Thoughts On the Amazing Life of Chuck Smith

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Chuck Smith

Like many of you, I found out this morning that Calvary Chapel founder and pastor, Chuck Smith, has died. He was 86. Chrisitanity Today has a helpful obituary.

Chuck and Calvary Chapel have played an important role in the evangelical movement in the past century. Simply put, it is hard to overstate the significance of Calvary Chapel in remapping Protestantism, particularly evangelicalism. And Chuck Smith was one of the main reasons for that impact.

When I first became a seminary professor back in 1998, I made a trek to Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa and attended with my family, interviewed the staff, and learned from how God was using the church and the movement. Over the years, I’ve been an observer of the movement to the point where I’ve actually had students write papers on Calvary Chapel and discussed the movement in my book, Viral Churches.

I actually do a presentation when seeking to explain the modern evangelical movement, particularly to movement leaders here in the United States or to missionaries who have been out of the country for a long time. The presentation is called “The Contours of the Modern Evangelical Movement.” In that, Calvary Chapel is right near the beginning of the trunk and has a series of arrows that flow from the movement showing its amazing influence. As scholar Donald Miller wrote about in his book Reinventing American Protestantism, Calvary Chapel helped birth and shape a movement.

Calvary Chapel helped a new generation of churches see:

  • a deep passion for evangelism where churches focused on reaching the lost, not just shuffling sheep.
  • a spirit-filled movement that believed in all the spiritual gifts, but focused on worship and spirit empowerment, not just the sign gifts (though they do believe in all of them).
  • culturally engaged communities that wanted to reach (at first) hippies and then just about everyone else, bringing them into a worshipping community.
  • church planting that was birthed out of a desire to spread the gospel and reach a lost world through new churches.
  • verse-by-verse preaching through books of the Bible.
My guess is that many of my readers will resonate with the list. If so, you can thank Calvary Chapel—and Chuck Smith. He will be remembered by many, but he has influenced many more.

Last fall, I spoke at a national Calvary Chapel meeting. Before I did, I shared this post at my blog. After the conference, Pastor Chuck wrote me and said:

Dear Ed,

Thanks for the kind things you have said about the ministry of Calvary Chapel, in the last [part] you mention Calvary as my ministry. I do not consider this my ministry, as I feel as a blessed spectator watching the glorious sovereign move of God and marvel continually at His work. Thanks again for blessing our people at this conference, may the Lord continue to use you to encourage others in how to be more effective in serving our Lord.

In Him,

Chuck

Now that he is with the Lord I will tell you that he was wrong. He was not just a “blessed spectator” (though I am thankful he thought that way). He was a bold and courageous man that was used by God in amazing ways.

Yes, it was the Lord. Yet, the Lord used Chuck in a way that impacts most of my readers today. Yes, it was not his movement (so I guess he was right), but if you are in a contemporary church, engaging culture, and planting churches, you are in a sense, a child of Calvary Chapel and of Chuck Smith.

Let’s be thankful for Pastor Chuck and his legacy today. May this loss “provoke us to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24) so the Savior who Chuck served so passionately is glorified and honored.


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Ed Stetzer About Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer is President of LifeWay Research, one of the best and most-quoted Christian research organizations in the world. He has planted churches in multiple states; trained pastors across the US and on six continents; and taught at 14 seminaries. Author or co-author of 12 books, Stetzer is a leading voice among evangelicals. He is a contributing editor or columnist for several publications, including Christianity Today, Outreach Magazine, The Christian Post, and Facts and Trends.


  • Matt

    Excellent tribute! Thanks.

  • ricklawrenson

    I was fortunate to have been a high school student in Orange County, CA in the early 70′s and saw firsthand the explosion and impact of Calvary Chapel in the lives of young people. Under Chuck’s leadership it was the epicenter of the Jesus Movement that reached kids from coast to coast. My estimate is that 25% of the student body of my high school were born again Christians – and not shy about it – and most of them were reached by Calvary Chapel.

    After graduating from a Baptist college I went back to my home church in Orange to serve as youth pastor. Frequently I made the drive over to Costa Mesa to check out Chuck’s teaching on tapes. His commitment to the Word was so strong. And even though we did not agree on some issues, I learned you do not have to be my twin to be my brother.

    My generation of Christians owes a debt of gratitude for Chuck’s vision and pioneering spirit. Contemporary Christian music can point back to Chuck’s willingness to let long-haired newly-saved rockers sing their hearts and lead in worship. Maranatha! Music, started by Chuck, became the grandfather of our worship music today.

    Like all visionary leaders Chuck wasn’t without controversy. But he always pointed others to Christ and live his life with integrity. I imagine that should Jesus one day ask all in heaven who were reached with the Gospel by ministries birthed and nurtured by Chuck Smith to stand, the rest of us will be in awe at the multitude on their feet.

    He’s certainly heard the words, “Well done” from his Savior. Thank God for Chuck Smith.

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