If you are someone who likes to “cry in their beer” you probably won’t like this blog post. On the other hand, if you are someone who likes “pie in the sky” Pollyannaism, you won’t like this blog post either, because Positive Thinking is neither of these two extremes.

The ideology of Positive Thinking, also known as “Possibility Thinking,” has been around for a long time, possibly since the beginning of time.  Definitely it is present in the biblical period. Setting aside, Jesus himself, who Schuller considered the greatest possibility thinker of all time, Barnabas, one of the first members and leaders of the early church, should be on the top of the list. Literally translated Barnabas means “Son of Encouragement.” He was the first to see the possibilities in Paul, a former persecutor of Christians, who converted to Christianity. His convincing of the early church leaders to take a chance with Paul was the genesis for the expansive growth of the early church. If it hadn’t been for the positive thinking of Barnabas; the Church and its possibilities for growth may not have reached potential.

You can even find the light of positive thinking in the darkness of the Middle Ages.  Julian of Norwich, known as the Monastic Mystic, was a woman whose contribution of mystical theology to Christian doctrine helped develop a balanced view between sin and grace. In the 1300’s she wrote the book Revelation of Divine Love, now considered the most optimistic and sensible work of medieval theology.  It was in this work that she presents an optimistic and very positive view of nature and humanity, not denying the sin and evil of humankind, just not being dominated by sin and fallenness, as were so many other theologians of her time. She recognized the awful realities but offered to her readers the comfort and joy that is possible for them through a loving God and the saving work of Christ.

In modern times, the ultimate purveyor of the power of positive thinking and one who brought it to the attention of the American public was Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. For 52 years as pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, Peale preached, taught, and wrote about positive thinking. Interestingly enough his church, like Schuller’s, was part of the same small denomination of Dutch decent; the Reformed Church in America.

Peal’s magna carta of positive thinking was his bestselling book, The Power of Positive Thinking, which he presented as an instructional manual.  In the book he suggested to reader’s techniques they could apply assisting them to be positive thinkers. He also provided many examples of the success of his techniques from both extraordinary people and the common man. Peal believed that if a person practiced the principles of positive thinking it would produce in a person’s life; peace of mind, improved health, a never-ceasing flow of energy, and victory over anything that might try to defeat them.

His ideas helped millions of people throughout the United States including Presidents and influential captains of industry and finance. It also brought him a flurry of criticism from Christians, other pastors (some of whom were from the Reformed Church), significant theologians, who said his ideas were unbiblical, and psychologists who said his ideas were too simplistic for true psycho-social therapy. But despite these criticisms, Norman Vincent Peale prevailed and was able to be a mentor and friend to a man who would eventually surpass even Peale’s contribution and bring positive thinking to the world.

Robert Schuller was the embodiment of the three people I mentioned above, and many others who carried the torch of positive thinking through the ages. His personal story is an amazing one that is the epitome of the very heart of his message which is how God’s dream can come true through you. For those who may not know the story, I will quickly summarize it, however it is not the main focus of this blog, so I encourage you to research on your own. I also recommend reading the book, Goliath, by James Penner which is a biography of Robert Schuller.

Schuller grew up in a farming family in the Dutch immigrant areas of Iowa. Like most of the Dutch communities they worshipped at the Dutch Reformed Church and attended the denominations colleges and seminaries. Schuller went to Hope College and Western Theological Seminary both in Holland, Michigan. After he was ordained he served a church in the greater Chicago area, where he met his wife and in 1955 they moved to California to start a new church in Garden Grove just south of Los Angles.  The Garden Grove Community Church started in a drive-in movie theatre with Dr. Schuller preaching from the roof of the snack bar to the cars below. Over the years he also started the Institutes for Successful Church Leadership, the first 24 hour phone prayer line, build one of the most beautiful glass cathedrals in the world, known as the Crystal Cathedral, and grew a congregation to over 10,000 people. He reached around the world with his “Hour of Power” weekly television program, and many books on possibility thinking.

My grandmother was the first to introduce me to his positive thinking message and our family would often watch the Hour of Power and would on occasion attend seminars and conferences at the Crystal Cathedral. Being from a Dutch community in Western Michigan I attended the same college and seminary, although it was some 30 years after him. I felt an affinity with him because we came from the same type of community, and attended the same schools. Dr. Schuller certainly made a positive impact on my family and my own life perspective.

After graduate school I began my career founding a church in Denver, Colorado. The church often advertised on the local T.V. station during the Hour of Power broadcast and we did get people to visit our church from this advertising time slot. Many people had never heard of our denomination but they had heard of the Hour of Power and this gave our church instant credibility in the community. I know that many other new church starts, and even existing churches, owed a significant debt to Dr. Schuller’s ministry for the growth that they experienced.

Growing up in a family that appreciated and supported Dr. Schuller and his positive thinking message, and starting a church that was enhanced by his ministry, you might imagine my surprise when I  heard so much criticism particularly in my own denomination. I suppose it shouldn’t have been a surprise, because most of the criticism was similar to that experienced by Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. Many said Dr. Schuller’s preaching and teaching was just unbiblical, simplistic motivational hype. Yet, like Peale, Schuller’s message helped millions, and brought thousands into churches throughout the United States and around the world.  And like Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, the Church grew and was opened to many possibilities for growth because of Robert Schuller’s positive thinking message.

So, after hearing the continual disparagement of Dr. Schuller’s ministry, while at the same time seeing so many people benefit from his ministry, I decided to make my own re-evaluation. I began by reading Mountains Into Goldmines, by Dr. Dennis Voskuil a former professor of mine. It was a critical look at Schuller’s ministry and classified it as a “Gospel of Success.” Is that all it was? To find the answer, I travel to the Crystal Cathedral campus, attended worship, reviewed the Adult Education program, attended the Leadership Institutes, spoke with friends who worked on staff for Dr. Schuller, and was given an opportunity to talk with Dr. Schuller himself.

What I found reminded me of the ministry and views of Julian of Norwich. Dr. Schuller recognized sin, but emphasized grace. He never denied the sin and evil of humankind; he just did not let it dominate the focus of his ministry. I remember that he told me, “People already know they are sinners. They are already living with guilt. I am offering what they don’t have; the joy and comfort that comes from knowing a loving God and the saving work of Christ.” This is the message that he presented in worship, the opposite of what so many other churches were preaching. It was not a failure to recognize the sin, or the fallenness of humanity, but a deliberate and successful effort to view the realities of the world through the optimistic and positive lens of faith. This was worship.

His education program within the Crystal Cathedral ministries provided for the nurturing of seekers, those interested in learning more about Christianity, and new Christians that wanted to grow in their faith. This was the place that taught the solid Reformed theology of guilt, grace and gratitude. Unfortunately, many critics never took the time to review the ministry in its totality.

Is it a gospel of success? Yes, if you define success as finding the human need and filling it with the fullness of God.  This was what Schuller did best, and the reason his ministry had impact. He would not put up with someone “crying in their beer” because he knew that with God, “Tough times never last, but tough people do!”

Many people have been critical of positive thinking as a form of Pollyannaism. Like Monty Python’s Life of Brain, where characters refused to acknowledge the true reality of life’s difficulties, and simply sang “Look on the Bright Side of Life.” However, Dr. Schuller taught us that positive thinkers must be realists.  Every obstacle in life cannot be ignored and there’s no doubting that life can be tough and sometimes even seems downright unfair. But life’s difficulties can be a step on the road to greater faith, hope, and happiness. Even when life is toughest, even when we are battling more than our share of disappointments, we can rise above adversity and find new hope and true happiness.

I remember reading a story Dr. Schuller told about a man who had a wonderful business with many employees and customers. Unfortunately, the economy changed and forced this man out of business. He could no longer serve his customers and he had to let his employees go and declare bankruptcy. He felt like a failure and coming to Dr. Schuller he asked how his situation could be looked at positively. Dr. Schuller asked him to think of the many times his company had helped the customer get what they needed. The man had contributed to his customer’s success. He reminded the man of the work experience he had given to his employees which they could successfully use in other opportunities. All the effort the man had put into his company had not been wasted. It had been invested in the success of his customers and in the experience gained by his employees. The man himself had gained important insight from the experience, which could be used to start a new company, or be shared with other entrepreneurs.

I was reminded of this story when I heard of the bankruptcy and selling of the Crystal Cathedral. At first, I felt a great sense of loss and heartbreak for Dr. Schuller. But then I started thinking about all the lives that had been touched in the past, my own included, and although no longer the Crystal Cathedral, the new Christ Cathedral, would still touch lives in the future. And I can say, because of Dr. Schuller, “Life’s not fair, but God is good!”

John M. Scholte, M. Div.

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