What would Chuck Smith do?
Three years after the Calvary Chapel founder’s death, church leaders continue to look to his legacy to defend competing views of the movement’s future.
Smith’s son-in-law and successor at California flagship Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, Brian Brodersen, left the Calvary Chapel Association (CCA) this past fall with plans to build on Smith’s vision—but from outside the fellowship that “Pastor Chuck” began.
“As I look at the current situation within Calvary Chapel, I don’t see this separation as negative but rather [as] necessary for God’s work to be expanded,” announced Brodersen, who launched a broader, looser body focused on international missions called the Calvary Chapel Global Network (CCGN).
His statement likened the split to the biblical example of Paul and Barnabas going different ways based on different understandings of mission.
However, a CCA council member compared Brodersen’s departure to a different biblical example: Mark leaving Paul’s authority.
Brodersen’s congregation maintains CalvaryChapel.com, and still includes the association’s 1,700 churches in the new CCGN unless they opt out. The CCA council stated they “cannot endorse” Brodersen’s network and recommended that churches leave it.
What he sees as growing Smith’s vision, they see as diluting it.
“Pastor Chuck left us a glorious legacy. Yet the new [CCGN], established by Brian Brodersen, now threatens that legacy,” the CCA council stated in late November. “Such a network will ultimately de-emphasize our Calvary Chapel distinctives … and will cause confusion.”
A post on Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa’s website summarized their main concerns: that Brodersen is shifting around the structure of services to depart from traditional biblical exposition, and that he doesn’t prioritize the movement’s emphasis on eschatology.
Of the 13 pastors on the CCA council, 3 were not listed on the letter, including one of the movement’s most popular leaders, Skip Heitzig, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Donning Hawaiian-print shirts, Smith famously preached verse by verse, led spirit-filled worship, and warned California hippies about the end times starting in the 1960s and ’70s. His Calvary Chapel fueled the Jesus People movement that shaped contemporary US evangelicalism, spreading from the West Coast across the country and abroad.
“Chuck wanted a closed-loop system,” which led Calvary Chapel to mostly focus on its own authors, musicians, and events over the years, said Bob Guaglione, pastor of Calvary Chapel of Delaware County in Pennsylvania. “There was always a sense of something in the wider evangelical world we were against.”
But Brodersen—who oversaw ministries in Europe and pastored a church in London before returning to the Costa Mesa flagship—wants to see the movement “engage more with the larger evangelical body,” especially on international outreach. His global network relies on Calvary Chapel’s existing congregations around the world, and invites others to partner with those churches now that they have built up local leaders, buildings, and regular events.
He said he considers the separation from the association a difference in method, not doctrine.
“A big emphasis in Calvary Chapel is the Second Coming, which I firmly believe in,” he told CT. “But sometimes I think our group of churches has been a little too quick to say when the Second Coming is going to be.
“Even though I believe the Lord could come at any time, I have a tendency to think, ‘Well, God’s laid the groundwork for this future ministry to happen. So we probably have a little more time to be able to get the gospel out.’”
Brodersen’s approach to global mission, as well as the looser ties of the new network, echo trends in 21st-century evangelicalism, according to Richard Flory, senior director of research and evaluation at the University of Southern California Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
“The future is in these individual networks and ministries,” said Flory, co-author of the forthcoming book The Rise of Network Christianity: How Independent Leaders Are Changing the Religious Landscape. “The more authoritative it gets, the less likely it will be successful.”
Calvary Chapel has always had to balance accountability with the independence and authority granted to pastors under the “Moses model” of congregational leadership the movement controversially became known for. This delicate dynamic became even more sensitive following Smith’s death.
“It’s a Chuck Smith orthodoxy,” said Flory. “What happens when the founding leader, who has been the only leader, has gone?”
Smith appointed council members as his “spiritual sons” and entrusted them with the movement, according to a CCA council letter referencing the tensions over the past three years since his death. Brodersen stepped down in late 2016, shortly before announcing the launch of CCGN.
“You start getting criticism if you’re trying to adapt to the culture or catch up with the times … then you feel restricted,” he stated in a video clarifying the purpose of his new network. “You feel like you don’t have the freedom. We need that freedom.”
Calvary Chapel pastors who side with the longstanding CCA resist that characterization. “Of all the names listed, I don’t know any of those men who are living in the past,” blogged Calvary Chapel San Juan Capistrano pastor John Randall, whose California congregation asked to leave the new network. “Our model for ministry goes much further back than Calvary Chapel; we go back to the Book of Acts.”
Raul Ries, who came to Christ through Smith’s ministry in 1972, now serves on the CCA council. “We want to continue Chuck’s vision, and [CCGN] is going in a different direction,” he told CT. “We don’t want to gossip about people. We want to move forward and do what God’s called us to do.”
Individual Calvary Chapel churches engage in ministry as they are called and led, said Ries. His California congregation, Calvary Chapel Golden Springs, partners with others in Colombia, Chile, and across Latin America. “It’s the same thing [as in California],” he said. “They have a building, they worship, they teach God’s Word, and they make disciples.”
Ries said that while younger generations may prefer new styles, they still need the same scriptural teaching and study that captured the hearts of Boomers like him 40 years ago.
Brodersen looks back to the cultural relevance that drew people to his late father-in-law in the early days of Calvary Chapel. “The culture is different and people are different,” he said. “I feel like what I am doing is really more consistent with what his church and ministry was doing.”
He quoted Smith himself: Blessed are the flexible. They will not be broken.
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