If the Christian buzz in the OC was generated by larger than life personalities who promulgated a revivalist, dispensationalist, and charismatic evangelicalism, that buzz was surely sustained by a number of Bible teachers who faithfully taught the Scriptures and defended the faith. While there are a number of men who labored to keep the faith during those years, two significant figures come to mind as we look back at that era. The first is Charles R. Swindoll, pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton (or "E-V-Free" as it was known in the OC). The second is Walter Martin, the original and authentic "Bible Answer Man."
The Chuck Swindoll of the late 1970's was one of the best expository preachers I have ever heard. When I first became aware of the buzz, and then finally settled the question as to whether or not I was going to be a Christian, the time came to find a church and join. There was little question that my choice was going to be EV Free. The preaching and teaching at Calvary Chapel was repetitive and weak, and places like Melodyland (and later the Vineyard) were just too wild to suit my tastes. My family had attended the Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton off and on back in the days when Wes Gustafson was still pastor, and when the church was still located on Woods Ave. This was well before Chuck Swindoll arrived in the OC in 1971 from Irving, TX.
Several of the ladies who worked in our bookstore still attended EV Free and were quick to give me cassette tapes of sermons from the new pastor, Charles R. Swindoll. Swindoll's arrival coincided with the rise of the buzz throughout the OC. The man could flat out preach. If you know the Swindoll from the days before the rise of the radio preacher now known to listeners of Insight for Living, you'll recall him to be an exceptional expository preacher, surprisingly doctrinal, and an ardent defender of the traditional dispensationalism of Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) where Swindoll had been a star pupil. Swindoll was a common-sense man, a great communicator, taught the Bible clearly and thoughtfully, and was a tough ex-Marine. He was a highly attractive figure to a young man like myself, who was always a bit nervous about the highly-subjective and emotive Christianity associated with much of the OC buzz.
EV Free Fullerton grew so fast, the congregation was forced to move from their medium size-church facility in Fullerton (which, interestingly enough, is now a Korean CRC) to its current expansive location in the next-door city of Brea. Throughout this time, Swindoll produced a number of best-selling books (we sold cases of them in our bookstore), and his sermons were now being broadcast on radio (1977). Swindoll's radio ministry quickly generated so much buzz (along with growing notoriety), this led to the inevitable creation of Insight for Living--the radio "ministry" of Chuck Swindoll--several years later (1979). As I look back at things, it was the success of Insight which eventually diminished Swindoll's more expositional and doctrinal style of preaching which had characterized his ministry before he became a radio preacher.
Like many of those who achieve success in Christian media, Swindoll took on a celebrity persona. I have no doubt that Swindoll never sought the buzz which grew up around him, but over time such a persona came to characterize him. I'll never forget the roll-out of one of Swindoll's new books at the annual Christian Bookseller's Convention. Prominently featured at the Word Publishing mega-booth ("Word Inc." was the giant amongst a host of "mom and pop" Christian businesses) was a full size cut-out figure of Swindoll in black leather, with dark shades, seated on a Harley, identified in bold letters as the "Sermonator" (a playful attempt to ape Arnold's "Terminator"). Although the "Sermonator" image was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, it really wasn't. Swindoll was no longer seen as a pastor, he was now a Christian celebrity, better known for his books and radio program than for his role as a shepherd to his congregation. Others at EV Free were now taking care of the sheep.
It was also painfully evident that his pulpit ministry was being driven by the needs of his growing radio empire. The staff at Insight were hard at work transcribing sermons into books to "grow the ministry" and keep the coffers full (radio time was expensive in those days), and those writing the study guides and other "ministry support" elements have recounted to me how Insight for Living generated more than a fair bit of tension with Swindoll's day job as "senior pastor" at EV Free.
Swindoll left EV Free in 1994 to become president of DTS, and then founded another megachurch in the Dallas area in 1998 (Stonebriar). EV Free is still huge, but has now totally embraced the megachurch "we've got something for everyone" model. My friends who still attend often boast of the size of the highly specialized staff. EV Free may have programs and pastors for every need and contingency, but the solid expository preaching of the 1970's and 80's at EV Free is long gone--a huge loss to the OC, because even though dispensational, Swindoll's preaching served as a doctrinal brake (and a sane alternative) to many of the excesses found elsewhere throughout the OC. Sadly, I'll bet you don't see many folk at EV Free on Sundays these days with heavily underlined, highlighted, and well-worn NASBs--a commonplace sight before the days of the "Sermonator" and Swindoll's eventual departure.
Another notable figure in the history of the OC buzz was one Walter R. Martin, the author of the venerable Kingdom of the Cults, but best known in the OC as the host of the live radio call-in program, The Bible Answer Man. Let me just say, there was no one else like Walter Martin. He was fearless, tenacious, and always ready to defend the faith. As my White Horse Inn compatriot Rod Rosenbladt once said of him, "Walter was like Tertullian [the famous church father]. He wasn't always right, but he always had a full head of steam." Very true.
Walter Martin was an enigma. He completed his Ph.D. course work at NYU (D. James Kennedy was a classmate), but never finished his dissertation, opting for a diploma mill degree upon arriving in CA--a huge mistake which gave much ammunition to his many enemies among the Latter Day "Saints." Martin was not seminary trained, but studied under and was associated with a number of evangelical stalwarts, including Frank Gaebelein (headmaster of the Stony Brook school), apologist Wilbur Smith, and Donald Gray Barnhouse of Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia. Martin never saw himself as a theologian, but as a counter-cult apologist whose primary calling was to pounce upon heretical non-Christian sects like the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses, both of whom have a strong and visible presence in the OC. And pounce he did!
Martin founded the Christian Research Institute (CRI) in 1960, eventually moving the entire operation to the OC in 1974. He immediately became the most significant theological voice in the county. A fierce debater, Martin took on everyone from the boisterous atheist Madalyn Murray-O'Hare, to the pandering Hugh Hefner. Honing his debating skills on secular talk radio (Martin was a frequent guest on the Long John Nebel show in New York City before coming to the OC), Walter was one of the few evangelicals who could appear on secular radio or television and not be eaten alive.
Walter's influence upon the OC buzz was huge. His live Saturday night radio program, The Bible Answer Man was a must-listen. Everywhere you went in OC Christian circles, people talked about what was discussed on the previous Saturday night's Bible Answer Man. Pity the poor Mormon, JW, or atheist who attempted to challenge him on air! Walter was always fair with those who disagreed, but he was also a pit-bull who simply would not let go. Walter answered Bible questions (not his strong suit), offered compelling arguments for the truth of Christianity, and constantly warned of aberrant teaching whenever anyone--no matter how popular they may be--departed from the faith.
In addition to his radio program, Martin taught a regular and very popular Bible class at Melodyland (and then later at Newport-Mesa Christian Center). He was also one of the first to exploit the new technology of cassette tape (yes, I am dating myself). His tape series on Mormanism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others in the "kingdom of the cults" as he put it, were passed around in many a church and Bible study. I can honestly say that my own interest in apologetics and theology probably began with Walter's Bible Answer Man and taped lectures (along with Donald Gray Barnhouse's sermons on Tulip). A number of years ago I played one of Walter's lectures on Mormonism to my sons which prompted several hours of great theological discussion on a family vacation. Walter Martin is always compelling--even on an old cassette.
I did not know Walter well, but I did have him for a professor at John Warwick Montgomery's new OC law school (the Simon Greenleaf School of Law, founded in 1980--now the Trinity Law School). A new school with only six students in the apologetics program, our professors were Walter Martin, Lutheran theologian-apologist John Warwick Montgomery, and some young Lutheran theologian of whom I had never heard but soon came to love (one Rod Rosenbladt). We had them all to ourselves. It was a great time in my life.
Nobody, but nobody, told better stories than Walter Martin. Walter once crank-called cult leader "Father Divine" -- who unwittingly blew his claim to divinity when Walter called Father Divine and asked him if he knew who it was who was on the phone, only to have Father Divine sheepishly admit that he did not know to whom he was speaking! Walter recounted how he got Hugh Hefner to admit he would not let his own daughter be a Playboy Bunny or pose nude in his magazine. "So Mr. Hefner, you see nothing wrong with exploiting other men's daughters while you protect your own." Then there was the time he showed up at the headquarters of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in New York and led the receptionist--whose first instinct was to hide behind the desk upon realizing who was in his reception area--to Christ. Martin told us about sharing the gospel with the king of cool, Steve McQueen, who, at the time, was in Mexico seeking alternative treatment for his advanced cancer. McQueen's current wife had requested that Martin (and other Christians whom McQueen respected) come and talk with her dying husband. Walter related how McQueen subsequently came to faith in Christ, was visited by Billy Graham, and died shortly thereafter with an open Bible on his chest.
One of Walter Martin's most important but overlooked legacies, was establishing the ministry's magazine (originally called Forward and then later the CRI Journal). CRI hired a staff of bright and capable theological researchers who tackled many of the doctrinal issues of the day. In the days before blogging, the theologians didn't seem to have the time to address the issues actually facing the people in the pews. The CRI Journal helped meet that need. After Walter's death in 1989, many of these men went on to careers in counter-cult apologetics. The list includes: Richard Abanes, Robert M. Bowman, Craig Hawkins, Elliot Miller, Ron Rhodes, Paul Carden, and C-Ref's own adult Sunday School teacher, Ken Samples. A man who leaves behind a group of well-trained lieutenants is not only a person of vision, but extends his legacy for a generation or more to come. One of Walter's last efforts in life was his contribution to Mike Horton's 1989 book, The Agony of Deceit. Walter contributed a chapter on the errors of the Word-Faith movement, and Mike dedicated the book to Walter's memory.
Walter's most unfortunate legacy in the OC was his ham-fisted attempt to reconcile the Calvinist-Arminian debate by coining the abominable phrase "Calminian" as applying to someone who accepted three or four of the five points of Calvinism, and who thought the Arminians were right about the others (Martin's personal view). Thankfully, the "Calminian" hybrid was like a mule, and did not reproduce well, so you rarely hear the term used any more. Like Dr. Rosenbladt said, Walter wasn't always right and when he wasn't, the consequence was usually a theological mess!
Chuck Swindoll and Walter Martin helped to generate much of the Christian buzz in the OC--but their most important role was to help keep things orthodox and from going off the rails before the buzz eventually grew silent, and the OC became the burned-over district that it now is. When Swindoll left the OC for DTS, the OC lost its best known and most capable Bible expositor. When Walter Martin died, the OC lost its best known and most capable apologist and, no doubt, there was rejoicing in Salt Lake City, as well as in the JW headquarters in New York upon hearing that news.
EV Free remains a megachurch, but you hear little about it in the OC these days. In the days of Chuck Swindoll, the church was well-known as the place to go for good expository preaching. Now EV Free is just another program-driven megachurch "recovery center" like several others in the county (i.e., Mariners, Eastside Christian, or Cottonwood).
As for the current state and focus of CRI, well, that is another story which remains for someone else to tell. But whatever you can say (good or ill) about the current head of CRI, Hank Hanegraaf, the fact of the matter is Hank did not, and indeed could not, take Walter Martin's place. There was only one Walter Martin, and his big shoes remain empty.
Next time, we'll wrap up our series on the OC as a new burned over district as we look (briefly) at Rick Warren and Saddleback Community Church and the small Reformation witness (Lutheran and Reformed) which both preceded and survived the Christian buzz in the OC: Lessons to Be Learned
Here's the introduction to this series: Introduction
Here's part one, "the buzz": The "Buzz"
Here's part two, "TBN": TBN
Here's part three, "Calvary Chapel": Calvary Chapel
Here's part four, "Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral": Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral