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.
Diagnosed in 2011, Smith continued to preach and oversee administration at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa (California), where he'd been pastor since 1965. In 2012, he established a 21-member leadership council to oversee the Calvary Church Association, a fellowship of some 1,600 like-minded congregations in the United States and abroad.
Smith was known for expository preaching as he worked his way through the entire Bible, unpacking texts from Genesis through Revelation and offering commentary along the way.
Yet it was his openness to new cultural styles, including laid-back music and funky fashions of California's early surfer scene, that helped him reach young idealists and inspire a trend toward seeker-sensitive congregations.
"He led a movement that translated traditional conservative Bible-based Christianity to a large segment of the baby boom generation's counterculture," says Brad Christerson, a Biola University sociologist who studies charismatic churches in California. "His impact can be seen in every church service that has electric guitar-driven worship, hip casually-dressed pastors, and 40-minute sermons consisting of verse-by-verse Bible expositions peppered with pop-culture references and counterculture slang."
Born to a Bible-quoting mother and a salesman father who became a zealous convert in midlife, Smith grew up in Southern California, where he witnessed to the Gospel from a young age.
After Bible college training and a stint as a traveling evangelist, he sought a niche in Pentecostalism by pastoring several Church of the Foursquare Gospel congregations. But he confesses in Chuck Smith: A Memoir of Grace: "I just never succeeded" in that denominational environment.
He found his groove in the 1960s, when many evangelicals were frowning on the wild outfits, long hair and psychedelic music that were all the rage among young adults. One seminal moment came during his early days at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, where old guard trustees posted a sign in their renovated sanctuary: "no bare feet allowed." Smith tore it down with a promise to reach young souls for Christ, even it meant throwing out new pews and carpeting and bringing in steel folding chairs.
"Lifestyle issues and morality issues were things that he would expect Christ would clean up in these folks lives," said Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. "But the informality of these folks and the music they were fond of – he was willing to let that slide quite a bit."
Smith never became a hippie, Eskridge said. But he nonetheless won a following as a non-judgmental father figure by welcoming a blend of pop music, poetry and aspiration to live like Jesus. Together with hippie Lonnie Frisbee, Smith helped propel the Jesus People Movement, with its embrace of Christ's teachings and disavowal of institutional church trappings.
Smith also pioneered translations of Gospel teachings into 20th-century pop art forms. In 1971, he launched Maranatha! Music, a pioneering record label designed to promote the "Jesus music" that his young followers were producing on the California coast.
Ministries born in the 1960s and 70s grew into a distribution empire. By 2013, Smith's radio and television programs were airing in more than 350 cities around the world. The Word for Today, a publishing program begun in 1978, now packages Smith's messages through books for adults and children, DVDs, CDs and other channels.
"From age 50 on up would be his larger fan base," said Word for Today General Manager Mark Rich. But Smith's easy-to-understand messages keep attracting followers from other demographics, Rich says, because "Pastor Chuck has always been able to relate to the younger crowd and to children."
Never a denominational man, Smith forged a different type of fellowship among congregations as word of his success spread. Calvary Chapels, concentrated largely in coastal population centers, reflect Smith's preferences for authoritative male pastors, expository preaching and openness to contemporary music. What Eskridge describes as "restrained exuberance" in worship has spread from Costa Mesa to Calvary Chapels on the East Coast and beyond.
Some in other Protestant groups now look to Smith as a role model, whose methods have become the stuff of seminary workshops.
"Chuck Smith is one of my heroes," said Kurt Frederickson, a church vitality expert who invokes Smith's work when he trains pastors in Fuller Theological Seminary's doctor of ministry program. "He's able to read the culture and to see a group of people who've been marginalized by the institutional church and say, 'these people too should be cared for'…. So he opens up his arms."
In Smith's absence, the Leadership Council of the Calvary Chapel Association will continue to govern the fellowship's affairs.
Early today, Evangelist Greg Laurie posted on his blog, "I am so sorry to tell all of you that our friend, pastor Chuck Smith, has died." At age 19, Laurie began ministry under Chuck Smith's leadership. Laurie is the founding pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California.