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Calvary Chapel History

A Legacy of Dropping Barriers and Reaching Out

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Calvary Chapel, the former Montesano Theater, 114 West Marcy Avenue, Montesano, Washington. The former Montesano Theater building is now the Silvia Building, owned by Silvia Oddfellow Lodge No. 38 IOOF. It houses the lodge and also this chapel.
Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons

Calvary Chapel history is not long, but this faith movement forever changed the way church is conducted.

A "come as you are" dress code and contemporary music are taken for granted in most American churches today. When Calvary Chapel made those changes in 1965, it was a revolutionary idea.

Even more revolutionary were the people Calvary Chapel cast its net toward in those early years: hippies, drug addicts, and young adults who were looking for God but didn't even know it.

Calvary Chapel History - Dropping The Barriers

California is often on the cutting edge of change. In the 1960s, the state was home to hundreds of thousands of long-haired hippies. Pastor Chuck Smith looked past their unkempt appearance and saw souls hungering for Jesus Christ. But these rebels rejected traditional churches as being too stodgy and restrictive.

The movement began with 25 people in Costa Mesa, California. Within two years they outgrew their first building. Then they outgrew a rented church and built a new one. Within a couple years that was too small, so Calvary Chapel bought a parcel of land and held services in a huge circus tent until the new church could be built.

When Calvary Chapel's 2,200 seat sanctuary was dedicated in 1973, three services had to be held to accommodate all the worshipers. Soon more than 4,000 were attending each service, forcing many to sit on the carpeted floor.

What people saw was different. No one judged visitors by appearances. Smith preached in an open-collared shirt, pacing back and forth across a platform instead of standing glued in a pulpit. The music was contemporary, the forerunner of Christian folk and rock.

What people heard, however, was the uncompromised message of the gospel. Smith had 17 years' experience as a pastor in the Foursquare Gospel Church. He preached sermons somewhere between fundamentalism and Pentecostalism. His style was simple and straightforward, laying out the timeless principles of Christianity.

Calvary Chapel History - A Network of Churches, Not a Denomination

It wasn't long before Calvary Chapels were established in other cities. While Smith approved them and set the basic theology, he was not interested in starting a new denomination. He had left Foursquare because of politics and bureaucracy.

Instead, Calvary Chapel became an association or network of churches, loosely affiliated but each one independent. Local churches are modeled on Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa while retaining their own identities. A common thread among Calvary Chapel pastors is a focus toward book-by-book, verse-by-verse, expository teaching of the Bible.

Calvary Chapel follows traditional evangelical Protestant doctrine as far as salvation theology is concerned, yet its church government is unique. Boards of elders and deacons exist to deal with the business needs of the church property. In addition, Calvary Chapels often appoint a spiritual board of elders to help tend to the spiritual and counseling needs of the body. But the senior pastor is the top authority at Calvary Chapel.

This so-called "Moses Model," with the senior pastor as leader, varies from church to church, with some pastors delegating more authority to boards and committees. Defenders say it prevents church politics; critics say there is a danger of the senior pastor being unaccountable to anyone.

Calvary Chapel History - Across the U.S. and the World

Over the years, Calvary Chapel expanded into book publishing, music publishing, and radio stations. Smith's "Word for Today" radio program became popular throughout the United States.

Smith's followers, like Greg Laurie, Raul Ries, Mike Macintosh, and Skip Heitzig, planted many other large churches, started international Bible colleges, retreat centers, Christian camps, and the Calvary Satellite Network, made up of 400 stations.

Today there are more than 1,500 Calvary Chapels throughout the United States and the rest of the world.

Despite maintaining local churches' independence, the Calvary Chapel fellowship has not been able to escape the power struggles, political squabbles and lawsuits that denominations suffer.

Individual Calvary Chapels do not report their membership to Costa Mesa; therefore, the total number of people attending Calvary Chapel churches is not known, but it's fair to say the association influences millions.

And, every person who enjoys going to church in t-shirt and jeans also owes a small debt of gratitude to Calvary Chapel.

In late 2009, Smith suffered minor strokes but made a full recovery. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2011, and on October 3, 2013, Pastor Chuck Smith died at age 86.

(Sources: CalvaryChapel.com, CalvaryChapelDayton.com, and ChristianityToday.com.)

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