Chuck Smith, the evangelical pastor whose outreach to hippies in the 1960s helped transform worship styles in American Christianity and fueled the rise of the Calvary Chapel movement, died Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, after a battle with lung cancer. He was 86.Smith was one of the truly transformational figures in contemporary American evangelicalism, and one who has been mostly overlooked by journalists and academics. He never attracted the attention of a Jerry Falwell or a Billy Graham or even a Rick Warren. But like each of those men, he was an influential force felt by faithful evangelicals across America. As Ed Stetzer says, he helped to remap American evangelicalism.
In the 1970s, Smith was one of the first to open church doors to the burgeoning Jesus People movement. He was, at the time, the pastor of an independent pentecostal church of conservative suburbanites in Orange County, California. After meeting several beach hippies who had converted to Christianity, Smith decided to change his church so that it would be open and welcoming to these new Christians.
He ended up changing a lot.
Famously, when his parishioners complained about the dirty hippies ruining the church's new carpet, Smith threatened to rip the carpet out rather than turn anyone away.
That was, effectively, the start of "seeker-sensitive" services.
In the definitive work on the Jesus People movement, God's Forever Family, Larry Eskridge writes that Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa's tnansformation involved a new style of music and different dress standards -- "as the kids came to the church in patched blue jeans, T-shifts, football jerseys, peasant dresses, bare feet, sandals, and sneakers" -- but it also "went beyond matters of style." Under Smith, Calvary Chapel also saw the birth of contemporary Christian praise-and-worship music, and he popularized verse-by-verse expository Bible preaching.
Greg Laurie, a famous and influential pastor in his own right, recalls that preaching changing everything for him. He says the first time he went to the beach church, it was filled with hippies and then "Pastor Chuck," an old guy, came up front:
He sat on this little stool and he just opened up his Bible and I remember his smile. He just sort of beamed when he smiled and I thought, he seems like a pretty happy guy for an old guy, you know? And then he began to teach the Bible. And what amazed me was, I understood what he was saying.The "Calvary Chapel style," as it has been called, emphasized two core beliefs of American evangelicalism: that anyone can, if they will only accept it, have a moving personal experience with God, and two, that the Bible is God's word and is relevant and applicable to contemporary individual's daily life.
The style was successful and has been widely adopted, though not without controversy. It can be seen now, though, as a hallmark of American evangelicalism. Many had that same experience Laurie had, and experience of recognition, of understanding, of feeling moved by the message of Christ delivered in this style and feeling like they understood, perhaps for the first time, why it mattered.