Chuck Smith founded the Calvary Chapel association of churches and served as lead pastor of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa in Southern California from 1965 until his death on October 3, 2013. Smith left a legacy of more than 60 years in Christian ministry, a national radio Bible-teaching program (The Word for Today), and the establishment of some 1,700 churches worldwide under the Calvary Chapel umbrella.
Born on June 25, 1927, Smith was trained at LIFE Bible College (now LIFE Pacific) in California and served as a pastor in the charismatic Foursquare denomination for 17 years. Eventually, he grew tired of the denomination’s political influence and bureaucratic control and left to pastor an independent church in Corona, California.
Amid an era of social upheaval in the youth culture, Smith was hired in 1965 to take over a fundamentalist congregation whose membership had sunk to 25. The church, which started as a Bible study for trailer park shut-ins in Costa Mesa, California, quickly grew under Smith’s enthusiastic leadership and verse-by-verse, expository teaching style.
By 1973, Chuck Smith and his congregation dedicated a 2,200-seat auditorium and were soon holding three overcrowded services a week, with many thousand people attending each. This initial Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa would become headquarters to the Calvary Chapel church movement, presently one of the ten largest Protestant associations in the United States.
Smith was one of the Jesus Movement’s principal founders. In the early days of Calvary Chapel, he reached out to drug addicts, long-haired street people, disillusioned youths, and anyone searching for God, welcoming these seekers with unconditional acceptance into the church. The young hippie converts earned the label “Jesus freaks” for their intense evangelical enthusiasm, emotional and informal expressions of worship, and unconventional lifestyle, including communal living.
In many ways, Chuck Smith and the Calvary Chapel movement transformed how church services were conducted. From its beginning, Calvary Chapel emphasized a “come as you are” dress code and casual atmosphere—revolutionary concepts for churches in the 60s and 70s. Instead of wearing a suit and tie and standing in an imposing pulpit, Smith preached in open-collared shirts and walked casually around the platform as he delivered his sermons. At the same time, Smith preached the uncompromising truth of the gospel and held firmly to conservative, evangelical theology. His style was simple, straightforward, and dynamic.
Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa was one of the first churches to embrace rock and roll as part of its worship, paving the way for the Contemporary Christian Music industry. Worship bands popped up and flourished at Calvary Chapel, inspiring Chuck Smith to launch Maranatha! Music as an avenue to promote and distribute the “Jesus Music” his young followers were writing and singing.
Present-day Calvary Chapels are known for their vibrant worship and chapter-by-chapter, book-by-book Bible teaching. From the start, Smith taught through the whole Bible from beginning to end, a signature practice of most Calvary Chapel pastors still today. The concept is based in Acts 20:27, where Paul declares to the Ephesian elders, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (ESV) and the conviction that solid discipleship results from gaining an understanding of the entire Bible.
As the Calvary Chapel network of churches expanded, Smith resisted the idea of forming a denomination, believing such institutions smother growth and promote power struggles, politics, and bureaucracy. He set forth a basic set of shared beliefs and “distinctives” but structured the association as a loosely affiliated network of independent local churches patterned after Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa. Each local body maintains its own unique identity.
Calvary Chapels adhere to traditional, evangelical, and solidly biblical doctrines yet take a distinctive approach to church government. A board of elders and deacons is appointed to care for the body’s spiritual and physical needs. A financial board of elders is also chosen to deal with the business matters of the church. But the senior pastor retains ultimate authority.
In an interview, Smith said that his church’s governing structure was based on “the work that God established in the nation of Israel. Moses was the leader appointed by God. He took 70 men, and they assisted Moses in overseeing the mundane types of issues that developed within the nation. I’m responsible to the Lord. We have a board of elders. We go over the budget. The people recognize that God has called me to be the leader of this fellowship. We are not led by a board of elders. I feel my primary responsibility is to the Lord. And one day I’m going to answer to him, not to a board of elders” (Rob Moll, “Day of Reckoning: Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel Face an Uncertain Future,” Christianity Today, Feb. 16, 2007). Critics of Smith’s “Moses model” believe it breeds an authoritarian culture in the church, leaving the senior pastor unanswerable to anyone. This lack of accountability, they say, can lead to temptations of power and spiritual abuse. Defenders of the model contend that these problems and pitfalls can happen in any denomination. Over the years, Chuck Smith, Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, and many other Calvary Chapel churches and pastors have fallen into power struggles and political disputes similar to those other Christian denominations endure.
In 2011, Smith was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away in 2013 at age 86.