Home News Chuck Smith, 86, dies as a minister who preached to flower children

Chuck Smith, 86, dies as a minister who preached to flower children

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The Rev. Chuck Smith was a legendary Southern California minister, known for integrating flower children and rock ‘n’ roll into conservative evangelicalism while building an organization comprising 700 congregations and hundreds of radio stations. On October 3, he passed away peacefully at home in Newport Beach at age 86.

Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, which served as the flagship church for Mr. Smith’s worldwide Calvary Chapel federation, reported lung cancer was likely the cause.

chuck smith
chuck smith

Though lesser-known than leaders such as Pat Robertson or James Dobson, Mr. Smith was influential due to his liturgical innovations, cultivation of new preachers and integration of pop culture into evangelical vocabularies.

He combined fiery theology and charismatic charm into a charismatic Christian fundamentalist ambassador of late 1960s youth culture. Predicting the end of time while condemning drug use, sexual misconduct outside marriage, abortion and homosexuality while serving as pastor to an all-male hippie tribe known as The Jesus Movement was his calling card to success in youth culture.

Papa Chuck became known as their spiritual leader and accepted their unique lifestyle and rock music into Sunday services – an innovation later adopted by other evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic churches alike.

His decision to forsake traditional liturgy, switch out pipe organs for electric guitars, wear Hawaiian-print shirts to preach from the pulpit if he felt inclined and give worshipers come-as-they-are rights set the precedent for what church historian Donald E. Miller, professor of religion at University of Southern California, refers to as the “new paradigm” for independent Christian megachurches in the 1970s.

Smith’s move away from denominational labels not labelling his church Pentecostal, Baptist or Assembly of God but instead “just a Christian church” — has also been warmly received in evangelicalism.

In 1971, Mr. Smith founded Maranatha Music as one of the earliest contemporary Christian record companies in America to provide a platform for Christian musicians and songwriters who performed at Calvary Chapel – Love Song was one of the earliest Christian rock groups and even briefly served as house band there! Later in 1996 he and Mike Kestler, one of his proteges, founded Calvary Satellite Network to broadcast sermons and Christian music over 400 low-power stations and 50 full-power stations across 45 states.

Mr. Smith never preached in an extemporaneous or fiery style and rarely appeared on television; his sermons focused more on providing detailed explanations from Scripture than on charismatic or charismatic preaching.

Outside Calvary Chapel, Pastor Kenn Gulliksen may be best remembered for the many people he mentored – many who went on to lead large evangelical organizations themselves such as Harvest Christian Fellowship under Greg Laurie; or Kenn Gulliksen who was the founder of Vineyard church movement that introduced Bob Dylan to evangelicalism which he adopted during his later life (Gulliksen has become widely referred to as Bob Dylan’s pastor).

Mr. Smith’s straightforward teaching style and easygoing demeanor were key factors in drawing members of the Jesus Movement to his church in 1969, after his teenager children introduced him to movement members they met at the beach – including Lonnie Frisbee – a self-described mystic and prophet who later rose to prominence within it.

Mr. Smith soon began holding mass baptisms in Corona del Mar’s surf, dousing longhaired men and women alike in the Pacific by the hundreds. Some called these people “Jesus freaks”, as described by Time magazine in their cover article about this movement in 1971.

“The congregation was like none anyone had ever seen before,” Mr. Laurie wrote in his 2008 memoir, “Lost Boy.” Barefoot hippies sat on the floor praising God while old ladies in hats smiled, shrugged their shoulders and sang hymns together – quite an unusual sight indeed.

Randall Balmer, an evangelical scholar and chairman of Dartmouth College religion department, noted in an interview that Mr. Smith never sugarcoated his fundamentalist beliefs even within an assembly that accepted counterculture elements. Besides opposing illicit sex and recreational drug use, homosexuality “a perverted lifestyle,” eternal hell awaiting sinners, and Armageddon coming soon (he saw Sept 11 terrorist attacks as signalling God’s disapproval with accepting homosexuality and abortion), etc.

Mr. Balmer speculated that some of Mr. Smith’s young followers might have become disillusioned with counterculture and sought spiritual solace elsewhere when they joined Calvary Chapel; but their pastor was adept at using its trappings in his brand of evangelism, along with its inherent likeability, as an additional draw.

“He was quite an attractive gentleman,” the witness replied.

Charles Ward Smith was born June 25 in Ventura, Calif. to Charles and Maude Smith who were both Christians (Charles was a salesman), but Maude often quoted scripture to interviewers during interviews. Charles later used that religion as inspiration in writing his autobiography.

After graduating in 1948 from the Bible college of Foursquare Church, a Pentecostal denomination, Mr. Smith served several of its congregations before deciding that internal politics were an “anti-Christian” force within Foursquare and all denominations alike.

Years later, he wrote, “the more spiritual one becomes, the less denominational his affiliation becomes.”

Calvary Chapel had only about 25 members when he became its pastor in 1965; by the early 1970s, its Sunday attendance averaged 3,000.

He is survived by his wife Catherine L. Johnson Smith; four of their five children: Chuck Jr., Jeff, Janette Smith Manderson, and Cheryl Smith Brodersen as well as five grandchildren.

Mr. Smith began making predictions about the end of the world based on his reading of Revelation in the early 1980s. Although these proved incorrect time after time, his faith never wavered – each year “I believe this could be it and one year closer than we were before” he told an interviewer.

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