Thinking Out Loud

October 5, 2013

Remembering Chuck Smith

Time Magazine June 21 1971

“Little country church on the edge of town
People comin’ every day from miles around
For meetings and for Sunday School
And it’s very plain to see
It’s not the way it used to be”

The first time I saw the sprawling campus of Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa was November, 1979. We didn’t have the term ‘megachurch’ then, nor was I prepared for a style of church architecture which, owing to the California climate, didn’t require indoor hallways to connect the various classrooms, departments, and offices.

The first service I attended there featured Chuck Smith doing what he did every single Sunday without exception: Preaching consecutively through the Bible, verse-by-verse, with that deep voice that transmitted much Biblical authority, but also much peace and calm. Thus, it was your choice to become engaged in the exposition or to fall asleep; either was possible, the latter was not encouraged.

Chuck Smith died this week at age 86. Many of the tributes have mentioned Calvary’s most renowned spinoff, Maranatha! Music and its related Maranatha Studios and the Ministry Resource Center (MRC); the Saturday night concerts; or the baptisms at Pirate’s Cove which made the cover of Time Magazine.

Baptism at Pirate's Cove

Baptism at Pirate’s Cove

The story has it that when the church occupied a smaller building — that later became a bookstore — studded jeans were popular and the older members were concerned that the studs were scratching the church pews. So Chuck ordered the pews removed. By the time I arrived in the late ’70s, there was still floor seating available at the front — a tribute to those days, perhaps — and one week I spent a Sunday morning service sitting on the floor, partly to have that experience and partly to release a scarce seat to someone who might need it more. The place was packed. 

If you attend a church that uses contemporary music or modern worship, you are, as I wrote here, a direct product of those early Jesus Movement days on the American west coast. Even if your church is more conservative and uses a hymnbook on a Sunday morning, odds are it contains a few Maranatha! Music copyrights.

But Chuck’s greatest legacy was Calvary Chapel, the denomination.

It is said that back then you didn’t need theological degrees to plant a Calvary, rather they were looking for individuals who already had a “proven ministry.” I don’t know how it works today, but I love that concept. A few of the pastors came out of the bands that played at the original Calvary at those Saturday night concerts. Today, Calvary Chapel churches in Fort Lauderdale, FL, Albuquerque, NM, Philadelphia, PA, Phoenix, AZ, Diamond Bar, CA, Chino, CA, Downey, CA, West Melbourne, FL, Jacksonville FL, and a handful of others are among the top megachurches in the US.

One generation megachurch pastor to another: Chuck Smith and Rick Warren

One generation megachurch pastor to another: Chuck Smith and Rick Warren

Some of the other musicians from those early days, such as Chuck Girard from Love Song, continue to bless us with worship leadership; while the spirit of Calvary Chapel lives on in other churches that sprang from that era, such as Harvest Church in Riverside, CA. Harvest pastor Greg Laurie paid tribute to Chuck Smith this week.

Chuck Smith’s ministry in California was an example of the right man, in the right place, at the right time, with the right vision.

He will be missed.

…The song lyrics which began this article are from “Little Country Church” by LoveSong, written about those early days at Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa. The file is audio-only.

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2 Comments »

  1. The process of starting a Calvary Chapel hasn’t changed much since then. There are Calvary Chapel Bible Schools in different parts of the world, but you don’t have to have attended. You don’t need a theology degree. You plant a church and demonstrate that you agree with the distinctives of Calvary Chapel. That’s about it. It’s actually become a little easier these days if you have been on staff at another Calvary Chapel. Not as much paperwork to demonstrate your beliefs. We don’t call ourselves a denomination but a fellowship of churches, but the difference is nuanced and not really important to anyone else. I can explain it best this way. We refer to Baptists as a denomination for convenience sake. It’s a word that we use to mean “type of church”. In reality, they are not a denomination either, but a fellowship of churches. They lack the governmental structure and top-down control (and often ownership) that marks a true denomination. It is the same for Calvary Chapel.

    Comment by Wade Ogletree — October 6, 2013 @ 8:18 pm


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