Trouble Surfaces At Crystal Cathedral

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. - To a casual observer, the Rev. Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral appears to be a vital, growing ministry.

The landmark glass and steel church - one of Southern California's most popular tourist attractions - is often packed with worshipers on Sunday mornings.

The church's services regularly feature a guest appearance by one or more famous entertainers or politicians. And Schuller's ``Hour of Power'' TV program is now seen in every major U.S. market as well as a score of foreign countries.

But appearances can be deceptive. In fact, Schuller ministry insiders say, the congregation has big problems - problems that Schuller hopes the Rev. Bruce Larson of Seattle's University Presbyterian Church can help solve.

While cathedral officials often speak of their ``10,000-member congregation,'' statistics turned over to the Reformed Church of America - the denomination to which Schuller belongs - indicate that the number of those who regularly attend and donate to the church has been eroding steadily for several years.

In 1984, there were 7,623 active members of the church; by 1989, the number of members making financial pledges had dwindled to 2,027.

The church may be packed on Sunday mornings, but often, it's packed with visitors - not regular members - and visitors usually don't drop much money into the collection plate.

Church officials recognized that they faced a crisis as long ago as 1987, when board member Chuck Salisbury admitted that the ``perception that the church was healthy'' was untrue. In fact, he said, the congregation had been borrowing money to pay its monthly expenses.

In 1989, Schuller conceded that church attendance was still a problem for the cathedral. He placed part of the blame on competition for time from recreational activities, from Little League to shopping malls.

The decline in church attendance has been analyzed by church-growth experts, who say the problem has less to do with Sunday morning competition than it has to do with Schuller himself.

Schuller has no problem attracting visitors to his church, his problem is converting those visitors into members who will serve as volunteers and tithe, said Joe Webb, a church-growth consultant and an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

To make matters worse, Schuller's television audience, which has traditionally provided the bulk of the ministry's financial support, has been declining in recent years.

Last November, about 1.3 million American households were tuned into the ``Hour of Power'' on an average Sunday morning. Five years ago, nearly 2 million households tuned in to Schuller's program on an average Sunday, according to the Arbitron ratings service.

Even in the early 1980s - when his congregation was at its peak - church members didn't contribute enough money to support the Crystal Cathedral. From 1980 to 1986, the TV ministry gave $14.7 million to keep the congregation afloat, and is still subsidizing the congregation, Schuller says.

The TV ministry raised about $30 million last year, says Schuller, who points to February's Arbitron and Nielsen ratings showing them up 100,000 viewers over the year before.

Larson is known throughout the country for his strength in building the size of Seattle's University Presbyterian Church by emphasizing the development of small groups for a wide range of interests, Webb said.

Larson may also help the church by simply being available to talk with the congregation's members.

Several former members of the congregation say they left the church, in part, because of the impression that Schuller was intentionally avoiding personal contact with them.

At the conclusion of Sunday services, for example, Schuller was in the habit until recently of leaving through a door in the cathedral basement instead of mingling with parishioners.

Larson may also be attractive to Schuller because of his proven popularity with the under-45 age bracket, a group Schuller is increasingly unable to reach, said Jack Sims, another church-growth consultant.

-- Scott Fagerstrom is the former religion editor of The Orange County Register, where he now works as a copy editor.