Learning from Robert Schuller

I’ve never been a big fan of television pastors. In late college, I grew to appreciate T.D. Jakes, but that was mostly due to his preaching style and delivery. I may not have always agreed with his theology, but I was definitely convinced that he passionately believed in whatever message he was sharing.

Every so often, I would tune into the “Hour of Power” with Robert Schuller. As he aged, his increasingly gentle demeanor came across as sincere and trustworthy. However, I was mostly tuning in to find out what celebrity he would have as a guest on the program.

These days, I tune in from time to time to hear the choir and see what kind of message Schuller’s grandson, Bobby, is sharing.

As many of our churches have transitioned to online ministries, I’ve found myself thinking that maybe we all have something to learn from Schuller. And, as many of our churches begin to consider how to re-enter into the world of in-person gatherings, we also may have something to learn from Schuller.

Schuller (and others like Charles Stanley) always shared a broadcast from an actual church gathering. There was a physical congregation present to engage, respond and participate. For me, the temptation would be to primarily focus on the gathered community and just allow the digital community to peek into what we are doing. This sets the stage for a physical church with an online presence – we do things gathered together and broadcast it for others to observe.

However, Schuller always found ways to engage the virtual audience. He didn’t pretend that they were not recording. He would refer to the televised audience, offer ways they could participate and invite them to be fully involved and present in the gathering. It expresses the importance of those not able to be physically present. This sets the stage for a connected community – both digitally and physically present.

As we return to in-person gatherings, we need to take this lesson from Schuller and not proceed as if the digital congregation is not present. We need to find ways to interact and engage those digitally present. We simply cannot dismiss what has become an essential practice for our congregations.

Schuller also never hesitated to “make the ask.” He always invited the televised audience to fully participate in the ministry of the Crystal Cathedral through their financial gifts and prayers. Now, since the Crystal Cathedral did end up filing for bankruptcy, maybe he needed to ask for more! However, he always extended an invitation to partner in ministry.

Schuller didn’t stop with the ask. He also found ways to express gratitude. Most of the time, it was some kind of cheesy gift. Yet, it was a way to say, “we appreciate your support of the ministry.”

If we have a physical or email address, a note of appreciation goes a long way. Communicating words of gratitude for those physically present and those digitally present are very important. Telling stories of how those gifts are being utilized cannot be underestimated.

Schuller also would share paths for engagement. Whether it was an invitation to join together in prayer and praise, participating in a devotional study or some other way to be engaged beyond the worship gathering, there was always some kind of invitation.

As we begin to relaunch our in-person gatherings, finding ways to offer points of connection will be important. Whether it’s providing avenues to share prayers and praises, paths to connect with others via Zoom or other digital platforms, having weekly all-church studies or reading plans are ways those who cannot be physically present and still be holistically engaged.

So, while I have largely dismissed those TV preachers, they just might have something to teach all of us!

Orange County Register photo by Bruce Chambers – photo taken 1/1/06
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