In Memoriam: Dr. Robert Schuller

by Glenn on November 29, 2015

Among the passings this year was Dr. Robert H. Schuller on April 2. I’ve thought about him on a number of occasions since, considering that central paradox of his life, which was that his message of positive (or possibility) thinking, which he inherited from Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, made a television ministry and the creation of the iconic Crystal Cathedral possible, but that message didn’t immunize him against family difficulties and financial realities. Dr. Schuller never could put a succession plan together and the Crystal Cathedral is now owned by the Catholic Church and undergoing major renovations on its way to becoming Christ Cathedral.

Less puzzling and more inspiring, I have thought about a message Dr. Schuller gave in 1992 that has stayed with me over the years. It was a talk titled, “From Success to Significance.” (EPS #1165: “Life’s Not Fair, But God Is Good, Part 22”) It’s a message I’ve listened to a number of times, but not recently. I decided to go back to it again to try and figure out what I liked about it and why it has stayed with me, which meant finding the VHS tape that I had purchased when I first heard the message over twenty years ago and which was in our storage unit.

After watching this again, I am more impressed with the content, but moreso with the architecture of this sermon/talk.

Disclosure: The choir I directed at Azusa Pacific University sang on a number of occasions at the Crystal Cathedral, appearing twice on The Hour of Power. It was exciting to be on the television program, if a little weird, too. It wasn’t a normal church service—it was a television program.

In most of my church experience there was some form of “order of service” that was pre-arranged and that you followed. If you were a participant in the service it was fairly understood when you were to participate and so you did your thing—whether praying or reading scripture or leading a song—when it was your turn.

On The Hour of Power there was an order, but that order was superseded by whatever might be going on in the control room, which often meant we in the room had to wait patiently for the next thing to happen. When we performed on The Hour of Power, a producer would stand next to me to indicate when I could begin conducting. I was never quite sure what was going on—What are we waiting for?—but I assume cameras needed to be retasked and sound mixes readied. Fascinating stuff. Weird stuff. It would have been heady if I hadn’t been exposed to some of Neil Postman’s writings about how “the medium is the message.” Maybe more on that some other time.

I don’t know how many of Dr. Schuller’s sermons I heard (watched?) over the years, but I wanted to reflect on this one message that was still with me over twenty years later.

Dr. Schuller began the message this way:

“My scripture is the text from Philippians, ‘… forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” [Philippians 3:13b–14, NKJV]

That phrase, “the upward call,” will be significant at the end of his message.

He then said,

“Before I make any remarks in my message, I have to acknowledge two forces and sources of my thoughts this morning. First is from my book Life’s Not Fair but God is Good.”

Here Dr. Schuller includes the following aside:

“I was real surprised, really humbled this week when the publishers told me that this book, this past month—#1 on the Publisher’s weekly bestselling religious list, and I’m very very proud that the message is getting out there. [Applause] And this bestselling list of religious books by Publisher’s Weekly, not all the books are Christians. And there are some other faiths in there that you would raise your eyebrows about. Then we can be thankful that the number one book, not only this past month, but they tell me it’s been there for several months, has been a Christian book entitled, Life’s Not Fair But God Is Good. So thank you.”

He says this with no trace of irony. I know people who at the time would have questioned whether or not this book was a Christian book. I don’t recall reading this one, although I’ve read at least one other book by Dr. Schuller. He was a polarizing figure, and his books started a feeding frenzy for those Christians who believe their role in life is to determine who is and who is not communicating the Christian faith and are piqued when books they don’t approve of are successful.

I wonder if perspective could play a role. If you were to read through all the books on the list, would you have to put Dr. Schuller in the “Christian” category? But then, if you only read the “Christian” books on that list, perhaps you could conclude that, at the very least, his book was theologically light. I personally don’t feel qualified to say who is and who is not theologically sound and for whatever reason never found myself vexed by his writing. Perhaps I would have been if I had read more of it.

This aside into the success of his book is the one part of his message that firmly anchors it to an utterly transient moment in time and feels thoroughly irrelevant, today.

It’s not that you can’t place your message in a moment in time. One of my favorite books is A Great Time to be Alive, by Harry Emerson Fosdick. This is a collection of sermons preached during World War II. The War makes its presence felt throughout the collection, but doesn’t affect the relevancy of the message today, because the way his faith met the challenge of a World War  easily translates to how I, reading seventy years later, can face my challenges, which seem, by the way, considerably lighter.

With the Publisher’s Weekly reference, though, it was a bit like a politician discussing a poll, which gives that part of the message a certain shelf life of relevance.

It’s normal and commendable that an author thanks his readers for the success of his book. But it’s strange, twenty something years later to hear it. The rest of the message, however, has a more timeless quality and displays virtues that make this message worth listening to.

Regardless, it’s from Life’s Not Fair, but God is Good that Dr. Schuller gets the title of his message, which he explains comes from page 267:

“Two sentences:
‘How can we live in an unfair world?
Only with the goodness of God in our heart, that’s how.’”

A structural question, Dr. Schuller offers a third sentence, which I take to be the title of the message and not a continued quote from the book,

“So we have to learn to move ‘From Success to Significance.’”

I think this was a point he intended to land on later but instead jumped on now. I can’t tell, but it’s a brief moment of friction because it doesn’t seem to flow naturally.

The second source that wants to give credit to is the then senior class of Hope College, Holland Michigan, as he says it, “here in the United States of America,” and you are reminded that he is communicating far beyond his local congregation. The previous week he had given the commencement address at Hope College and, according to Dr. Schuller,

“It brought many thoughts out of me and so many of them said, ‘Dr. Schuller we watch you on ‘The Hour of Power’ every week but we never heard you say this before. Are you going to preach this sermon to the television congregation in America and to the world?’

“And after their encouragement I have chosen this morning to do so because many of you sitting here are new graduates of various levels of education and it’s thrilling to me to congratulate you.”

I take this at face value. I think it would have been pretty easy to simply tweak the message and not reference the fact that he had given it elsewhere the previous week. But I think it was an honest reflection because out of all of the messages I ever heard on The Hour of Power, this is one that has stayed with me.

We’ve already heard two themes, though they haven’t been identified as such, yet:
1. The upward call of God
2. Living life in an unfair world.

Now Dr. Schuller introduces a third.

“So this morning
we will celebrate success,
we will congratulate success, then I hope
we will dedicate the success.

“When students graduate from any level of an educational institution who gets [credit for] the success. First, what, the parents of course. You probably thought your kid would never make it, and here they are in cap and gown. You sacrificed a lot …”

Here we arrived at what feels like a significant weakness in this talk. Not only has Dr. Schuller acknowledged that part of his message comes from a recent commencement address he had given and that he wants to speak to recent graduates in his congregation, but now he speaks like he is talking to those parents of the graduates back in Holland, Michigan. So, for the listener of this message, the whole thing is rather confusing—Who are you talking to?

I have a fondness for the genre of commencement speech, so it’s forgiveable that this part of the message feels more than a little bit out of context. Fortunately, the content of his message will override any concerns about audience, which is to say that soon the message will have wide application. And a larger truth: a sermon doesn’t have to be perfect to be memorable.

The point he is making is true, though: Graduations are a community thing. While it is the student who has successfully graduated, parents are part of it, churches back home that helped turn children into “emotionally healthy persons” are part of it, teachers are part of it. He has some sharp words for teachers, though:

“When a student graduates, it means they had a good teacher. Because almost all students who have enough intelligence and brain power to be accepted in the first place surely have the intellectual ability to graduate and if they fail, who really fails? The teachers, too. Somehow they didn’t communicate with interest and enthusiasm or understanding or motivation. Congratulations to the teachers.”

At last, Dr. Schuller broadens his focus to include at least a portion of the audience he is actually speaking to on The Hour of Power:

“I dedicate this message … to all students graduating or graduated or still studying in places of higher learning, whether it’s in Moscow or Idaho*, Anchorage or Copenhagen, London or Atlanta.”

*An odd pairing because there is a Moscow in Idaho. I might have offered, “Whether you’re studying in Moscow, Idaho or Moscow, Russia …”

What does he say to them?

“Keep on succeeding. Only successful people can help those who aren’t making it.”

He really lands on this. He hits the “Keep on succeeding” hard, and then adds a diminuendo and a ritardando for the rest. Here is audio of this line:

Two things:

1. There is a lot in that line. Dr. Schuller is firmly rooted in the American system, including capitalism, and is not here to start a revolution. He is not offering an alternate system, but encouraging people how to work within it. It’s an echo of the apostle Paul’s, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart …” (Colossians 3:23) Further, he is not telling people to be successful for their own sake, but reminding us that we have a mission to help others. He’s not stating it outright, but he is tapping into his theme “from success to significance.”

2. This kind of statement is invaluable in a sermon. In musical terms, it’s a giant cadence that brings things to a head and to a halt for a moment. We live in a time where much preaching is more conversational and emotionally contained. We want it to feel, I suppose, more authentic. Earnest and sincere is okay, anything approaching flamboyant is out. (There are preachers and places that are exceptions, but it seems to be largely the case here in the Pacific Northwest.) There is no escaping the fact that preaching is a performance art, whatever aesthetics you think apply to it. There are preachers who have a dramatical flair. Without places to land, a sermon can become monotonous, both in tone and content. It’s okay for a sermon to have a point, which requires that you have some some places you land so that that point can be emphasized.

And, now, Dr. Schuller digs into this statement a little more.

“And you know how. You are successful. You know how you do it.”

Good transition, there. But in case you as a listener aren’t feeling clued into what it means to be successful, here comes a definition.

“Success is very simple. [long pause] I didn’t say easy. I said ‘simple.’
One: You set a goal; and
Two: You develop a positive paradigm of problems.”

He defines the “positive paradigm of problems” this way:

“You begin to see problems not as problems and pressures and burdens, but you see them as challenges.”

He acknowledges that he is not the first person to say that, but adds that he has developed a way of thinking about problems:

“A problem … is one of three things.

“A problem is either:
A decision that has to be made; or
A plan that has to be laid; or
A price that has to be paid.

“That’s all problems are.”

Aside: I think it’s getting harder for speakers who are hoping to inspire their listeners to use this kind of rhyme and alliteration. Coming from the wrong person it can feel a little too flippant—Dr. Seuss-like—in our current world. With Dr. Schuller it feels like it comes from an authentic place.

I’m sure there is a term in rhetoric for what Dr. Schuller did next, but I will say this is where Dr. Schuller made this talk musical. Here are these three little motives, “a decision that has to be made,” “a plan that has to be laid,” and “a price that has to be paid,” so he takes them one at a time and teases them out a little bit using a little bit of repetition. I guess we could say, “He gave some examples to support his points,” but it was more artful (and musical) than that.

A decision that has to be made

“Why do we call it a problem. It’s not a problem. Because, perhaps, we’re afraid to make the decision or the decision is going to be unpleasant for us or someone else. Or it’s going to have a big question mark over it. But call it what it is. Don’t call it a problem. Call it a decision.”

A plan that has to be laid

“Why do you call it a problem. ‘Cause it’s hard work planning. And it can be scary sketching it out. Unless you practice what I’ve preached for thirty years … possibility thinking. That turns planning into exciting, imaginative, creative thinking.”

Dr. Schuller quotes himself from a book he had written 30 years ago:

“If you’re failing to plan,
you’re planning to fail.”

What do you do with little aphorisms like that? If you’re cynical, you might mock it, but the wisdom of the statement is inescapable.

A price that has to be paid.

“Then don’t call it a problem.”

Wrapping this section up, Dr. Schuller concludes:

“You know the nice thing about this is: If a problem is only a decision, a plan, or a price, it’s something that I can do something about, either by acting or choosing my response and reaction.”

There’s some Viktor Frankl—Man’s Search for Meaning—right there. This message has some depth to it, which is one of the reasons I like it.

Another great transition:

“So that’s how to keep on succeeding in life. But let’s remember my text,” which he paraphrased then asked, “What does that mean? It means that we have to move from success to significance. You know how to succeed. I just reminded you. But do you know how to be significant. Do you know how to make a difference in the world?

“My God, how we need you today.”

Up to now the sermon has felt upbeat—appropriate tone for a commencement address. With this line, Dr. Schuller has introduced a sense of urgency, the reason for which he will get to shortly.

What happens next is remarkable. We’ve just gone through this highly didactic passage. Very organized, very patterned, very technical. In musical terms, a musical statement made up of three related motives is followed by development of each of those motives one after the other using both repetition—“Why do we call it a problem?”—and new ideas contained in the ideas of decision, plan, and price. Then there is a restatement of the theme and the motives.

Where do we go next?

Now a key change and transition in the form of a jazz riff on America and its culture. He’s not teaching, now, he’s telling a story about a country he loves and which has changed.

To the “tens of millions of people around the world” in “whatever city, country, nation, race, creed, religion, culture [who] may be listening,” Dr. Schuller observes that America is a young country. “Just over 200 years.” He makes a comparison to Russia where “Christianity came to your country a thousand years ago.” (Interesting, this is the second reference to Russia, which at the time was in a tremendous revolution after the fall of the Berlin Wall.)

Dr. Schuller goes on with a note of pride in country,

“We’ve been a very dynamic and very successful country—you know why?”

A list:
1. “A Bill of Rights.”
2. “A system of freedoms.”
3. “Above law and order, we had a spiritual, unwritten, set of sociological laws … in the heart and in the soul and in the spirit of human beings. It was called culture.”

Dr. Schuller offers a definition of culture:

“The pressures that govern your behavior beyond laws written in the state.”

Culture, he explains, is what we eat and drink, whether we smoke or not, what we wear, how we adorn ourselves—earrings, for example, hair styles, music choices, art, architecture, religion.

He offers this endearing example:

“How do I walk with my wife down the sidewalk. My culture said, ‘I’m the man, I walk on the curbside. My wife always walks on the inside.’ We still do that, my wife and I. There’s no law that teaches that. It’s culture.”

Dr. Schuller maintains that American culture evolved out of the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, including the Ten Commandments, and the New Testament’s teachings of Jesus, which governed how we treat others. And now Dr. Schuller puts on a cultural critic’s hat: “That was the culture. Has been. Until today. It isn’t anymore. Because today there are many cultures.”

The first thing cultures do is collide. His examples of “cultural clashing” or “cultural conflict” come from the sexual revolution:

“A Playboy magazine comes out and says, ‘It’s okay. It doesn’t hurt who you sleep with. You don’t have to be married.’ It says you can go on the Donahue show and brag about the fact that you had sex with a hundred men or a hundred women. ‘Don’t be ashamed of that.’”

Things get a little loose for just a moment. It’s like the rhythm sections gets out of the groove. The point Dr. Schuller wants to make is that there is a dominant culture which is no longer the dominant culture. Unfortunately, there is so much alliteration in the words he uses—“competition,” and “clash,” and “conflict,” and “challenge” and “confusion”—that it’s hard to follow the progression. Which comes first, second, etc.? I think it’s: 1. cultural confusion; followed by 2. cultural clashes.

While that’s not clear, he does get very clear describing the stage “we are in now” (What would he say today?) and adds an ominous tone with the statement that “no country has ever lived through” this stage. He calls, with some intensity, the current cultural climate:

“‘Cultural anarchy.’ Every culture spouts off. You don’t know who’s calling the shots.”

Long pause. It’s pretty sobering talk from a self-described possibility thinker. Then he asks,

“Now what happens?”

He describes some interactions he’s had with people around the world who tell him they don’t like “American culture.” His response is always to laugh and say,

“What do you mean the American culture? I don’t know what it is today. Is it Hollywood? Is it New York? Is it Mississippi? Is it Minneapolis? I don’t know?”

Another pause.  As a listener, I’m starting to feel a certain amount of despair creep in.

What is this message, so far? I think two points have been made:

1. “Be successful, which means solving problems. And if you don’t know how to solve problems, then let me reframe the whole idea of what a problem is so that you can move forward because the world needs problem solvers.”

2. “The world I knew has gone away. Not entirely, but some ugliness has crept into this world. It’s become difficult knowing how to live.”

This message has extraordinary balance at this point, but considerable tension. We have light and we have dark. We have certainty and we have a cloud. We have sing-song and we have a story. We have a clearly-articulated problem-solving methodology and we have the narrative describing a significant problem (assuming, of course, you agree with the narrative he is telling).

What we don’t have is any sort of resolution to the tension between these two points. And we haven’t really said much about moving from success to significance except to say that “We need to move from success to significance.”

Dr. Schuller is not going to resolve it, yet. He’s going to intensify it. This is one of the reasons I really enjoyed this talk. This is not a message on how “Every day in every way we are getting better and better,” rather “How shall we live?” It’s serious, sober-minded.

My harshest critique of Dr. Schuller as a preacher would be to say that he was excellent at teaching faith, but that he didn’t always stress the importance of the source and object of that faith.

Biblical faith is based on the idea that God makes and keeps promises. When you have Biblical faith, you are trusting God to do something that he has said he will do. Sometimes it felt like Dr. Schuller was teaching his listeners to look inside and consider their own dreams to be a promise from God and that faith in faith was the same thing as faith in God.

And then I never heard him wrestle with that verse at the end of Hebrews 11 that is a little sobering, “These [people who trusted God to keep his promises] were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised …” (Hebrews 11:39) In other words, they trusted God to do what He said He would do, and He didn’t do it … at least not in this life.

Dr. Schuller now shares a personal reflection, remembering 30 years previous and a friendship with the Viennese architect Richard Neutra. (He doesn’t mention it in his talk, but I believe Neutra is the architect who built the original walk-up, drive-up worship center on the campus where eventually the Crystal Cathedral would be built.)

Dr. Schuller reflects on how Neutra was a friend of a New York University professor named René Dubos, one of the creators of the field of “sociobiology.” Dr. Schuller quotes Dubos:

“‘Biology affects society. If you take an organism out of its natural habitat or pollute the natural habitat, the organism threatened with death will try to survive and if it cannot move … in its effort to survive in an environment that is become polluted it will do one thing’ he said: ‘It will adjust.’”

The kicker, and Dr. Schuller says he’ll “never forget it”:

“The adjustment is always a downward movement.”

There is a Selah moment here as he takes another pause.

“Think on that. Do you hear what I say?”

This sermon is musical. One of the great things Dr. Schuller does is take a pause from time to time. Of course, the pauses make sense when they come. He isn’t self-conscious when he pauses. He doesn’t pause because he’s lost or trying to find his way, they come at important points along the way.

And, now, a repeat (and I think this time he gets a coherent order together). We go back to the idea that cultural challenges have resulted in cultural clashes which have resulted in cultural confusion, and, now, cultural anarchy, heading, now, into a second ending.

Dr. Schuller says “human beings … are all the same except that our environment has changed and we’re adjusting downward to survive.” This becomes a metaphor. Dr. Schuller is not talking about our physical environment as real as those dangers may be. He says,

“I’m talking about the environment where humans live, and the environment being poisoned, polluted by inhuman values, of the loss of humanity, kindness, politeness, gentleness, generosity, fairness … until today I have to write a book and start it with the honest to God truth and say, regrettably, ‘Life’s not fair, but God is good.’”

Dr. Schuller says he told Dr. Dubos,

“The human race is adjusting downwards. That’s sociobiology. It’s also theology. … Adjustment is always a downard movement. … The upward movement is never an adjustment; it’s a commitment.”

And here comes familiar material, “A decision must be made, plans have to be laid, a price has to be paid.”

Now we realize Dr. Schuller is going to ask something of us. The ask is how we resolve the tension that he has created. It will appeal to our better natures. He wants us to make a commitment. In short, the message is: “Be a problem solver, because the world has problems and to solve those problems means you have to be committed.”

He tells a story about a young man who had just graduated high school and had experienced an unfairness that resulted in the loss of scholarship money. He was encouraged by his friends to complain, but wouldn’t. As Dr. Schuller relates the story, the young man was a committed follower of Jesus who said, “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think Jesus would complain about it.” Later, the young man received an anonymous note which said that because “he played by the rules,” he deserved the scholarship. Included was an untraceable bank draft in the amount of the scholarship. This was a story of commitment, an example of someone choosing an upward movement.

Dr. Schuller’s conclusion:

“I call upon human beings listening to the sound of this simple message from this simple sermon … go back to a book called the Holy Bible.” The Bible is “divinely inspired.” It “tells us how to believe in God and how to recognize that we as human beings … have sins and need to be saved, we need to be forgiven, and Jesus is the Lord and Savior.”

Now, the formal statement of the resolution to the tension. We are the resolution.

“When I take Christ as my Lord it’s going to affect me and it’s going to affect society. … You want the world to become better? … The world is changed not by masses of people, but lonely solitary individuals. One person decides enough is enough. He speaks up and he stands up. He makes a decision and lays out the plans and pays the price. And people are inspired and they follow him. That’s what Jesus Christ did. That’s why I’m a Christian. Are you?”

The message ends with a simple , once-sentence invitation for people to make a commitment to follow Jesus.


Among my favorite things about Dr. Schuller was the benediction that he gave at the end of each service. Here it is, followed by an organ postlude, from a different service than the one which had the sermon that I’ve been reflecting on.


May that peace that he speaks of be his eternal legacy.

And, for eternity, may there be in heaven many who chose to follow Jesus because of his life and ministry.