In the 1960s, most American Christian churches wanted to have nothing to do with hippies. A young Southern California pastor, Chuck Smith, was determined to change all of that.
When an older member of the church posted a sign in the sanctuary with “no bare feet allowed”, Smith ripped it down. Smith believed that the church was called to reach out to the counter-culture community, even if it meant exchanging the standard suit and tie of the evangelical preacher for a more casual dress.
Chuck Smith’s critical moment came unexpectedly when he befriended a long-haired, bearded hippie teenager, Lonnie Frisbee. Frisbee became a pastor himself in Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa. From there, by the sheer providence of God, the Jesus Movement was born.
Chuck Smith died of cancer in October of 2013. He left quite a legacy that has greatly impacted the church in America and around the world. Calvary Chapel was founded as a church focused on the expository teaching of the Bible; that is, going verse-by-verse through the Bible. But unlike other churches in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Chuck Smith was incorporating a laid-back culture and a fresh dose of folk-rock music into the corporate worship experience. He founded Maranatha! Music as the musical outreach for Calvary Chapel. Within a few years, names like Chuck Girard, Love Song, and Honeytree began to spin up vinyl albums of something new called “Contemporary Christian Music”. I still have some of those classic Maranatha! records squirreled away in my garage. Today, you might know of groups like P.O.D. and Switchfoot that had some of their roots at Calvary Chapel.
The 21st century phenomenon of drum and electric guitar music was pioneered at churches like Calvary Chapel in the 1970s, while other churches were only cautiously experimenting with acoustic guitars. I remember that our church did not introduce the electric guitar until about 1995 and the drums until about 1998.
Chuck Smith originally came out of a Pentecostal tradition, pastoring a few congregations of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, but he never felt like having a denominational label was the best fit for him. Out of Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel sprang other church movements targeting a new generation of young people, including the charismatic-evangelical hybrid of John Wimber’s Vineyard church. Today, hundreds of Calvary Chapels and Vineyard churches dot the globe. But Smith’s influence is still felt beyond that through his “The Word For Today” radio sermon ministry.
The legacy of Chuck Smith has not been without conflicts and difficulties over the years. The enduring same-sex attraction struggles of Lonnie Frisbee, Smith’s star disciple, eventually were publicized as Frisbee was not able to remain completely celibate. Frisbee was removed from church leadership and later died of AIDS. Smith’s son, Chuck Smith Jr., in church leadership as well was removed by his father over theological differences related to the situation with Lonnie Frisbee.
Smith’s pre-tribulation dispensationalist theology has troubled many classically Reformed, Calvinistically-oriented Christians. Smith once tentatively speculated on specific dates regarding the return of Jesus Christ according to his understanding of biblical prophecy, even holding a New Year’s Eve service in 1981 waiting for the End to come that never happened. And Smith’s continued interest in charismatic theology has led to rebuff among other church leaders who have a cessationist theology.
However, despite these difficulties, the legacy of Chuck Smith continues to serve as a model for churches that have a heart to minister to a new generation and to those who find themselves culturally on the outside. In time, Chuck Smith’s strategy has proven to be very effective in getting the Bible into the hearts and minds of people who normally would have never stepped inside a church. Chuck Smith’s passion to reach people out on the margins was not one of inertia, but rather of movement.
A brief clip from a documentary on the Jesus Movement, Calvary Chapel and Chuck Smith: