Crystal Cathedral sees risky future without church

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) -November 18, 2011

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.

But religion experts said the Crystal Cathedral's troubles run far deeper than the loss of the campus and stem from Schuller's retirement, an ill-fated attempt to hand over the ministry to his son and the church's failure to adapt to attract younger worshippers.

On the contrary, some said losing the building will force the ministry to do some much needed soul-searching on how it can remain relevant.

"If they stayed in place, they were doomed to slowly dissolve into nothing over time. And if there's any hope for them at all, it is a kind of rebirth out of these ashes," said Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research.

"That Crystal Cathedral has in fact encapsulated them and held them in a crystal prison," he said.

Moving forward, a key challenge will be shoring up the Crystal Cathedral's finances. The church should emerge with close to $7 million in surplus cash from the sale of the property, according to an attorney for the committee of unsecured creditors. But many congregants question whether the "Hour of Power" program can continue to draw viewers - and donations - without the iconic setting.

"It's virtually impossible to know what will happen to ministry revenue if the campus changes hands to a non-Protestant religious institution," Michael VanderLey, the church's financial adviser, told the bankruptcy court. "It's just a very uncertain set of potential revenues."

In 2008, the church's revenues plummeted amid a decline in donations and ticket sales for holiday pageants. Church officials blamed the recession, but some experts said the church's leadership struggles alienated members.

VanderLey said the decline in revenue appears to be slowing and the church is poised to reel in $3.5 million in December - a key month for revenue - down from $4 million in the same month last year.

But some churchgoers say their ranks are dwindling and will only get smaller once the ministry leaves its beloved building.

Dante Gebel, pastor of the church's Hispanic ministry, wrote on his Facebook page that his growing Spanish-speaking congregation will likely need a larger venue in three years' time such as a nearby stadium or convention center, and he stressed the group's independence from the English-language church.

These days, the Crystal Cathedral's parking lot is empty when worshippers pull up to attend Sunday services, though it was packed just a few years ago, said congregant Rob Ekno, who questioned whether the ministry can survive.

"Anything is possible," he said. "Obviously, we're dealing with a church here, so it's all in God's hands."

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