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