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What is Calvary Chapel?

Calvary Chapel audio

The Calvary Chapel church movement was born out of Costa Mesa, California, in the early 1960s. In 1965, the church hired Chuck Smith as its pastor. Under his leadership, the church has grown into a fellowship of over 1,300 churches, making it one of the ten largest Protestant denominations/associations in the United States. Calvary Chapel churches are known for their vibrant worship, systematic Bible teaching, and strong missionary fervor.

Chuck Smith received his training at LIFE Bible College (now LIFE Pacific) and served for 17 years as a pastor in the Foursquare Church before beginning his ministry in Costa Mesa. In his ministry at Calvary Chapel, Smith has held firmly to conservative and evangelical theology, while also holding on to some aspects of charismatic teaching, expressing neither strict charismatic nor cessationist beliefs. With this foundation, there is a lot of room for varying beliefs in regards to the spiritual gifts within Calvary Chapel churches. While virtually all Calvary Chapel pastors are solidly evangelical, Calvary Chapel churches do not strongly emphasize doctrinal differences that can lead to division in the body of Christ.

Early in Calvary Chapel’s ministry, the church began reaching out to the hippie culture that was so prevalent on California beaches. As these hippies became “Jesus Freaks,” they were welcomed into Calvary Chapel, and the church began to grow exponentially. The church was among the first to emphasize contemporary worship and a welcoming atmosphere for non-Christians while at the same time not neglecting the proclamation of the truth of God’s Word. Willow Creek and the Vineyard Fellowship were influenced or birthed from Calvary Chapel, although they have since diverged significantly from Calvary Chapel on some beliefs and practices. The contemporary Christian music movement was also helped immensely by the church. There were several music groups at Calvary, and Chuck Smith started Maranatha! Music to help them distribute their songs.

From that start with the “Jesus Freaks” in the 1960s, the church has gradually made a change from being a fringe element of evangelical Christianity to being one of the pillars of the evangelical movement. Many Calvary Chapel pastors have ministries which are widely respected by those outside of the group. The immensely positive influences of Calvary Chapel churches and pastors are present in virtually every avenue of evangelicalism.

A possible concern about the Calvary Chapel church movement is the claim that certain Calvary Chapel pastors develop an almost authoritarian rule over their churches, following the “Moses model” of church structure and believing they are accountable only to God. Pastors who see themselves as “Moses” to their congregations may be tempted to “lay down the law” and expect everyone else to conform.

As with all other church denominations/associations, there will be variations in different Calvary Chapel churches. Overall, the Calvary Chapel church movement is solidly biblical and strongly evangelical. While we always encourage people to be prayerful and discerning about what church they attend, and while Got Questions Ministries is not in the business of endorsing specific churches/denominations/associations, we have absolutely no reason to discourage people from visiting, attending, and joining Calvary Chapel churches.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022