University of North Carolina at Asheville








Pastor Chuck Smith and the Calvary Chapel Movement:


Reasons for the Continued Growth and Success of Calvary Chapel







A Senior Thesis Submitted to

The Department of History

In Candidacy for the Degree of

Bachelor of Arts











Ian Austin











Asheville, North Carolina

November 22, 2005




            In 1965, Pastor Chuck Smith took on the role of head pastor at a small, struggling church in Costa Mesa, California known as Calvary Chapel.  In the forty years since Smith agreed to pastor the flock at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, the church has grown by immense proportions, and it is currently counted among the ten largest Protestant churches in America.[1]  The last four decades have witnessed the growth of the modern church phenomenon known in Christian circles as the “Calvary Chapel Movement.”  Smith’s unique formula for ministry has resulted in the planting of over six-hundred affiliate Calvary Chapels, both in America and abroad,[2] and the remarkable success of his approach to ministry and evangelism has yielded both praise and skepticism from many American Christian elites, as well as the rare scholar who endeavors to study the history of the Calvary Chapel Movement.

             The reasons for Smith’s success as a pastor and the subsequent success of the Calvary Chapel Movement are numerous.  Placing the Calvary Chapel Movement within the broader historical context of the Jesus Movement and/or the Charismatic Movement of the 1960s is certainly a sound starting point for the historian who seeks to understand Calvary Chapel’s success story.  However, Smith and Calvary Chapel have continued to enjoy success and expansion long after the end of the two aforementioned countercultural movements of the 1960s.  Thus, it is apparent that while the timing of Calvary Chapel’s arrival on the American Christian playing field was instrumental in the church’s initial success, it does not provide an adequate explanation in terms of its continued success.  The most obvious place to turn for answers in this realm of questioning is Chuck Smith.  Upon thorough analysis of Smith’s books Calvary Chapel Distinctives, Harvest, and Charisma vs. Charismania, all of which deal either directly or indirectly with the growth of his church and the success of his worldwide ministry project, it is evident that Pastor Smith possesses certain personal and professional characteristics which have both served him well in the arena of Christian ministry and perpetuated the growth and continued success of the Calvary Chapel Movement.  Smith’s biblically-grounded personal philosophy; his come-as-you-are, non-denominational approach to ministry; his willingness to break with various elements of the American traditional Christian culture; his ability to effectively utilize the radio as a vehicle for his ministry, and his adherence to a program of verse-by-verse bible teaching are the primary reasons for the continued success of the Calvary Chapel Movement.


Existing Historical Analysis of the Calvary Chapel Movement

            There are relatively few historians who have contributed to the body of historical knowledge regarding either Chuck Smith, or the Calvary Chapel Movement.  In their contribution to the book American Congregations, historians Randall Balmer and Jesse Todd, Jr. attribute the apparent lack of historical interest in the Calvary Chapel Movement to both its relative informality as a church which, in their words, “poses obvious problems for anyone trying to write a history of the congregation…,” and Smith’s own lack of interest in maintaining or contributing to any readily accessible, formal, running history of his own movement.[3]  Balmer and Todd’s brief chapter on the history of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa found in American Congregations is actually one of the more comprehensive and thoroughly- researched contributions to the available body of historical knowledge regarding Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel. 

            The primary objective of Balmer and Todd’s work seems to be the definition and classification of Calvary Chapel’s theology in comparison to more easily recognizable and familiar mainline denominational churches.  In this regard, they are accurate on some points, but on other points betray a fundamental lack of understanding of the philosophy of ministry and/or theology of Calvary Chapel, and Christian theology as a whole.  For example, in their quest to categorize Smith’s theology, they refer to it as “soft Pentecostalism” due Smith’s Pentecostal background prior to his accepting the job as head pastor at Calvary Chapel.[4]  Smith is not currently a Pentecostal minister, nor has he been since he joined Calvary Chapel in 1965.  Indeed, he believes in the validity of the gifts of the Spirit, but many mainline denominations believe in these gifts, which are numerous, and only one of which—the gift of tongues—acts as the foundational tenet of Pentecostalism.  Moreover, there is no such thing as soft Pentecostalism; either someone holds to the tenets of Pentecostalism, or they do not.  To place such a label on Smith’s theology not only demonstrates a misunderstanding of the Calvary Chapel philosophy of ministry, it would most likely be offensive to any devout Pentecostal Christian as well.  

            Despite its shortcomings, Balmer and Todd’s work is an excellent chronological history of Calvary Chapel.  They incorporate a small amount of conjecture as to some of the possible reasons for the success of the Calvary Chapel Movement, such as its fortunate geographical location amid the Jesus Movement of the 1960s, and its break with the traditional American Christian culture evident in its relative informality and non-denominational stance.[5]  However, Balmer and Todd’s work does not provide adequate analysis of the possible reasons for the continued success of the Calvary Chapel Movement, which is the primary objective of this paper.

            Author and historian Donald Miller’s work Reinventing American Protestantism is perhaps the best source of historical information regarding both the chronological history and the possible reasons for continued growth of Smith’s movement.  Miller compares and contrasts Calvary Chapel and other successful non-denominational churches, and in doing so, he outlines some of the more distinctive features of the Calvary Chapel Movement such as its radio ministry, its philosophy of ministry under Chuck Smith, and its emphasis on the teaching of the Bible.[6]  Miller is an accomplished and well-respected religious historian at the University of Southern California, and his proximity to the birthplace of the Calvary Chapel Movement in Costa Mesa, California appears to have contributed to and stimulated his interest in the success of the movement on all levels.  Miller’s credentials as a religious historian and his exhaustive personal research of the history of Calvary Chapel make him perhaps the most reliable objective source of historical information regarding all aspects of the Calvary Chapel Movement.

            David Di Sabatino, author of The Jesus People Movement: An Annotated Bibliography and General Resource, is another prominent historian who has studied the growth of the movement.  Di Sabatino attributes the initial and explosive growth of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa to the evangelistic work of Lonnie and Connie Frisbee—a hippy couple “recruited” by Smith in 1968.[7]  According to Di Sabatino:

Because of his zeal for evangelism and his personal eccentricities, Lonnie Frisbee is remembered as the “John the Baptist of southern California,” something of a spiritual pied piper of the hippy generation.  It was estimated that during his tenure at Calvary Chapel over 4,000 people had converted and more than 2,000 had been baptized in the Pacific Ocean…Although at the time of their arrival church attendance totaled no more than a hundred, when the Frisbees would depart four years later the church would have undergone two building projects to accommodate the thousands of new members that called the church their home.[8]

It has been fairly well-established that Lonnie and Connie Frisbee’s contributions to the early stages of the Calvary Chapel Movement were instrumental in its initial growth and success.  As Di Sabatino notes, however, the Frisbees were only officially affiliated with the movement for about four years.  Thus while it is prudent to credit the Frisbees with providing the Calvary Chapel Movement its initial impetus, it would not be prudent to attribute the perpetual success of a movement which spans four decades to two individuals who have not been affiliated with the movement in almost as much time. 

            There has been a recent surge in interest in the history and success of Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel from various levels of the scholarly historical community, from undergraduate seminary students such as David Denna[9] and Larry Jones[10] of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to accomplished historians such as Miller and Mark Noll.  Noll and Miller agree that “… informality, soft rock music, [and] biblical exposition…” are among the primary contributing factors in the continued success of the Calvary Chapel Movement.[11]  With the exception of Miller and Noll, however, most of the small group of scholars who study and analyze the history of Calvary Chapel limit themselves to the construction of statistical or chronological histories of the movement—neither of which, as Balmer and Todd note, are easy tasks. 

            Chronological histories of American religious movements such as the Calvary Chapel Movement are indeed important. It is the object of this paper, however, to outline and analyze the most likely reasons for the continued success of Calvary Chapel, using chronology only as a guideline for the events and experiences which perpetuated both the transformation and solidification of Chuck Smith’s personal theology, and the subsequent upward progress of one of the most successful Christian church movements in recent American history.  A majority of the publicly-available primary sources relative to the history of Calvary Chapel are written by individuals affiliated with the movement, and are typically characterized by a heavy pro-Calvary Chapel bias.  Therefore, it is necessary to critically analyze these sources, and compare them to outsider accounts of the movement in order to achieve a balanced, objective view of the history of Calvary Chapel.


Formation and Solidification of Chuck Smith’s Philosophy of Ministry

            Raised by two devout Pentecostal parents, Smith’s love for and devotion to the Christian faith were established at a very young age, but as his hunger for knowledge and understanding of the gospel increased, so did the number of troubling questions regarding the doctrines of Pentecostalism.   One of the more troubling questions that arose as a result of Smith’s early and steady exposure to Pentecostalism stemmed from the mysterious practice of speaking in tongues.  In his childhood and adolescent years, Smith grew increasingly uncomfortable with what he would later term “unscriptural excesses” of this practice, and as he “…began a search of the Scriptures for a sound, balanced approach to the Holy Spirit and His work in the church…,” he became more and more convinced that “there must be a middle position between the Pentecostals, with their overemphasis on experience, and the [non-charismatic] fundamentalists,” who reject the validity of charismatic practices such as speaking in tongues.[12]   In Charisma vs. Charismania Smith concludes that “since the gift of tongues builds up the believer who is exercising the gift, and it is preferable that he not exercise the gift in a public assembly…, the only place left for the exercise of this gift is in his own personal devotions.”[13]  Furthermore, Smith relates:

In some church services the sermon is interrupted by an utterance in tongues.  But there is no scriptural basis at all for these types of interruptions.  In fact, Paul [the apostle] said, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).  I cannot see that these kinds of interruptions are ever in order.  They are, on the other hand, very rude and extremely distracting.  There is really no need for the Holy Spirit to bring forth an utterance in tongues during the ministry of the Word of god, for the minister himself should be speaking by the anointing of the Holy  Spirit and exercising, as it were, the gift of prophecy as he is speaking forth God’s truth to the people.  When a person stands up and interrupts God’s messenger, he is putting the Holy Spirit in the awkward position of interrupting Himself to interject another thought or idea.[14]

Therefore, while he recognizes the gift of tongues as a valid spiritual gift, he discourages the open exercise of the gift in his church, or any other church for that matter.  By recognizing the validity of the gift of tongues under certain circumstances, however, Smith believes that he has reached a sort of compromise or, “middle position” between the differing views of the Pentecostals and the non-charismatic denominations.  This “middle position” with regard to the gift of tongues would eventually become a distinctive and somewhat controversial characteristic of both Smith’s philosophy of ministry at Calvary Chapel, and the Calvary Chapel Movement as a whole. 

            Soon after Smith graduated from high school, he enrolled as a student at Life Bible College in San Dimas, California in pursuit of a Bachelor’s degree in Theology.  After achieving his degree, he received his first assignment as a Pentecostal minister, and much to his chagrin he soon realized that a life in ministry would be difficult both financially and spiritually.[15]  In Calvary Chapel Distinctives, Smith reflects on his early years in the ministry and states that “I didn’t see the fruit that I had anticipated I would see in the ministry—the immediate kinds of results and excitement.”  In addition to his initial disappointment with regard to the ministry, Smith found himself having to work a “secular job in order to support [his] family and stay in the ministry.” [16]  Over the next seventeen years—all the while juggling his family, the ministry, and his secular job—Smith bounced around from one Pentecostal church to the next, from California to Missouri to Arizona and back again, in search of a place he could call home, a place where his gift for ministry and his love for God would be afforded an opportunity and environment to grow and flourish for the good of the Christian cause.[17]

            It was during this seventeen-year period that he began to realize that his self-perceived ineffectiveness and lack of success as a preacher, his discontent with various aspects of the Pentecostal church, and his feelings of uncertainty with regard to his proper role in the ministry were not problems rooted in geography.  Rather, they were problems which he believed were rooted in American Christian cultural traditions, core doctrinal issues of the Pentecostal church, the divisive nature of denominationalism itself, and, above all, his personal approach to ministry.  Smith eventually realized that these were problems that would follow him wherever he roamed, and in order to successfully fulfill his perceived personal call to ministry he would first have to give his own philosophy of ministry a serious overhaul.[18]

            When Chuck Smith arrived at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa in 1965, he began to implement the changes in his approach to ministry he thought were necessary to help foster the growth and success of his new church project.  For example, he instituted a system of church governance that would allow him to do his job as minister without the burden of bureaucratic restrictions characteristic of his former Pentecostal church experience.  Smith had spent most of his previous seventeen years in ministry as what he calls a “hireling” of the church.  Essentially, this means that either a board of elders or a congregation—depending on the specific form of church government—are free to hire and fire their ministers at their discretion.[19]  In Calvary Chapel Distinctives, Smith describes the type of pastor these sorts of churches were looking for as “someone who is going to come in and dance to our beat.  We’ll pull the strings and as long as you respond and react, you’re a fair-haired employee.  But if you dare to want to step out on your own, then it’s a different story.”[20]  Smith believed that “…God’s model is that the pastor is ruled by the Lord and aided by the Elders to discover the mind and will of Jesus Christ for His church.  This in turn is implemented by the Assistant Pastors.”[21]  In less providential terms, this meant that Chuck Smith would be the ultimate authority in the government at Calvary Chapel, second only to God, and certainly not hindered or restrained in any way by the shifting whims of the elders or congregation of the church. 

            The system of church government established by Smith at Calvary Chapel was by no means new or innovative.  In fact, Smith likens it to an Episcopalian-style church government in which a bishop rules over the congregation with the assistance of various underlings.  The significance of Smith’s decision to adopt an Episcopalian-style church government at Calvary Chapel does not lay in the fact that it was new or innovative.  Rather, it lay in the fact that it marked a distinct break with the governmental style of the Pentecostal denomination, which can be likened to a Presbyterian form of church government in which the church is governed by a Board of Elders.  Moreover, Smith’s decision to place himself at the head of church government at Calvary Chapel allowed him to implement numerous unchallenged changes to the church’s established programs, as well as devise new programs and tweak his philosophy of ministry as he saw fit.  This is not to say that Smith arbitrarily changed the tenets of Christianity to suit his own needs; he was simply working out the kinks of his own faith, deviating from what he considered some of the more questionable and divisive tenets of traditional Christian denominationalism, and following his perceived call to the ministry in a way which he believed most truly represented the mission of the Gospel as outlined in Christian Scripture.

            Prior to his arrival at Calvary Chapel, Smith’s philosophy of ministry was guided by the principles of Christian evangelism.  While in seminary, Smith was taught to believe that “the primary purpose of the church is the evangelization of the world.”[22]  In his seventeen years as a Pentecostal minister, however, he began to realize that he did not feel called to evangelism—at least not in the direct, personal, and often fiery manner characteristic of many evangelistic preachers of the 1960s and 1970s such as Billy Graham.  Smith did not totally abandon evangelism, he simply incorporated a more indirect form of evangelism at Calvary Chapel—one that places the responsibility of evangelism on the shoulders of the congregation.  In order to effect this change, he began teaching the Word of God to his congregants as a professor would a student, rather than preaching the Word of God in the fashion of an evangelistic sermonizer. Smith recalls that “…in changing my philosophy, I no longer preached evangelistic sermons per se, but began to teach the Word of God in a consistent way designed to produce growth within the believers.”[23]  By supplying his congregants with a deep knowledge of Scripture, Smith essentially transformed each devout member of his flock into an evangelist.  In doing so, he both solved the problem of feeling pressed to minister in a way out of step with his personal call and philosophy, and fulfilled his Christian duty to spread the Gospel to unbelievers in an indirect and perhaps more effective way.

            By vowing to teach the Word of God to his congregation in such a fashion that would allow them to become effective Christian evangelizers, Smith recognized the need to incorporate the whole of the Bible into his teaching sermons.  Potential converts would undoubtedly have many questions about the Christian faith; questions that would be hard for Smith’s evangelical team to answer without a thorough knowledge of the gospel.[24]  Furthermore, Smith wanted to hold to the teachings of Paul the Apostle as put forth in Acts 20:27.  In a meeting with the elders at Ephesus, “Paul [stated] that he was innocent of the blood of all men, ‘For I [Paul] have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.’”  In Smith’s eyes, “The only way a person could make that claim to his congregation would be if he taught through the whole Word of God with them, from Genesis to Revelation.”[25]  Therefore Smith instituted a strict regimen of weekly Bible teaching at Calvary Chapel, usually consisting of about ten chapters of Scripture per week, starting at Genesis 1:1 and continuing through the rest of the Bible until the last word of the book of Revelation.[26] 

            The number of chapters covered per week at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa varies depending on a number of factors such as the density of the material contained within a given chapter and Smith’s personal discretion regarding the proper pace for teaching the Word to his flock.            As of 1989, Chuck Smith and his congregation at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa had gone through the entire Bible six times, which is an average of four years each time through.[27]  Don Miller, a professor and historian at the University of Southern California School of Religion confirms Smith’s professed adherence to the teaching of the Bible as the lynchpin of his ministry when he states, “the most fundamental priority that I see in every Calvary Chapel I’ve gone to is teaching the Bible…Biblical teaching is certainly one of the most distinctive things about Calvary Chapel.”[28]  The implementation of a program of what Smith calls “expositional Bible teaching” at Calvary Chapel marked a distinct shift in his philosophy of ministry.  As a Pentecostal minister, Smith typically delivered his messages in the form of topical sermons which essentially means that he chose a topic such as sin, preached on it using personal experience, and only occasionally referred to an applicable Bible verse in order to establish a frame of reference for his thoughts on the given topic.  During the course of his seventeen years as a Pentecostal minister, however, Smith began to see the shortcomings of topical preaching.  Perhaps the most notable of these shortcomings, at least in the eyes of Smith, was that topical preaching did not teach the congregation what God had to say about certain issues, as outlined in the Scriptures.  Thus, when he arrived at Calvary Chapel in the mid-sixties, he made weekly, verse-by-verse Bible teaching one of the foundational and unalterable principles of the Calvary Chapel philosophy of ministry.[29]

            Two of the more drastic changes implemented by Smith in his early years at Calvary Chapel were a clean break with the liturgical trappings of the traditional American Christian culture, and the declaration of non-denominational status as a foundational principle of his new ministry.  His decision to break with the ritualism and tradition characteristic of mid-twentieth century American Christian culture can be attributed in part to his life-long exposure to the exclusive nature of traditional Christianity as evinced in what he calls the “judgmental attitude” of many mainline Christian churches of the mid-twentieth century.  In his book Harvest, Smith recalls that in his first years at Calvary Chapel, “Our challenge was to overcome what most churches had not, namely their insistence on respectability, conformity, and a judgmental attitude toward anything that departed from the norm.”[30]  Smith succeeded in overcoming the restrictiveness of tradition, and by eliminating standards for dress, changing the tone of worship services by incorporating contemporary, rock-style music into his worship program, and adopting an informal, classroom setting for his teaching sermons, he transformed Calvary Chapel into one of the most unique American churches of the mid-twentieth century.[31]

            In his seventeen years as a Pentecostal minister, Smith witnessed first-hand the divisive and, at times, destructive nature of denominational Christianity.  In his mind, the petty squabbles that arose around what he calls “non-essential issues” had no place in the mission of his church.  In A Venture in Faith, Smith recalls that as his experience as a Pentecostal minister progressed, he “found that [his] Biblical perspectives were not fitting that well within a denominational confinement.”  He began to have a “broader vision than just a denomination.”[32] When Smith decided to forego a denominational label for Calvary Chapel, he confirmed that the mission of Calvary Chapel would not be associated with or guided by what he viewed as the restrictive traditions or divisive doctrines of denominational Christianity.  In doing so, he broadened the base for potential Calvary Chapelites amid the explosion of the Jesus Movement in Southern California, and created an attractive Christian home for many of the spiritually-hungry and discontented youths typical of the Southern California hippy counter-culture movements of the 1960s.  Most importantly, these youths were afforded in Calvary Chapel a venue through which they could explore and pursue the mysteries of spirituality free of judgment, and without feeling like they had given in to or been defeated by the “establishment” they so despised—of which American traditional, denominational Christianity was an integral part.[33]

           Calvary Chapel’s philosophy of ministry is perhaps best described as the end result of the piecemeal formation and solidification of Chuck Smith’s personal philosophy.  In addition to the distinctive nature of his personal philosophy of ministry, Smith’s management style and skillful utilization of various marketing tactics demonstrate a business-minded approach to the more pragmatic side of church ministry.  By tracking the progress of the various programs instituted by Chuck Smith at Calvary Chapel, as well as his successes and failures as chief decision maker of the Calvary Chapel movement, the historian can achieve a more comprehensive understanding of the tangible elements that contributed most significantly to both the initial and continued success of the movement.  Although Smith’s writings are replete with providential language, and are typically characterized by a personalized, undocumented rendition of the history of the Calvary Chapel Movement, they provide a surprisingly candid account of many of Smith’s personal successes and failures including business transactions, the brokering of marketing deals, the establishment of various church programs, and his personal views as to why his former upstart church has enjoyed sustained growth and continued worldwide success. 


Reasons for the Success of the Calvary Chapel Movement

             Most historians agree that geography and timing played a large role in Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa’s initial success, and it is fairly well-established that the church’s proximity to the Jesus Movement of the 1960s provided it with an abundance of lost souls in search of their spiritual destiny.  According to historian Don Miller, however, Smith was “Initially repulsed by their [hippies] long hair, beards, and politics…,” and only after personal interaction with them was he “stunned by the inner transformations occurring in these young people and their zeal for sharing their new faith.”[34]  Once the barrier of Smith’s personal prejudice was broken down, the stage was set for growth of monumental proportions.  As the bonds of mutual compassion, understanding, and respect grew between Smith and his new-found hippy audience, he began to see the vital importance of the come-as-you-are, non-judgmental approach to ministry which remains a lynchpin of Calvary Chapel ministries to this day. 

            Smith’s reluctant interaction with the hippy culture of the 1960s proved to be a source of multiple, long-lasting contributions for Calvary Chapel.  The lesson of the acceptance of any and all outward appearances imparted to Smith by the southern California hippy culture was one of the central factors that facilitated the massive growth enjoyed by the church in its early years.  As the decades passed and the Jesus Movement fizzled out, the “casual, kick-back, independent mold” established in the church’s early years continued to act as one of the most attractive features of Calvary Chapel.[35]  In “The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel,” Smith states that conservative “churches come and look at us and say, ‘What are you doing [to be so successful]?’ They study our church; study what they think is our program, and say, ‘Well, it’s because they let kids go barefooted.  That’s the key….’”[36]  Although Smith offers a more providential explanation for the success of his church, he recognizes the fact that the independent, casual style of Calvary Chapel appeals to a broader audience than conservative churches.  It can be inferred that if both Smith and the more conservative elements of Christian culture recognize the significance of a Calvary Chapel’s casual, non-traditional approach to ministry and its ability to stimulate growth, it is indeed one of the primary factors in sustaining the growth and success of the Calvary Chapel Movement.

            The open-minded, non-traditional approach to ministry adopted by Calvary Chapel in its first years extended to more than just outward appearances.  As the movement gained steam, and some of Smith’s more zealous and devout disciples grew in their knowledge of and faith in the gospel, Pastor Smith recognized the gift of ministry in some of them.  And if they felt called to the ministry, Smith saw no reason to keep them from shepherding a flock of their own, within the parameters of the Calvary Chapel philosophy, of course.  Whereas most, if not all traditional, denominational churches required a potential pastor to meet a laundry-list of pre-determined qualifications and educational requirements before being ordained as a minister, Smith adopted a less restrictive policy.  He would not be bound by the rules of tradition.  He would not require inspired, gifted, and knowledgeable young Christians to achieve a degree in seminary or a doctorate in theology in order to go out and become ministers of the gospel. 

            In Harvest, Smith recounts the personal stories of nine current Calvary Chapel pastors, spread out across the country in churches founded on the principles of Smith’s philosophy of ministry, whose “backgrounds embody virtually every depravity of our culture.”[37]        Some of the most successful Calvary Chapels in the country are run by these nine men whose personal histories range from former alcoholics to former drug dealers to previously violent criminals and former fugitives from the law.  For example, in his youth, Pastor Steve Mays of Calvary Chapel, South Bay ran with a gang of outlaw bikers in Southern California, dealt drugs, cut off a man’s finger, and at one point was “wanted by the FBI for attempted murder and draft dodging.  There was also a contract out on his life.”[38]  After many years as a member of the more dangerous side of criminal society, Mays hit rock bottom.  “‘I was sleeping in the gutter one day,’ explains Mays, ‘and a couple by the name of Shirley and Henry…picked me up and took me up and took me inside their house, gave me a shower, fed me.’”[39]  From there Mays was taken to the Mansion Messiah House of Calvary Chapel—a communal house for displaced or needy individuals founded by Calvary Chapel—where he immediately gave his life over to God.  After more than ten painful, personally reconstructive and edifying years as a devout Christian, Smith granted him the job of head pastor at Calvary Chapel, South Bay in 1980.  Mays’ church has enjoyed success similar to that of Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa, and over the span of the last twenty five years, Calvary Chapel of South Bay, California has grown from only 110 congregants in 1980 to thousands of regularly-attending congregants at present.[40]

            Smith’s willingness to overlook the dark spots on a man’s past, and encourage the pursuit of personally perceived calls to ministry opened the doors for church planting in a way that few churches of the past four decades could imagine.  Of course, Smith did not just hand over the keys to a church to just any vagrant or former criminal as soon as he accepted Christ.  Aspiring pastors with troubled pasts were placed under close supervision, and were guided by Smith and/or his associates, using primarily compassion, prayer, and a steady diet of the Word of God as the tools for effecting the sort of deep, lasting personal change Smith needed to see in them before he would allow them to minister to others under the banner of Calvary Chapel.[41] 

            With regard to the role of women in church governance at Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa, it is apparent in Smith’s language that women are not typically considered for important board positions.  In “The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel,” Smith states that “whenever we are looking for new board members, I always look in the Saturday night prayer meeting for men who have prayed with me for years.  I can trust them.  I know that they are men of prayer; men who will seek the counsel and the guidance of God…men who were faithful….”[42]  In light of the fact that women are implicitly excluded from board leadership positions, it is relatively safe to assume that women are not typically considered for the job of head pastor at Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa—or any affiliate Calvary Chapel for that matter.  Calvary Chapel, however, is not by any stretch of the imagination the only Christian church organization with a long-standing policy, explicit or otherwise, of an exclusively male system of church governance—especially with regard to the idea of female head-pastors or ministers.  While this implied policy may, to some, seem a bit patriarchal when viewed through a 21st century lens, it does not appear to have adversely affected either the growth or progress of the Calvary Chapel Movement, or the overall contentment of female Calvary Chapelites. 

            The expansion of the Calvary Chapel Movement did not occur over night.  It took years and sometimes decades to prepare some of the would-be Calvary Chapel pastors extracted from the 1960s/1970s youth counterculture movement for ministry, although some were given the Calvary Chapel stamp of approval more quickly than others.  Smith’s ability to detect potential, talent, and genuine faith in seemingly hopeless people, and his willingness to deviate from the traditional qualification standards for ordained ministers provided Calvary Chapel with a limitless source of leadership in comparison to some of the more conservative, traditional denominations.  By allowing in anyone who felt called to ministry, and who met with Smith’s approval, and who demonstrated sincere dedication to the furtherance of the gospel within the parameters of Smith’s philosophy, the groundwork was laid for future growth and expansion via the sort of church planting readily affected by access to a large, ever-growing pool of potential ministers.  The planting of over 600 churches in just four decades is a staggering figure, and it is unlikely that the Calvary Chapel Movement would have exploded onto the American Christian scene the way it did if Smith had not broken with tradition in the realm of qualification standards for church leadership.

            However, not all who follow the progress of the Calvary Chapel Movement agree with the notion that Smith’s adoption of a non-judgmental attitude, his break with tradition, and his open-minded approach to standards for church leadership were primary causes for the churches initial and/or continued success.  Some Christians who disagree with the methods of Smith and Calvary Chapel place all of the aforementioned Calvary Chapel distinctives under the umbrella of what they term “a social gospel.”  For example, an anonymous author—evidently a former Calvary Chapel congregant—states, “Somehow, the Calvary Chapel gospel catapulted into mainstream Christianity.  Part of it had to do with the fact that as the hippies grew older, they became…schoolteachers and pastors.  But mostly, it was because…they presented Christ as a “fix-it” for the problems of this generation.  In other words, they preached a social gospel.”[43]  It is easy to understand why a successful non-traditional church located securely outside the mainstream of American denominational Christianity might garner such criticism.  If verse-by-verse Bible teaching amounts to a social gospel, then this critic indeed has a valid point.  However, it more likely that Smith’s open-minded, laid-back approach to ministry has come under attack because it deviates from the extra-biblical, socially-constructed norms of traditional American Christianity, not because it operates outside the parameters of the foundational tenets of Christian doctrine.

            Another example of this sort of criticism is found in the writings of Robert W. Hurzeler, a writer for the Christian publication Foundation Magazine.  Hurzeler, a former Calvary Chapelite, asserts that “the problem with Calvary Chapel lies in its Charismatic theology and its ecumenical nature.”[44]  Hurzeler challenges the Calvary Chapel philosophy of ministry on doctrinal grounds— primarily on issues related to the gifts of the Spirit such as speaking in tongues.  In terms of Calvary Chapel’s ecumenical nature, Hurzeler is referring to Smith’s unwillingness to choose sides in the debate over divisive doctrinal issues.  In defining Smith’s “middle-ground” or ecumenical stance, Hurzeler states that “Calvary claims to be the balance between those who cling to God’s Word and those who put emotionalism and experience in the place of God’s Word.  This is not balance.  Make no mistake about it, Calvary is teaching grave error.”[45]  In Hurzeler’s mind, Smith’s errors as a philosopher and minister lay in the fact that his interpretation of certain debated and divisive Scriptures differ from his own. 

            To be ecumenical in one’s stance as a minister, at least in Hurzeler’s view, means compromising the truths of the gospel in the interest of social harmony and tolerance.  Although Smith avoids squabbling over divisive and controversial issues such the validity of spiritual gifts in contemporary Christianity, he apparently does so in the interest of non-denominationalism rather than ecumenism.  Non-denominationalism and ecumenism are decidedly different ideologies, and nothing in Smith’s writings betrays adherence to an ideology of ecumenism as Hurzeler defines it.  In fact, Doug Gilliland, one of the more vocal critics of Chuck Smith and the Calvary Chapel Movement and a former Calvary Chapel congregant, claims that Calvary Chapel stands “in opposition to mainstream Christianity” and has “attacked Catholics and other evangelicals” on more than one occasion.[46]  If nothing else, Gilliland’s assertions refute Hurzeler’s claim that Calvary Chapel operates and flourishes under the banner of ecumenism.


The Calvary Chapel Radio Ministry

                        Without question, the radio ministry of Calvary Chapel is the most tangible and easily recognizable factor that has consistently contributed to the expansion and success of the Calvary Chapel Movement.  Over the course of the last forty years, The Word for Today, a Calvary Chapel radio program, has grown by immense proportions.  According to Smith, Calvary Chapel’s radio ministry:

                        …started out choosing 25 of the major markets in the United States and putting The Word for Today radio program on in these 25 markets. God began to bless immediately. The response to the program was overwhelming. The stations soon were writing and telling us that they were receiving more response and listener approval to The Word for Today than any other program. We then picked another 25 communities and expanded the radio ministry to 50 stations. Again, we received phenomenal reports of God’s blessings coming to the people from the radio ministry. So, we expanded to the present 100 stations.[47]

Calvary Chapel’s radio ministry currently reaches over “150 cities world-wide, and is broadcast more than 300 times daily.”[48]   In addition to The Word for Today radio ministry, Calvary Satellite Network International burst onto the Christian radio scene April of 1995.  Based out of Twin Falls, Idaho and owned and operated by Calvary Chapel, CSN International “has grown to nearly 400 stations and translators across the United States including Alaska and the Hawaiian islands” since its inception in 1995.[49]  Another relatively recent addition to the Calvary Chapel radio empire is the Growing Through Grace Radio Ministrya satellite network ministry program broadcast via Calvary Chapel Radio throughout Great Britain, Europe and Northern Africa.  Calvary Chapel Radio is a Christian radio station based in the United Kingdom, and its broadcasts are “available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on Sky digital channel 906 and worldwide on the internet.”[50]  Taken collectively, the arms of the Calvary Chapel radio ministry are unparalleled by any other Christian radio ministry currently in existence.

            It is difficult to drive through a major city, or any minor city with FM bandwidth radio capabilities for that matter, without stumbling across a Calvary Chapel radio program when the car radio is set to scan.  Perhaps the most attractive element of the Calvary Chapel radio programs is that they are not easily identified with any particular denomination or brand of Christianity.  Ministers featured on American broadcasts of The Word for Today do not typically solicit funds from listeners, which is perhaps another attractive feature of the program.  Assistant Pastor Tom Morris, Jr. of Calvary Chapel, Yakima, Washington states, “I was initially introduced and attracted to Calvary Chapel through its radio ministry.  I wasn’t sure what Calvary Chapel was all about, but I knew that I liked the style and approach of their radio ministry.  Calvary Chapel radio definitely influenced my decision to attend Calvary Chapel.”[51]  This is just one example of how the Calvary Chapel radio ministry has contributed to the continued growth and success of the movement.  According to Chuck Smith, “God continues to use the radio ministry to touch thousands of lives every day, helping them in their growth in the Word of God.”[52]  Although it is difficult to ascertain exactly how many individuals have been drawn to Calvary Chapel through its radio ministry, it is safe to assume that its continued expansion and success indicate a measurable degree of mass support for Calvary Chapel’s brand of Christianity as set forth in its radio programs.             



            The success of the Calvary Chapel Movement can be measured in any number of ways.  However, given the fact that Calvary Chapel, like other non-denominational churches, does not have a system of official membership and membership accountability usually seen in mainline denominational churches, the success and growth monitoring systems which have served as a statistical guideline for tracking the progress or decline of American denominational churches are all but useless to the historian who sets out to measure the success of non-denominational churches such as Calvary Chapel.  This lack of statistical data may very well be the reason why so few historians have endeavored to study the progress of the Calvary Chapel Movement; indeed, it is a daunting task.  But the best indicator of true success, at least in the case of the Calvary Chapel Movement, is not to be found in the realm of numbers and statistics.  It lies in the subtle and sometimes overlooked impact and influence Chuck Smith’s philosophy of ministry has had on 20th/21st century American Protestantism.  The break with tradition, the emphasis on expositional Bible teaching as opposed to topical preaching, and the adaptive, utilitarian methods of marketing the Gospel are all hallmarks of the Calvary Chapel Movement.  Whether or not Calvary Chapel will continue on its path of growth and success after Chuck Smith steps down as its leader is debatable, but regardless of the future fate of Calvary Chapel itself, it is likely that the impact which Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel Movement has had on 20th/21st century American Christianity will be visible for some time to come. 




Primary Sources

“A History of Calvary Chapel.” Information Gospel (website).    (accessed November 10,            2005).

A Venture in Faith: The History and Philosophy of the Calvary Chapel Movement.

            Produced by Michael Macintosh and Raul Ries. 2 hours. Logos Media Group, 1992. 1             video tape.

“About Calvary Chapel Radio.” Calvary Chapel Radio (website). (accessed November 10, 2005).

Gilliland, Doug.  E-mail interview by author. April, 20, 2005.

Hurzeler, Robert W. “Some Reflections on the Calvary Chapel Movement.” Foundation: A     Magazine of Biblical Fundamentalism. May-June 2001. (accessed November 10, 2005).

Morris, Tom, Jr. Telephone interview by author. October 15, 2005.

“Our Beginning and Vision.” CSN International (website). (accessed          November 10, 2005).

Smith, Chuck. “A Brief History.” About Us. (accessed November 10, 2005).

---Calvary Chapel Distinctives: The Foundational Principles of the Calvary Chapel          Movement. Costa Mesa, CA: The Word for Today, 2000.

---Charisma vs. Charismania. Costa Mesa, CA: The Word for Today Publishers,       1992.

--- Harvest. Costa Mesa, CA: The Word for Today, 2001.

--- “The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel.” About Calvary.             (accessed November 10, 2005).

--- The Word for Today (website), (accessed November 10,   2005).


Secondary Sources

Balmer, Randall, and Jesse T. Todd, Jr. “Calvary Chapel: Costa Mesa, California.” In American           Congregations, vol. 1, edited by James P. Wind and James W. Lewis. Chicago: The     University of Chicago Press, 1994, 663-98.

Di Sabatino, David. The Jesus People Movement: An Annotated Bibliography and General             Resource. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Denna, David. “History of the Calvary Chapel Movement.” New Churches (website). May 2001.   (accessed April 20, 2005).

Jones, Larry. “History of Calvary Chapel.” New Churches. April 2001.      (accessed April 20,       2005).

Miller, Donald E. Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium.


            Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.


Noll, Mark A. The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity.       Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002


[1] Chuck Smith, “A Brief History,” Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa: About Us, (accessed November 10, 2005).

[2] Smith, “A Brief History.”

[3] Randall Balmer and Jesse Todd, Jr., “Calvary Chapel: Costa Mesa, California,” in American Congregations, vol. 1, edited by James P. Wind and James W. Lewis (Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 1994), 663-64.

[4] Balmer and Todd, 665.

[5] Balmer and Todd, 664.

[6] Donald Miller, Reinventing American Protestantism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 36-7.

[7] David Di Sabatino, The Jesus People Movement: An Annotated Bibliography and General Resource (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999), 11.

[8] Di Sabatino, The Jesus People Movement, 11.

[9] David Denna, “History of the Calvary Chapel Movement,” New Churches (website), (accessed April 20, 2005).

[10] Larry Jones, “History of Calvary Chapel,” New Churches, (accessed April 20, 2005).

[11] Mark A. Noll, The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002), 181. 

[12] Chuck Smith, Charisma vs. Charismania (Costa Mesa, CA: The Word for Today Publishers, 2000), 3.

[13] Smith, Charisma vs. Charismania, 103.

[14] Smith, Charisma vs. Charismania, 104.

[15] A Venture in Faith: The History of the Calvary Chapel Movement, a documentary produced by Michael Macintosh and Raul Ries, Logos Media Group, 1992.

[16] Chuck Smith, Calvary Chapel Distinctives: The Foundational Principles of the Calvary Chapel Movement (Costa Mesa, CA: The Word for Today Publishers, 2004), 4.

[17] A Venture in Faith: The History of the Calvary Chapel Movement, Logos Media Group, 1992.

[18] A Venture in Faith, Logos Media Group, 1992.

[19] Smith, Calvary Chapel Distinctives, 24-29.

[20] Smith, Calvary Chapel Distinctives, 28.

[21] Smith, Calvary Chapel Distinctives, 29.

[22] Chuck Smith, “The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel,” About Calvary, (accessed November 10, 2005).

[23] Smith, “Philosophy of Ministry.”

[24] Smith, Calvary Chapel Distinctives, 59.

[25] Smith, Calvary Chapel Distinctives, 59.

[26] Smith, Calvary Chapel Distinctives, 60.

[27] Smith, “Philosophy of Ministry.”

[28] Don Miller, interviewed by Michael Macintosh and Raul Ries, A Venture in Faith: The History and Philosophy of the Calvary Chapel Movement, Logos Media Group, 1992.

[29] Chuck Smith, interviewed by Macintosh and Ries, A Venture in Faith.

[30] Chuck Smith and Tal Brooke, Harvest (Costa Mesa, CA: The Word for Today, 2003), 29.

[31] Smith, Calvary Chapel Distinctives, 141.

[32] Smith, A Venture in Faith.

[33] Balmer and Todd, American Congregations, 664-65.

[34] Miller, Reinventing American Protestantism, 33.

[35] Smith, “Philosophy of Ministry.”

[36] Smith, “Philosophy of Ministry.”

[37] Smith, Harvest, 33.

[38] Smith, Harvest, 51.

[39] Steve Mays, quoted in Harvest, 57.

[40] Smith, Harvest, 57-62.

[41] Smith, Harvest, 60-62.

[42] Smith, “Philosophy of Ministry.”

[43] “A History of Calvary Chapel,” Information Gospel (website), (accessed November 10, 2005)

[44] Robert W. Hurzeler, “Some Reflections on the Calvary Chapel Movement,” Foundation: A Magazine of Biblical Fundamentalism, May-June 2001, (accessed November 10, 2005).

[45] Hurzeler, “Some Reflections on the Calvary Chapel Movement.”

[46] Doug Gilliland, e-mail interview by author, April 20, 2005.

[47] Chuck Smith, “A Complete History,” About Us, (accessed November 10, 2005).

[48] Chuck Smith, The Word for Today (website), (accessed November 10, 2005).

[49] CSN International, “Our Beginning and Vision,” (accessed November 10, 2005).

[50] Calvary Chapel Radio, “About Calvary Chapel Radio,” (accessed November 10, 2005).

[51] Tom Morris, Jr., telephone interview by author, October, 15, 2005.

[52] Smith, “A Complete History”.