David G. Bromley

Calvary Chapel


1927 (June 25) Charles (“Chuck”) Ward Smith was born in Ventura, California.

1946 Smith graduated from L.I.F.E. Bible College in Los Angeles, California.

1947-1964 Smith served in a ministerial role in the Foursquare Gospel Church.

1965 Calvary Chapel began as a small Bible study for shut-ins at a trailer park in Costa Mesa, California with Smith as pastor.

1968 Lonnie and Connie Frisbee were invited by Smith to join the staff at Calvary Chapel, and Lonnie began evangelizing individuals in the counterculture.

1968 Calvary Chapel opened House of Miracles, a halfway house for those transitioning from the counterculture to Christianity.

1971 Frisbee and Smith parted ways due to theological differences, particularly over the practice of prophecy and glossolalia.

1971 Smith founded Marantha! Music, a Christian music record label.

1977 John Wimber, a Calvary Chapel pastor, began the Vineyard Movement within Calvary Chapel, emphasizing the expression of spiritual gifts in Calvary Chapel congregations.

1978 Wimber invited Frisbee to Vineyard Movement Calvary Chapel.

1982 Wimber’s Yineyard Movement separated from the Calvary Chapel, adopting the name Association of Vineyard Churches.

1993 Frisbee passed away due to complications with AIDS.

1996 Smith founded Calvary Chapel Music record label.


Chuck Smith was born in Ventura, California in 1927 to Charles and Maude Smith. Smith’s father had been raised Presbyterian, andhis mother attended a Baptist church; however, both parents went on to become born-again Christians. Their faith was strengthened when they witnessed what they believed was a miracle when Smith’s younger sister, who had contracted spinal meningitis, was brought back from the brink of death by a local Pentecostal minister. As a youth, Smith was very athletic and had no interest in the ministry; in fact, he had decided to become a doctor. However, he dramatically changed direction and decided to enroll in Bible school while he was attending a Christian youth camp during the summer. He recalls that “I knew God had called me to Himself and I could not decline” (Smith, Jr. 2009:25). He then did attend L.I.F.E. ( Lighthouse of International Foursquare Evangelism) Bible College in Los Angeles, California, a ministerial training center for the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Although Smith completed his education at L.I.F.E. Bible College, he reports that he always felt out of place in the Foursquare Gospel denomination (Smith, Jr. 2009:41).

After being ordained in the Foursquare Gospel denomination, Smith served in a ministerial capacity for 17 years. He served as pastor in a number of churches, with varying degrees of success and fulfillment. From the outset, Smith was something of a non-conformist. He recalls one incident where his supervisor informed him that he was guilty of the “sin of rebellion and witchcraft” (Smith, Jr. 2009:131). By his own account (Smith 1981), toward the end of his ministry in the Foursquare Gospel, he had become very discouraged: “I was defeated. I had passed the prime of my youth losing a lot of my energy and giving up on most of my ideas.” He also found the denominational structure increasingly confining (Miller 1997:32). Smith (2005:17-18) points to one experience in a church that he started that served as the impetus to leave the denomination. “We decided to change the format from the traditional song service, announcements, prayer, and sermon to a more informal kind of a gathering. We were holding services in the local American Legion Hall. So having arrived early, my wife and I arranged the chairs in a circle rather than in a row. Rather than using the hymnal, we worshipped the Lord in singing choruses. Then we went into a time of prayer. And many people who had been bound were able to open up and pray. It was a very special experience for them.” The church board immediately informed Smith that he should discontinue this innovation. He recalls that “I realized at that moment that this was not going to be my permanent place of ministry” (2005:19).

Smith then left the church to found the Corona Christian Center, which began as a small Bible study group held in Smith’s home, in 1965 (Miller 1997:32). The Center continued to grow and went on to become the Corona Christian Association and provided Smith with his first opportunity to pastor outside of a denominational context. That same year Smith was invited to serve as pastor for asmall Bible study for shut-ins at a local trailer park in Costa Mesa, California, which was the origination of Calvary Chapel. The small group was struggling at this juncture and reported a visitation by the Holy Spirit: ” He said that He would lay a burden upon the heart of Chuck Smith to come and pastor…. God would bless the church and it would go on the radio. The church would become overcrowded…. And the church would become known throughout the world” (Miller 1997:36; Smith 1981). Smith himself reported that the Holy Spirit had spoken to him two years earlier and that he had received a similar message of successes to come. Smith therefore resigned his position in the Corona Christian Association. He accepted the invitation to pastor the Calvary Chapel congregation, which then grew from 25 members to 2,000 within two years (McGraw 1997). By the third year the church had to move to a larger building in Newport Beach. The church continued to grow and ultimately purchased a ten acre tract in Costa Mesa, its current location. In 1974, the church opened a new 2,300 person sanctuary and soon was forced to hold three services on Sunday even with the expanded seating capacity.

Located as he was at a major center of the counterculture, Smith began encountering “hippies” and “Jesus People.” His first impressions were extremely negative: “Actually, at the time of the hippie movement, these long-haired bearded, dirty kids goingaround the streets repulsed me. The stood for everything I stood against. We were miles apart in our thinking, philosophies, everything” (Smith 1981). However, it was shortly thereafter, in 1968, that he met one of the Jesus People who was to transform Calvary Chapel, Lonnie Frisbee. Apparently, Smith’s wife, Kay, had a vision that Smith would reach out to the hippies. Smith remembers that “I turned and saw the tears streaming down her face… and I could see she was praying” (Coker 2005). Smith then asked a friend of his daughter, John Higgins, to find a hippie and bring him to their home. The hippie who Higgins picked up on the street and brought to the Smith home was the then eighteen years-old Lonnie Frisby. Smith (1981) recalls: “I said, ‘Hi Lonnie’. I put out my hand and welcomed him into the house. As he began to share, I wasn’t prepared for the love that came forth from this kid. His love for Jesus Christ was infectious. The anointing of the Spirit was upon his life, so we invited Lonnie to stay with us for a few days.” By May, 1968, Smith, Higgins, and Frisbee had established the House of Miracles, a communal “crash pad” for hippies who had “accepted the Lord” (Miller 1997:33). Smith put Frisbee and his wife, Connie, in charge of the project. The House of Miracles initially housed 35 new Christian converts who needed assistance during their transition out of the drug culture by providing a stable environment and subsidizing their rent (DiSabatino 1995:59). The original House of Miracles subsequently grew into a network of nearly 20 “community houses” supported by Calvary Chapel ( Norridge 1992). Later, the Shiloh Youth Revival Centers emerged out of this network, and, until its collapse in 1978, grew to 175 communal houses and 100,000 participants drawn from the counterculture.

Smith’s decision to reach out to the hippies and incorporate them into his ministry produced a surge of growth in the CalvaryChapel, due largely to Lonnie Frisbee’s charismatic evangelism. Frisbee was born in Costa Mesa in 1950, and his parents divorced early in his life. After his mother remarried and he did not get along with his stepfather, Frisby left home at fifteen. He began participating in the drug subculture and the Laguna Beach gay community. Frisbee then moved to San Francisco where he converted to Christianity, joining The Living Room, the first street Christian community in 1967. For three years after meeting Chuck Smith, Frisbee became a major force in the growth of the Calvary Chapel and in retrospect has been referred to as the “John the Baptist of southern California” ( Di Sabatino 1995:8) . He was ordained in 1971. Smith estimated that during the time period that Frisbee was on the Calvary Chapel staff the church baptized 8,000 people and converted 20,000. However, Frisbee and Smith divided over speaking in tongues as Frisbee was committed to the importance of conversions and to glossolalia as an indicator of the presence of the Holy Spirit, while Smith believed that love was the most important expression of the Holy Spirit. Lonnie and Connie Frisbee divorced in 1973 after Connie had an adulterous relationship with their pastor.

In 1978, Frisbee left Calvary Chapel and joined with John Wimber, who also was committed to Pentecostalism and at the time was pastoring a small Calvary Chapel church in Yorba Linda. Frisbee had the same kind of impact in Wimber’s church that he had previously had with the Calvary Chapel. For example, ” At the Mother’s Day 1980 church service, Frisbee ordered everyone 21 and under to come to the front of the stage. Witnesses claim that as soon as the kids got next to Frisbee, they fell to the floor, whipped into frenzy in the presence of the spirit of the Lord. Some churchgoers marched out in disgust over the spectacle” (Coker 2005). Wimber subsequently left Calvary Chapel where his Pentecostalism was unwelcome and co-founded with like-minded pastors of the Calvary Chapel in Los Angeles what became the Association of Vineyard Churches. However, Wimber soon discovered Frisbee’s homosexual activities and ended their partnership; Frisbee subsequently died of AIDS in 1993.

Smith’s decision to invite hippies into the congregation was not warmly received in all quarters. There was both internal and external opposition. Smith recalls one incident in which the church had installed expensive new carpeting, and some members took offense at hippies dirtying the carpet with their bare feet. He reports having said to other church leaders that “…it is we older established Christians who are on trial before the young people.” And he concluded: “If because of our plush carpeting we have to close the door to one young person who has bare feet, then I’m personally in favor of ripping out all the carpeting and having concrete floors….let’s not ever, ever, close the door to anyone because of dress or the way he looks” (Smith 2005:32). Other Evangelical churches were also not initially enamored with Smith’s initiative. As Richardson notes (1993:213), “participants in the Calvary movement were often viewed by most as losers, trouble-makers, or simply anti-social because of their involvement in street and drug subcultures.” Smith recalls that a number of local churches took the position “If God has truly cleaned them up on the inside then they would show it on the outside” (Smith, Jr. 2009:181).

After the Calvary Chapel and Association of Vineyard Churches parted ways, both thrived. The Vineyard churches grew to over 600 affiliates in the U.S. and 1,500 worldwide, with about 150,000 members in the U.S. The Calvary Chapel network of affiliate churches numbers over 1,000, and the Costa Mesa church serves about 35,000 visitors each week.


Calvary Chapel adheres to evangelical Christian doctrine in most important respects. The Bible is understood to be the inspired and inerrant word of God. Calvary Chapel accepts Trinitarian theology, teaching that God exists in three persons – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. With respect to Jesus Christ, the Calvary Chapel teaches that Jesus is the Messiah and was born of a virgin, crucified, bodily resurrected following the crucifixion, and then ascended to heaven, which is understood to be a literal place. Jesus Christ is believed be both fully human and God and to have died in atonement for the sins of all humanity. It is believed that Christ will personally return in the second coming, and return will be premillennial (his physical return will occur prior to the beginning of the millennium). Believers will be raptured before the period of tribulation. Those who accept Christ and are saved are promised eternal lives in heaven, but humans are free to accept or reject God’s grace. Those who do not accept Christ will be eternally consigned to hell. Individuals may be “born again,” by repenting from sin and accepting Jesus Christ; this ensures that their sins are forgiven and they will spend eternity in heaven. The Calvary Chapel rejects certain aspects of Calvinism, such as Irresistible Grace, asserting that everyone has the free will to accept or reject God’s grace. In addition, the Chapel rejects the Calvinistic doctrine of Limited Atonement (the belief that Christ died for the Elect alone), asserting that he died for the sins of all humanity.

Calvary Chapel doctrines are distinctive in certain respects as Chuck Smith has sought middle ground between Pentecostalism and Fundamentalism. As Calvary Chapel explains this impulse: “Over the years,…fundamentalism, while it clung to the integrity of God’s Word, tended to become rigid, legalistic, and unaccepting of spiritual gifts. Similarly, Pentecostalism became enthusiastic and emotional at the expense of the teaching of God’s Word” ( Taylor n.d.). While Calvary Chapel teaches that the Bible is inerrant as do Fundamentalists, the church does not believe in biblical literalism. While Calvary Chapel accepts speaking in tongues as a spiritual gift as do Pentecostals, he does not favor such expression in congregational services. Calvary Chapel services, like Pentecostal services, are high energy, but as is the case in Fundamentalism there is great emphasis on teaching the Bible. Smith has consistently sought doctrinal flexibility as a way of promoting Christian unity and avoiding what Smith regards as division over minor theological issues. Smith also asserts that love of Christ should be the basis for Christian fellowship and should override denomination and minor doctrinal differences. As already noted, dating back to the early years of Calvary Chapel, Smith strongly rejected excluding individuals from Christian fellowship based on their appearance or style of worship.

There was also an element of apocalypticism in early Calvary Chapel doctrine. In End Times (1980), Smith stated his expectation that the generation born starting in 1948 would be the world’s last generation, and he expected that the world would end no later than 1981. In fact, Calvary Chapel held a New Year’s Eve service in 1981 in expectation of the world ending. The failure of that prophecy led to disillusionment and some defections but did not significantly impact Calvary Chapel’s size and growth (Arellano 2011).


The purpose of worship services at Calvary Chapel is to express love, praise, and thankfulness to God. One of the distinguishing features of Calvary Chapel worship services from the time it was founded was their informality. While some members wear formal attire to church services, the church invites those attending to “come as you are” since it is inner transformation and not external conformity that the church seeks to achieve. Pastors also frequently lead services in informal attire to diminish status differences. There is a general structure to the services, although individual churches vary considerably, that includes segments on greeting, praise and worship, message, and payer. Worship services are flexible and open so that they may be guided by the Holy Spirit and encourage the opening of worshipers’ hearts. Therefore, worshipers are not instructed on when to sit, stand, read, or recite. In addition a significant portion of the service involves music, often contemporary but sometimes traditional (Miller 1997:80), because Calvary Chapel teaches that worship should be inspirational. The informality of attire and worship services and the prominence of locally produced music all trace to the early years of the church when it was deeply influenced by countercultural converts.

Another distinctive feature of Calvary Chapel worship services is a commitment to expositional presentation of the Bible. Smith discovered expository teaching by accident when he was running out of material for his sermons. He found W.H. Griffith’s The Apostle John (1984), a book outlining the verse-by-verse study of the epistle of John 1. When this method of teaching produced excitement and engagement in the congregation, he expanded the concept to other books of the Bible (Smith, Jr. 2009:80). As Smith put it, “The transformation contained three parts: I went from preaching to teaching; the sermon went from topical to expository; and the content of the message went from my own development of a Bible text to the Bible itself (Smith, Jr. 2009:88). Henceforth, at worship services the congregation moved through the Bible from beginning to end, reading each verse and book in order. From a Calvary Chapel perspective, the objective is teaching rather than preaching. Longtime congregation members therefore may have studied the entire Bible in this way many times. As Smith ( “Bob Coy, Chuck Smith, Gayle Erwin” 1996) once described his objective: “simply teaching the World of God simply.” This approach also led to Calvary Chapel’s emphasis on teaching rather than evangelizing: growth of faith and knowledge will lead people to a natural sharing of their faith.

Calvary Chapel practices both baptism and communion. In the early days, when countercultural conversions were a primary focus for Chuck Smith and Lonnie Frisbee, baptisms were often performed in the Pacific Ocean and worship services were held on the beach. Those ritual sites largely gave way to baptism in indoor vessels and church worship services, although baptism in natural bodies of water is still acceptable. Baptism is not believed to be essential for spiritual salvation but rather is regarded as emblematic of an inner transformation that has occurred. Individual congregations celebrate Communion, at which members receive bread and wine, with varying degrees of frequency.

Calvary Chapel’s position on the “gift of tongues” reflects the church’s search for a middle position between Fundamentalism and Pentecostalism. Smith’s ambivalence about glossolalia and being slain in the Spirit has been longstanding. He states that while a student at L.I.F.E. Bible College he “doubted that the Spirit of God would inspire behavior that would make people look silly or out of control. That kind of behavior contradicted my idea of the way Jesus, Paul, or any of the disciples would have behaved.” He goes on to note that “I was the only one in my graduating class who was not “slain in the Spirit” when I received my ordination” (Smith, Jr. 2009:42). He is particularly reluctant to immediately attribute such experiences to the Holy Spirit: Pentecostal and charismatic Christians describe being slain in the spirit as “an experience in which God’s Spirit comes to rest on people with such force that they cannot remain on their feet, but collapse in a kind or euphoric swoon. Although fainting is a normal, human experience, I have always had serious reservations about attributing these particular fainting spells to God (Smith Jr. 2009:54). Smith therefore encourages the exercise of the gifts “decently and in good order,” which translates into personal rather than public devotions or expression in “after glow” services ( Taylor n.d.).


Chuck Smith founded and has led Calvary Chapel church network since its inception in 1965. While individual churches are independent and can choose their own leadership structures, most follow what is termed the ” Moses Model” of leadership, which Smith established in Costa Mesa. According this model, God is the ultimate leader, and each pastor plays the role of Moses, serving directly under godly authority and responsible to God. Pastors guide the church as the Holy Spirit instructs ( Taylor n.d.) The pastor may appoint assistant pastors, but there is no formal organizational hierarchy (Miller 1997:80) . Pastors therefore have almost complete authority over their churches. Women and homosexuals cannot be ordained as pastors.

In establishing Calvary Chapel, Smith eschewed the familiar denominational form of organization in order to avoid what he regarded as restrictive rules, divisive practices, and conflict over insignificant doctrinal differences. Calvary Chapel therefore describes itself as a fellowship of churches. The only symbolic connections among churches are that they typically display the image of a dove within the church and they may incorporate Calvary Chapel into the church’s name, although this is not required. The fellowship of churches has no central religious or financial regulatory organization. Individual churches are authorized to participate in the Calvary Chapel network through approval by the Calvary Chapel Outreach Fellowship. In order to be approved, pastors of candidate churches must accept the distinctive features of the Calvary Chapel movement. Pastors of churches are not required to possess a seminary degree. When Chuck Smith was asked what seminary prospective pastors should attend, his response was that they should go to the same seminary the Disciples attended sitting at the feet of Jesus ( “Bob Coy, Chuck Smith, Gayle Erwin” 1996). Throughout Calvary Chapel history, therefore, Smith has ordained those who told him that they had received a call to the ministry and who were dedicated to Smith’s ministerial philosophy. Indeed, many in the initial cohort of Calvary Chapel pastors were men who had come out of the counterculture and had no formal ministerial training (Smith and Brooke 2005). Smith’s ability to train and ordain ministers personally facilitated the church planting that led to the rapid development of the Calvary Chapel Fellowship network. Typically, new churches have started as Bible study groups and gradually evolved into more formal congregations. Churches do not have formal membership; those attending services simply integrate into church services and activities.

In addition to its network of churches, Calvary Chapel established the Calvary Chapel Bible College, the School of Leadership, the Harvest Crusades, Maranatha Music, and a radio network. Calvary Chapel Bible College was established in Murrieta, California in 1975 and has grown to numerous affiliated campuses where students can earn degrees in theology or Bible studies. The Bible College is not accredited but has working relationships with other accredited institutions that facilitate transfer credits for students attending the college. Chuck Smith is president of the Bible College, and instructors are Calvary Chapel ministers. The School of Leadership is independent of the Bible College but provided internship positions for those with ministerial aspirations ( Denna 2001:8). The Harvest Crusades, which began in the 1990s though the Calvary Chapel’s Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, offers a combination of a Christian rock concert and forum for offering Christian testimony. These crusades have produced audiences totaling several million since their inception.One important feature of the Jesus People Movement component of the 1960’s counterculture was hymn and worship music in folk-rock style that was produced by movement members. Calvary Chapel began drawing on this talent pool, and in 1971 establishedMaranatha! (Our Lord) Music as a church outreach program. Maranatha! Music produced its first album that year, The Everlastin’ Living Jesus Music Concert. A number of music groups came to be affiliated with Maranatha! and Calvary Chapel.

In the mid-1990s Chuck Smith partnered with his son and another Calvary Chapel pastor, Mike Kestler, to establish a ratio network, Calvary Satellite Network, that was funded substantially from Smith’s Costa Mesa church (Goffard 2007). The network expanded rapidly and ultimately consisted of 400 stations, making Calvary Chapel teachings available across the country. That partnership ended in 2003 amid irresolvable disputes among the parties. Calvary Chapel has also established The World for Today radio ministry that is broadcast around the globe (Austin 2005).

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.


Calvary Chapel has been involved in a number of controversies through its history. At the outset, the church drew criticism both internally and within the broader evangelical community for inviting Jesus People and countercultural hippies into the congregation. The church’s casual dress and informal worship style along with its flexible doctrines that sought to bridge denominational differences also were met with disapproval. By seeking a niche between Fundamentalism and Pentecostalism, Calvary Chapel drew opposition from both. The church survived the decline of the counterculture much more successfully than many other movements of the 1960s. Individuals who transitioned out of the counterculture became core church members and, in some cases, pastors as they became older and adopted more conventional lives. With its commitment to inclusiveness, the church also identified new groups to which to appeal. Rees (2009:63) observed that: “As the hippies of the counter culture grew up and became more established, Calvary went with them. Eventually, it abandoned the ocean baptisms and beach services, although some of the youth groups are reviving the practice today. By the mid-eighties, Smith was preaching to a new generation of young Californians with a new set of social values: rebellion was replaced with consumerism, and Cavalry adapted. Electric guitars replaced acoustic ones, the charismatic elements of worship were toned down, and the church took on a more mainstream, albeit still very casual, feel. When Costa Mesa became more ethnically diverse in the 80s and 90s, Smith and his staff began broadening their target to the non-English speaking population growing around them. Spanish, as well Filipino and Korean language services were added and quickly filled up.” The informal worship style, doctrinal flexibility, and innovative music that developed within Calvary Chapel were adopted by many other denominations, making the Calvary Chapel much more mainstream in the process.

The centralized form of leadership (the Moses Model) in Calvary Chapels also created continuing problems. There were several cases in which pastors in Calvary Chapel affiliated churches were charged with marital infidelity, sexual indiscretions, or financial irregularities; and, given the leadership structure, there was little accountability. (Billiter 1992; Haldane 1992). In some of these cases Chuck Smith provided positions in the Cost Mesa church after the ministers had been dismissed from their former churches (Moll 2007). Smith’s response to queries about the treatment of pastors accused or found guilty of sexual indiscretions has been that there is an attempt to restore them if the repent: “If they repent, we do seek to restore in a spirit of meekness, considering ourselves lest we be tempted,” Smith says. “We feel that we have a biblical basis [for doing so]” (Moll 2007). Smith says he practices restoration and that pastors who have been restored to ministry after sexual sin have gone on to run successful ministries: “I can tell you of many ministers, great ministers, whom we’ve been in the process of helping restore, and fortunately the problems never became public and so people are not even aware of them. I feel that that’s an honor to God” (Moll 2007).

Calvary Chapel is a thriving network of churches, still led by Chuck Smith. However, the future of the Calvary Chapel fellowship of churches remains to be determined. Smith and his son had a falling out when Chuck Smith Jr. questioned his father’s philosophy and theological beliefs. Protest erupted within the church: “Online protests and fliers distributed at the younger Smith’s church demanded that he drop the “Calvary” name because of his increasingly liberal drift on such non-debatable issues as the evil of homosexuality and the promise of hell for unbelievers (Goffard 2006). The rift led to Smith dismissing his son from the ministry in 2006, eliminating the possibility of a father-son succession. Smith’s death in October, 2013 after a protracted battle with lung cancer brought the leadership transition to the fore (Fletcher 2012; Goffard 2013). Given Smith’s personal centrality to the formation and ongoing governance of Calvary Chapel, the future of the network without Smith’s leadership will pose for it a significant organizational challenge.


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Post Date:
1 September 2012

4 October 2013