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The OC -- A New Burned-Over District? Part Three -- Calvary Chapel

You simply cannot talk about the Christian "buzz" in the OC apart from Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel.  If there has been one dominant church in the development of the OC's evangelical subculture, it is Calvary Chapel.  Calvary Chapel made being a Christian "cool." 

In 1965, "Pastor Chuck" as he's affectionately known, wanted to reach young people, especially the throngs of hippies and surfers found throughout South-Central Orange County (the so-called Jesus People).  This was the era of free-love and Vietnam War protests, kids with long hair, tie-dyed jeans, girls in halter-tops, experimentation with drug use, and fascination with Eastern religions.  Those young adults were asking questions about life, the future, and especially about the Christianity in which they were raised.  Many of them found that the churches of their youth were not all that interested in them, or their questions.  Their churches wanted nothing from them but conformity.  Conformity, of course, was the one thing that was not going to happen.  The Jesus People had "dropped out" and "tuned in."  Why bother with them?

To his great credit, Chuck Smith did care about these young adults, and in a very short period time Chuck was preaching to vast numbers of them in a tent, and soon built the current Calvary Chapel very near the booming South Coast Plaza--emblematic of the OC's affluent middle class.  The history of Calvary Chapel and those pastors with ties to Chuck Smith (including Greg Laurie, Raul Ries, Mike MacIntosh, Skip Heitzig) is a remarkable story and you can read about it here

Chuck Smith's church background is in the mildly-Pentecostal Foursquare Church, the legacy of Aimee Semple McPherson (or "Sister" as Bob Godfrey calls her) and her Angelus Temple, once the largest church in Los Angeles.  Smith is clearly Foursquare in his theology, which emphasizes, "Jesus the Savior, Jesus the Healer, Jesus the Baptizer with the Holy Spirit, and Jesus the Soon-Coming King."  All of these are central to Calvary's theology and ethos.

Along with hundreds of others, and as the Newporters stared at us from their passing yachts, I was baptized during Easter vacation of 1977 at Pirate's Cove--the south side of the picturesque entrance into Newport Bay.  Don't ask me for my baptism certificate, because Calvary Chapel cared less about such things. 

While Calvary was never known as a healing ministry there was the anointing of the sick and speaking in tongues, both of which were confined to "afterglow" services, which often followed concerts and Bible studies.  I went to one once, largely at the insistence of the cute girl I was dating--the only reason I would even consider it.  I witnessed one of Chuck's assistants carefully explain that the gift of tongues was a supernatural gift of God, only to then give instructions as to how to do it.  You started by repeating "kitty-kitty-kitty" until the Holy Spirit supposedly took over with your new heavenly language.  I wasn't convinced.  My date was, and so that ended, thankfully.

Everyone in the OC, it seemed, went to Calvary Chapel's concerts and Bible studies, even if you went to church elsewhere on Sundays.  I often went to Greg Laurie's week night study--at the time he was well-tanned and had the same long hair and sideburns I did.  Ironic isn't it, since we are both now bald, and well into middle age.  The cool has long left me, and I won't presume to speak for Laurie. 

The influence of Calvary upon the religious life of the OC (and elsewhere) cannot be underestimated.  Traditional church music and hymns were out (although the few times I went to Calvary Chapel on a Sunday morning we sang hymns from a hymnal--if I recall correctly), as was any form of traditional church government and denominational emphasis.  Chuck Smith did not like denominations, refusing to call the thousands of Calvary Chapels which sprang from "big Calvary" a "denomination"--even though the Calvary Chapels clearly functioned as one. 

In the wake of the buzz generated by Calvary, many of the churches in the OC felt compelled to compete with them by imitating Calvary's "contemporary" worship, and by focusing almost exclusively upon youth culture.  Calvary Chapel always won that competition.  Have you ever seen a traditional CRC or LCMS congregation try to pull off "contemporary" worship?  There is nothing worse than an ethnic Dutch or German church trying to be relevant by mimicing what the church's youth had seen at Calvary. 

Maranatha Music soon became a force in the Christian sub-culture.  CCM rapidly pushed aside traditional worship and liturgy in many churches, replaced by something akin to what went on at Calvary's concerts and Bible studies.  Youth culture now dominated.  It generated buzz.  Unnoticed perhaps, is the embarrassing fact that as the Jesus People became older, married and had families, they hung on to their music and ways of doing things.  It is fair to say that "middle age" culture now dominates at places like Calvary.  Once you get on the youth culture treadmill, you'll soon fall far behind the new and hottest trend (as Calvary Chapel has).  The irony is that the Calvary Chapel of 2013 is now rather staid, if not down-right traditional.  They've been at this forty years and there is now a substantial history to preserve.  Rock Harbor and Mars Hill are the trendy churches in the OC now, but they sure don't generate the county-wide buzz Calvary once did.

One especially troubling distinctive of Calvary Chapel is the so-called "Moses model" of ministry.  The Moses model centers around the idea that God revealed his will to Chuck (supposedly), and then Chuck revealed that will to his underlings.  In a pamphlet on the subject, Smith counsels pastors to "fire" their boards if they will not go along with the pastor's God-given vision for his church.  Of course, none of this can be found anywhere in the elder-based ecclesiology (Presbyterian) of the New Testament.  Although Chuck Smith was anything but a cult leader, what Chuck said went (he was God's man after all) and it was common to hear Calvary folk call him "Pope Chuck" (often times facetiously, sometimes not).

Another troubling feature of Calvary is that Chuck's stress on the immediacy of the end-times which created several embarrassing situations in which he would come close to setting dates for the Lord's return--twice, during Calvary's New Years Eve services, I heard him say that this would be the last year because the Lord was coming soon.  This was not a prediction or calculation like Harold Camping would make, but more like a heart-felt prophecy implying that Chuck knew via some supernatural means the end was at hand, and he was trying to prepare us.

It is also clear to anyone who has been around Calvary Chapel, that any favorable mention of Calvinism is a no-no.  As I become more and more Reformed in my thinking, Calvary Chapel became more and more foreign to me.  Chuck Smith does not like Calvinism, and he is not shy about telling people to avoid it.  This is a touchy subject with my Calvary Chapel friends because in a church which has no formal membership and does not practice any form of church discipline, the surest way to receive the "left-foot" of fellowship is to start talking about Calvinism.

Chuck knew his Bible, but knew little about theology and church history.  I listened to his criticism of Calvinism, but quickly discovered that a straw man was being attacked, and the biblical passages which were used against the doctrines of grace, actually supported them.  Larry Taylor (who once taught at the Calvary Chapel Bible College) was the first to write in defense of Calvary's "balanced" approach to the Calvinism-Arminianism debate.  Upon closer inspection, it was clear that Taylor's defense was an affirmation of decisional regeneration without the doctrine of perseverance--an odd construction.  Calvary Chapel pastor, George Bryson, later produced two books defending Calvary Chapel's "balanced view" against the perceived evils of Calvinism (neither of Bryson's book are very compelling), and given the animosity still coming from Calvary Chapel towards all things Reformed, I'll bet the farm that Bryson's efforts have done little to stem the tide of Calvary Chapel folk becoming interested in the Reformation and Reformed theology.

Once the White Horse Inn went on the air in So Cal, and Reformed churches like Christ Reformed began sprouting up, it was soon obvious that the vast majority of those interested in the five "solas" of the Reformation and Reformed theology had, at one time, gone through the doors of Calvary Chapel.  Many more we encountered were still attending Calvary, but looking to leave.  Chuck Smith gave many of them their first exposure to serious Bible study.  But it was all too apparent that his views on church government, end times, worship, and soteriology, were not the plain sense of Scripture.  And he was not about to change his mind.

My overall take on Calvary Chapel is mixed.  Based upon the testimonies of many people who now attend Christ Reformed, there can be no doubt that what they heard at Calvary Chapel was instrumental in their coming to faith in Christ.  Yet, these same people also testify that the teaching was shallow, repetitive, and did not withstand the test put to it by Reformed theology and practice.  Regrettably, I do not see Calvary Chapel as a true church.  Calvary does not have church membership--hence they have no church discipline (one of the three marks of a true church).  Calvary does not baptize the covenant children of believers, nor understand the Lord's Supper as a true means of grace (another of the marks of a true church).  The gospel is often preached there because the Bible is open and exposited.  Yet, what truth is taught is often obscured by Chuck's odd doctrine of "abiding," his trichotomist view of human nature, his dispensational hermeneutic, and his charismatic emphases (especially in regards to subjective and emotive worship, and the lack of emphasis on the sacraments/means of grace).

That said, I also have no doubt that Calvary Chapel is filled with true believers in Jesus Christ--people who possess the marks of a true Christian (according to the Belgic Confession, Art 29).  I also need to point out the obvious--throughout the years Calvary Chapel has done a remarkable job of reaching out to the unchurched.  Calvary Chapel folk joyfully accept people as they are, where they are.  Unchurched people don't feel judged (or like they need to be a theologian) when they visit a Calvary Chapel.  Sadly, that is not the case with many Reformed and Presbyterian churches.  There's a huge lesson for us here. 

Yet, often times such outreach comes with a high price tag--church life and worship uncritically reflect pop culture, as does the theology and content of the preaching.  Do people attend (and feel comfortable) because they identify with a particular style of doing things (which also happens to be quite compatible with a charismatic form of evangelical Christianity) and which suits their personal tastes?  No one, it seems, thinks to ask "is this what the Scriptures teach about worship, preaching, and sacraments?"  

There is another pressing question which needs to be raised.  Because Calvary Chapel does not have church membership, how many who enter through the front door, quietly slip out the back?  What happens to these folk?  Undoubtedly, many of them make up the new "burned over" district which is the OC, and who, having witnessed the unhappy marriage of pop culture and Christianity, find the latter no more meaningful to their lives than the former. 

I think the case can be made that Calvary Chapel has thrived precisely because it actually reflects the conservative values of OC, while at the same time appearing to be "contemporary," if not counter-cultural.  There is a lesson to be learned here too.  Perhaps the time has come for Reformed folk to think about creative ways to present our distinctive theology and manner of worship as bucking the secular tide.  Certainly, our goal is to be biblical in all that we do, which is why we trust in the proclamation of Christ crucified as the divinely approved manner by which God truly extends his kingdom.  This is why we are not terribly interested in making our church services look and feel like the trends and fads around us.  Dare I say it?  The time may have come when it might be "cool" to not be cool. 

When all is said and done, no single church has exercised a greater influence upon the evangelical subculture and religious buzz in the OC than has Calvary Chapel.  Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel have cast a huge shadow in the OC--certainly wider than anyone else's. 

In the next installment of our series on the OC as a new burned over district, we'll take up what is perhaps the OC's most famous church, Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral (Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral).

Here's the introduction to this series:  Introduction

Here's part one, "the buzz":  The "Buzz"

Here's part two, "TBN":  TBN

Reader Comments (26)

Sir, As I try to synthesize the sweep of 'charismania' throughout the 2nd and 3rd world countries in light of history, I begin to see a pattern. (Understanding this is NOT scientific).
Your article(s) are another example of the sweep of the Spirit similar to the first part of Acts where the Spirit is given to the church. Similar, not exactly.
The Spirit moves to people to respond and grabbing the parable of the Sower, it's the Seed of the Word/Truth/Conviction and how it is received by the condition of the heart.
All who hear to some level of understanding, respond, some stay, others fall away. Those who stay, long term, must move from the shallow emotionalism of charismania (or die of milky malnutrition) into a more mature meat of deeper understanding. Hence, reformed theology/understanding/practice.
You mention lessons to be learned: exactly! Consider the process of belief through the lens of this series and not move the church away from what is being done but "add to" it. Very dissimilar to 'hyper-Calvinism.
The main reason I see people move from the shallowness of Calvary Chapel is because of the 'starvation' principle. Others stay for a variety of reasons not part of this discussion.

Grace and Peace to you and your family.
July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterM Kehr
I'm enjoying the series partly because it echoes my experience. I live a couple of hours north of OC, and first came to faith in a church with a mildly Foursquare pedigree back in 1976 when I was in Jr. High. I really didn't know there was another way until about 10 years ago when I started listening to the White Horse Inn and RC Sproul. As you said, Reformed Theology just makes sense; the mental gymnastics I had to perform as a Dispensational Arminian seemed more and more intellectually dishonest as I got deeper into the Covenants of Grace.

Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of the issue.
July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKevin
This is fascinating as always KR. I take it as a very hopeful sign that Alistair Begg - who is clearly not of the Calvary mold - is regularly invited to speak to Calvary's pastors' gatherings and that many Calvary guys are now coming to the Basics Conference. Both sides own their areas of difference but it seems at least a good number of their pastors are hungry for the Gospel, absent the local peculiarities you describe.
July 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpb
James White often mentions how "Calvary Chapel Bibliology Produces Another Believing Calvinist"

This is short.
July 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermatt
Your sacramentalism as a means of grace only proves you Protestants have not fallen far from your RCC tree from which you sprung. And prophetically speaking it won't be long before you all will be reconnected to the mother church and become the small 'h' in the Mother of harlots.
July 17, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjackie alnor
Ms. Alnor:

May I ask, "from what tree did you spring?"
July 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterKim Riddlebarger
I wish people would talk more about the 'dark side' of the "The Calvary Chapel Franchise," or in your words, this "non-church" church, and the horrendous effect it has on the mental well-being of its attendees.

Having been a licensed (Christian) California psychotherapist for nearly 30 years, having done over 27,000 hours of counseling and having attended a Calvary Chapel, I can personally attest to the "spiritual wreckage" that comes out of these very dysfunctional churches. Most 'ministry' - if you can even call it that -is mainly done by unqualified, uncalled, "uniquely ungifted" and majorly dysfunctional Associate and 'Executive' pastors who have never been formally trained or educated.

I put food on my table for 20 years dealing with spiritually abused members of this legalistic "cult" -I mean "church," including family members of fathers who committed suicide because, "all you need is the Lord" and "you shouldn't depend on psychology or psychotropic medications prescribed by a physician because it is of the devil!" Their naïve disdain for anything 'psychological' has kept millions in spiritual and psychological bondage. Their hatred for anything 'psychological' is a definite "Calvary Chapel distinctive."

Their 'Moses Model' of leadership where only the Senior Pastor (The Dictator) calls the shots, has unquestioned authority and submits to no one (other than God of course), and is not accountable to anyone in the congregation, sets up a highly abusive chain-of-command where the end always justifies the means. People who leave Calvary Chapels, experience much the same set of emotions and psychological problems as those who come out of the major cults. I can usually always identify a "Calvary Chapel abuse-ee" in the first five minutes of talking to them by their blank stare and that 'deer in the headlights' look.
July 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBob Reese

Jackie Alnor was on TBN once in the late 1980's promoting her book on the new age. She's with
PFO (Personal Freedom Outreach) which only calls TBN and it's ilk, "marginal" but not aberrant. Hence her defense of TBN. She belongs to one of those non-denominational denominations.

from Wikipedia: PFO publishes the Quarterly Journal since 1981 (since 1988 under that name),[2] which is a scholarly journal. It has included articles on Protestant teachers and organizations which it considers marginal such as Benny Hinn, Rebecca Brown, Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Bill Gothard, Joyce Meyer, and the Trinity Broadcasting Network, as well as groups which it considers cultic or theologically aberrant.

See? Infamous heretics like Hinn, Hagin, etc are only considered "marginal".
July 17, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermatt
The above dude is one misinformed moron. I was never a part of PFO - Kurt Goedelan would laugh at that suggestion - maybe I spoke at one or two of their conferences. I am not a supporter of TBN - I am their worst nightmare. The only interview of the Crouch granddaughter on Youtube was conducted by me. I wrote a book exposing them called The Fleecing of Christianity. And I'm a product of Simon Greenleaf School of Law and former admin asst to John Warwick Montgomery. Rod Rosenbladt was one of my professors.
July 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjackie alnor
Ms. Alnor:

If you were JWM's ass't and sat under Dr. Rosenbladt at SGL, then you should know better than to make the factually-challenged comment that you did above. I suggest you actually read the Reformed confessions (along with the biblical proof-texts underlying) before making comments like that again.

You may not like our stress upon the preached word and sacraments as means of grace, but you are obligated to represent our views accurately--and you have not. You obviously fancy yourself as a researcher "exposing" deception. Then do your homework about the Reformed tradition's rejection and refutation of Romanism. Sadly, the only thing you have exposed is that you have little idea of what you are talking about.
July 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterKim Riddlebarger
Ok, I was wrong, I apologize. You're a Calvary Chapel devotee - makes sense then why you're against Calvinism and Reformed theology.
July 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermatt
I grew up in the Bay Area in the 70's, and the impact of these ministries you are talking about in this series was felt in a big way up there. We did not see the big numbers in our ministries, but the music, the books, the dress, the leather Bible covers, and the hair... we had all that. In fact, many of our youth retreat speakers came up from SoCal, out of Forest Home, Biola, Youth For Christ, etc.
July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDSY
Dr Riddlebarger,
Tangential to some of the comments here, as a reader of your books, MR and many books by Horton and other Westminster writers there is a concept you reference in your post, which try as I might I cannot get my mind around to understand. That is the notion of the sacraments as "means of grace." I would be very much indebted to you if in some future post you could try to explain this concept and how and why you have come to believe it is biblically warranted.
July 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterreg

The work has already been done. Read the Belgic Confession, articles 33-35 (and the abundant Scripture proofs provided). Berkhof's short chapter is also helpful (604-609).

I might also suggest reading Horton's People and Place--a brilliant book.

Hope that helps!
July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKim Riddlebarger
Kim- I am very familiar with Lutheranism and Calvinism - I compare all to Scripture - not to your confessions that fail so badly in trying to contain the revelation of God into little chewable bites - that are always mixed in with replacementism and Augustinianism. I understand your positions better than you do in that I can see them through the prism of God's Word. I remember you from Simon Greenleaf as well - you would take students to old bookstores in LA and ran one at Knotts Berry Farm. I was a new believer and was open to all historical Christian systems - but I discovered just how man-centered they all were built upon faulty errors of Rome's sacramentalism - and yet Rod would accuse me of being Catholic because I believed in obedience to Christ. He called that Catholicism - the most ungodly system of them all - and I know it well, I grew up in it. You Mr. Riddle are bound up in your traditions. And all that so-called scholarship doesn't impress me.
July 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjackie alnor
Ms. Alnor:

Thank you for proving my point.
July 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterKim Riddlebarger
But, Jackie, the latest thing that pops up on your blog is your appearance on TBN. That's an odd notion of non-supportive and worst nightmare.
July 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterZrim
Thanks for the tip. I just printed those chapters from the commentary on the Belgic Confession I found linked to this site. Hopefully it will clarify matters for me.
July 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterreg

a few more thoughts on the "means of grace"...

God uses concrete, real things to impart His love and care to us: bread, wine, water, language communicated sensibly in verbal proclamation and in writing. Common and tangible ways to accomplish His extraordinary work. (Nothing subjective, abstract or confusing here.)

Each Lord's Day, God restates His promise HE WILL save us, as we hear and trust His Word; our souls are nourished as we eat/drink Christ's body/blood. We lift up our hearts and believe the Holy Spirit grants us a real receiving of Him, here.

We do not think the things have power to save. Jesus gives us real things to assure us His promise is reliable. (Our faith is weak; we need help - which is why He ever-intercedes for us, to the Father.)

Here is the explanation of the Lord's Supper at Christ Reformed Church:

The Lord's tradition of eating & drinking with His covenant people, go all the way back through the OT to the Garden of Eden - the first "Temple". Jesus appointed the sacraments to preserve us on our pilgrimage in this "Present Evil Age". Then in the "Age to Come", we get to eat from the Tree of Life and feast at His table!

July 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobin
Dr. Riddlebarger,
Having read chapters 33 and 34 of your commentary on the Belgic confession (and also the introductory chapter) I won't say I am yet fully in agreement with the means of grace analysis, but I certainly understand the concept much better and also the basis for those who advocate child baptism. As a Baptist, I am still wresting with the issues but liked the sign and seal analysis and the comparison of the believer's life on earth to the Israelites 40 years in the wilderness. I also have figured out one of the underlying presuppositions to the two baptismal views..The Belgic confession does not equate membership in the covenant as being the same as election, pointing to the fact that in the OT many were circumcised, but not all were saved. I think we Baptist tend to view baptism and covenant membership as synonymous with election-hence we want a sign of election (faith) before baptizing.Lots to mull over, anyway.

I intend to read through your entire commentary. It is excellent. Well reasoned and well written (as all your books are). You really ought to consider having it published!

I wish there were churches in your denomination in Massachusetts. There are few if any Reformed and Presbyterian churches here. I would certainly consider attending instead of the less reformed more evangelical baptist alternatives available here.

Again, thanks for this resource.
July 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterreg

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