Robert Schuller was not perfect, but he addressed unmet needs in our society.
Many years ago, as a teenage college student, I was in a dark place. The mother of one of my friends, in an effort to encourage me, gave me a copy of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and Robert Schuller’s Tough Times Never Last, but Tough People Do. Having grown up in a strict fundamentalist Baptist environment, I had never been exposed to this “positive” side of Christianity. For me, it had always been about the “Thou shalt nots” – the list of which went beyond The Ten Commandments and included, in the passionate opinion of the Independent Fundamental Baptist preachers and lay leaders I was familiar with, prohibitions against dancing, rock music, going to the beach, seeing movies in the theater, watching pretty much any television program, and using any Bible translation other than the King James Version. As a result, I was a clean-cut, fairly upright, generally honest kid with strong values and a deep commitment to the Bible. But I also suffered from a tremendously low self-esteem, poor social skills, and lots of confusion and discouragement concerning my future. To be fair, there were some people (even in that strict background) who poured love into me and were a blessing to me, but the Schuller and Peale books my friend’s mom gave me were a tremendous blessing. They helped me immensely. In fact, they were a turning point for me. And thus, while I agree with some of the evangelical criticisms of Robert Schuller, I can’t bring myself to condemn him. On the contrary, I appreciate him just as I appreciated the late Norman Vincent Peale.
With Robert Schuller’s passing, many Christians are now debating how we should remember his legacy. At the top of people’s minds is the fact that Schuller built an enormous media and cultural empire centered around his “Hour of Power” television broadcast and the both famous and infamous Crystal Cathedral — only to see that empire crumble in his twilight years amid family disputes, scandals, and bankruptcy. But I’m not going to address the rise and fall of Schuller’s ministry, nor am I going to go over his biography. Instead, I want to address what evangelicals can learn from his legacy. How should evangelical Christians remember Robert Schuller?
After reading Schuller’s Tough Times Never Last, but Tough People Do (along with Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking), I went to my pastor at the time to tell him of my breakthrough. And when I told my pastor about it, he was less than enthusiastic. Instead, he criticized Peale and Schuller, and gave me the book The Seduction of Christianity by Dave Hunt and T.A. McMahon. While I agree with much of what Hunt and McMahon say in their book, hearing my pastor at the time and reading their book served to pour water on the encouragement I was feeling. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it actually set me back a bit in my emotional growth. It was as if I took several steps forward by reading Peale and Schuller, only to be jerked several steps back by my pastor and the book he gave me. In fact, for years afterward, I began to see God as a bit of a kill-joy. And I felt like I couldn’t get excited about anything unless it was approved by all the preachers and teachers from my fundamentalist Baptist background.
My story fortunately doesn’t end there. I joined Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, while at George Mason University, and met Christians who were outside the Baptist fold. (That included my now-wife). God-honoring, devout Christians who weren’t KJV-toting fundamentalist Baptists with strict rules of conformity? It was something of a culture shock for me at the time. And I soon began to realize that the fundamentalist Baptist churches I grew up in were sometimes wrong. And, as the years went on, I realized that the entire evangelical world (not just the strict fundamentalist Baptist movement, but the entire Bible-believing conservative culture) has quite often MISSED THE BOAT when it comes to addressing (let alone meeting) the emotional and physical needs of many believers in Christ (not to mention those outside the Christian community).
There are, in fact, enormous gaps in our churches when it comes to teaching the “whole counsel of God” – large areas of emotional and relational needs that are tragically un-addressed by many pulpits. And many people are falling through those gaps. Say what you will about Schuller and Peale, but they recognized those gaps and tried to fill them.
This is not to say there weren’t problems with Schuller’s ministry and teachings. As a Bible-believing evangelical, I often found myself troubled and even alarmed by many of the things I heard from and about Robert H. Schuller over the years. He brought non-Christians and heretics into his pulpit and made many comments himself in interviews, sermons, and writings that (to put it charitably) seemed to contradict and distort the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, Robert Schuller leaves behind a mixed legacy.
My point in writing this article isn’t to hold up Robert Schuller as an exemplary evangelical preacher who never compromised or who always spoke biblical truth. Schuller was wrong about many things – both in word and in deed. My point is simply that, wrong as he was on some things, he was also right on some things. That part of his legacy shouldn’t be lost. Consider these nuggets of wisdom and encouragement:
- “Let your hopes, not your hurts, shape your future.”
- “I’d rather attempt to do something great and fail than attempt to do nothing and succeed.”
- “Anyone can count the seeds in an apple, but only God can count the apples in a seed.”
- “Problems are not stop signs; they are guidelines.”
- “When you can’t solve the problem, manage it.”
- “Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing perfectly.”
- “Winning starts with beginning.”
- “Leadership does not belong in the hands of part-time thinkers.”
- “Sin is a condition, before it is an action.”
- “As we grow as unique persons, we learn to respect the uniqueness of others.”
Not only should we accept and learn from the wisdom in many of his sermons and much of his writings, but we should acknowledge that Schuller’s area of focus (meeting people’s emotional needs and encouraging them to think positively), while not anywhere near as crucial as the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is important and valuable. And it is, when biblically grounded and properly understood, not contradictory to the Gospel of Christ. And it’s something that many “good” churches and preachers ignore or downplay – or, in some cases, even preach against!
Think about how many hurting people have been helped by Robert Schuller. People like myself many years ago. And when those hurting people hear sanctimonious evangelical and fundamentalist critics call Schuller a “false teacher” (or worse), what does that say to them? Even if Schuller’s critics do care about the hurting people Schuller helped, that’s not what most of those people will hear or feel. If I’m hungry and someone comes along and gives me food, and then I hear people attack the very person who cared enough to help me, I’m going to side with the person who helped me! And understandably so. Bible-believing evangelicals need to keep this in mind – not only when it comes to Schuller, but also Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and other Christian teachers and authors today similar to the style of Schuller and Peale. This isn’t to say that we can’t or shouldn’t point out errors or heresies, but it is a call for sensitivity, awareness, and discernment.
Recently, I took part in a medical missions camp in India. That weekend, the Gospel of Christ was shared. Christ was held up the entire weekend, in fact. But we also addressed the physical needs of those who came. We didn’t just tell the people about the Great Physician; we also put them in touch with a trained earthly physician to help with their current, physical ailments. It wasn’t an either-or. It was a both-and approach. Our churches need to do the same when it comes to emotional needs.
Rather than focus our energies on publicly condemning so-called “self help preachers” like Schuller, we – those of us who are Bible-believing evangelicals – should invest our efforts and energies in PLUGGING THE HOLES in our own churches and families. There are unmet needs in our churches. Rather than simply condemn authors, preachers, and teachers who are trying to meet those needs, let’s learn what we can from them and then strive to meet those same needs ourselves. And let’s do so while preaching the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ and the truth of God’s Word. By doing that, we can put the mixed legacy of Robert Schuller to positive use and, in the process, build healthier, stronger churches and more effectively advance God’s Kingdom.
**Read Perfect Peace: God’s Amazing Gift for the Human Heart by Brian Tubbs