October 11, 2013

Chuck Smith, founder of the Calvary Chapel and Jesus People, dies at age 86

The pioneering Protestant pastor was theologically conservative and culturally avant garde.

By Christopher Goffard
Los Angeles Times

In his church office, pastor Chuck Smith kept a crown made of thorns and a jar full of candy. The thorns were from the Holy Land. The candy was for his grandkids. The image suggested his special appeal as a preacher: A harsh, old-school Christianity delivered with grandfatherly sweetness.

click image to enlarge

Chuck Smith, the founder of the Jesus People and the Calvary Chapel movement, delivers a sermon in an undated photo. He was a influential figure in American Christianity.

Karen Tapia/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Smith, the founder of the Jesus People and the Calvary Chapel movement, and one of the most influential figures in modern American Christianity, died Thursday morning at his home in Newport Beach after a two-year battle with lung cancer, church officials said. He was 86.

“He was definitely a pioneer,” said Donald E. Miller, a professor of religion at USC. “He had a transformative impact on Protestantism.”

The Calvary Chapel phenomenon, which now includes more than 1,000 churches nationwide and hundreds more overseas, began with the 25-member church Smith founded on a Costa Mesa lot in 1965.

A study in contrasts

He was a biblical literalist who believed staunchly in hell, Armageddon and the sinfulness of homosexuality. But from the pulpit, and in person, he emanated a disarming warmth. His church became famous as a sanctuary for a generation of counterculture refugees. He wore a Hawaiian shirt and a big, benevolent smile.

He didn’t care how worshipers dressed or how long they wore their facial hair. He welcomed hippies, dropouts and the drug-damaged. He allowed guitars to accompany worship songs. He became Papa Chuck to the thousands he baptized below the ocean cliffs of Corona del Mar.

“It was really a new style of worship,” Miller said. “It incorporated a generation of young people who otherwise would not have darkened the door of a church. Part of his genius was he was theologically conservative but simultaneously culturally avant garde.”

Smith’s movement contributed to the ascent of the modern megachurch, and he was a mentor to generations of younger evangelists, including Greg Laurie of the Harvest Christian Fellowship.

Friends said Smith had never planned to preside over more than one church and did not even bother to keep track of how many Calvary Chapels had sprung up across the country.

At the pulpit, he went through the Bible verse by verse, page by page, from Genesis to Revelation. He taught it cover to cover 10 or 15 times. Sometimes he took three years to do it, sometimes nine. When he died, he was at Chapter 4 of Romans.

“He was the first minister I ever saw who I thought wasn’t putting on an act,” said Dave Rolph, a longtime friend and fellow Calvary Chapel pastor. “Chuck showed you can do ministry and be a real person. There was no acting, there was no performance. … He was a regular guy.”

Smith was born in Ventura on June 25, 1927. A graduate of LIFE Bible College, he taught at pulpits around Southern California, at times cleaning carpets to pay the bills.

His rise to prominence began in the mid-1960s, when he was invited to take over a small church in Costa Mesa. The congregation grew quickly, but its membership skyrocketed after he met a hitchhiking hippie, Lonnie Frisbee, who brought dozens of his hippie friends to Bible studies.

Frisbee became Smith’s assistant and a bridge to the counterculture. Smith presided over mass baptisms of thousands of new Christians at Pirate’s Cove at Corona del Mar.

Fueling the ‘jesus movement’

The emergence of Calvary Chapel paralleled — and helped to fuel — the so-called “Jesus movement” of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which embraced religious seekers who had grown alienated from the secular counterculture.

Smith’s church at times drew controversy, as in its treatment of Frisbee after it emerged that Frisbee was gay; Smith was accused of then downplaying his role.

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