place to hold services, he and his wife, Arvella, settled on a drive-in theater off the Santa Ana Freeway in Orange County. On Sunday mornings, he could rent it for $10. There, he built an altar and a 15-foot cross and took out an ad in a local paper.
“Worship as you are,” it said, “in the family car.”
The first meeting of the Garden Grove Community Church was held on March 27, 1955. About 75 motorists and their families showed up to listen to Dr. Schuller preach from the roof of the drive-in’s refreshment stand. The offering that day was $86.79.
The congregation, formally affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, a mainline Protestant denomination, grew steadily on Dr. Schuller’s tireless mailing and doorbell-ringing campaigns. But it was a visit from a guest speaker, the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, the author of the best-selling book “The Power of Positive Thinking,” that propelled the church to wider recognition and drove Dr. Schuller in a new direction.
Hearing Dr. Peale talk to the congregation about the personal benefits of accepting God was a revelation for Dr. Schuller.
“That sermon by Dr. Peale changed my style from ‘preaching’ to ‘witnessing,’ ” he said in a 1975 interview with The Los Angeles Times. “Until that moment, I looked upon the job of a sermon to be fundamentally directed to generate a sense of guilt in guilty hearts.”
Dr. Schuller realized that a somber message, especially in sunny California, was hardly the best way to draw people to church. It also dawned on him, he said, that “Jesus never called a human being a sinner.”
In 1961, the Garden Grove Community Church moved to a new sanctuary designed by the prominent modernist architect Richard Neutra. Seven years later, it was joined by another Neutra-designed structure, a 14-story glass Tower of Hope filled with offices and a chapel and topped by a 90-foot neon cross that could be seen from Disneyland in Anaheim, a mile and a half away.
But the centerpiece of the Schuller architectural empire was yet to come: the Crystal Cathedral, a glass structure shaped like a four-pointed star and longer than a football field, designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee. Opened in 1980, it featured more than 10,000 panes of glass and seated almost 3,000 worshipers and 1,000 singers and musicians.
It also held one of the world’s largest pipe organs and a giant indoor television screen. Outside, it had another stadium-size screen for drive-in worshipers.
The cathedral was conceived in part as the studio for the “Hour of Power” telecasts. Accompanied by the choir, Dr. Schuller began each program in dramatic fashion, striding to the pulpit and pressing a button that opened two 90-foot doors behind him to the outside world and sent water jetting from a dozen fountains.
The theatrics and his upbeat sermons, peppered with catchphrases like “Turn your scars into stars” and “It takes guts to leave the ruts,” made “Hour of Power” one of the most-watched religious shows in history and generated millions in donations. It drew more than 7.5 million American viewers weekly in the mid-1980s and added twice that number after it began appearing in dozens of other countries.
Perhaps the greatest sign of its popularity came in 1989, when authorities invited Dr. Schuller to speak in the Soviet Union’s first religious telecast. He soon began taping a special monthly show for Soviet national television.
His success on the air also paved the way for frequent best sellers, including “Tough Times Don’t Last, but Tough People Do” and “If It’s Going to Be, It’s Up to Me.” In all, he wrote more than 30 books.
He even took his message to the White House in 1995, when President Bill Clinton invited him for a private prayer meeting during a tough moment in his presidency. The next year, he was invited by the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat to a private meeting to discuss hopes for world peace.
In Garden Grove, he added a $20 million Center for Possibility Thinking, designed by Richard Meier. At the groundbreaking ceremony in 2001, Dr. Schuller received a lifetime achievement award from the American Institute of Architects.
He retired as the pastor of the Garden Grove Community Church on the first day of 2006, handing over leadership to his only son, Robert A. Schuller, and leaving the church deeply in debt, largely because of the lavish building project. His son was pushed out within two years, setting off a family feud when his sisters and their husbands took control of the church in 2008. One of his daughters, the Rev. Sheila Schuller Coleman, became head pastor.
After filing for bankruptcy protection, the church sold its campus to investors in 2011. It was later bought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County and renamed Christ Cathedral in 2012.
Dr. Schuller’s wife died in 2014. In addition to his son and Ms. Schuller Coleman, his survivors include three other daughters, Jeanne Dunn, Carol Milner and Gretchen Penner; 19 grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren.
Dr. Schuller ended his relationship with the church he had built in bitterness. In 2012, he and his wife resigned from the board of Crystal Cathedral Ministries, citing an “adversarial and negative atmosphere” amid a lawsuit over payments to Dr. Schuller for the use of his likeness and sermons on “Hour of Power.”
Days earlier, the board had forced Dr. Schuller’s daughter Gretchen Penner and two of his sons-in-law to resign their leadership positions. After the cathedral was sold, the family cut its ties with “Hour of Power,” and Ms. Schuller Coleman led a breakaway group of parishioners in establishing a new church, the Hope Center of Christ, in Orange County. Dr. Schuller’s grandson Bobby recently became the lead pastor of both “Hour of Power” and the successor to Dr. Schuller’s original church, now called Shepherd’s Grove.
The financial setbacks, firings and general ill will between the family and the church’s board left many parishioners shocked and saddened by the sudden collapse of their cherished church and its beloved founder’s sour last chapter.
But even in resigning, Dr. Schuller left behind a positive message. “No matter what, God is still God,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “No matter what, God is still a good God. God loves you, and so do I.”