Pastor Chuck Smith 'had a transformative impact on Protestantism’

The founder of the Jesus People and the Calvary Chapel movement dies from lung cancer at 86.

LOS ANGELES TIMESOctober 4, 2013 


Pastor Chuck Smith, who was born in Ventura, Calif., is a graduate of LIFE Bible College. Early on, he taught at pulpits around Southern California, at times cleaning carpets to pay the bills.


LOS ANGELES — 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.

Smith, one of the most influential figures in modern American Christianity, died Thursday morning at his home in Newport Beach, Calif., church officials said.

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

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

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 worshippers 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.”


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.

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.

In recent years, the church was also embroiled in a legal battle over control of its multimillion-dollar network of radio stations. On one side was Smith. On the other was one of his proteges, Mike Kestler, who preached at a Calvary Chapel in Twin Falls, and had been accused by female churchgoers of making sexual advances.

When Smith said he planned to surrender much of the radio empire to Kestler in what he characterized as a Christian gesture, one of Kestler’s accusers said she felt abandoned.

Smith was known for reading divine retribution into current events, such as earthquakes and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and he saw apocalyptic portents in the depravity of mankind and the various crises in the Middle East.

Smith is survived by his wife, Kay, and four children, Chuck Jr., Jeff, Janette and Cheryl, a church representative said.

Rolph said he visited Smith at his home earlier this week. He said Smith had hoped to make it to the pulpit one last time.

“Many times over the years he said, ‘Some day you’re going to read in the paper, “Chuck Smith died,’ ” Rolph said. “He said, ‘That’s bad reporting. What it should say is, ‘Chuck Smith moved.’ ”

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