Chuck Smith, the pastor whose outreach to California “hippies” in the 1960s helped start the Calvary Chapel movement, died Thursday morning after a two-year battle with lung cancer. He was 86.
Smith was one of the first to attempt to change traditional church appearance to reach out to a changing culture, without sacrificing doctrine and expository teaching.
“His impact can be seen in every church service that has electric guitar–driven worship, hip casually dressed pastors, and 40-minute sermons consisting of verse-by-verse Bible expositions peppered with pop-culture references and counterculture slang,” Brad Christerson, a Biola University sociologist who studies charismatic churches in California, told Christianity Today.
Born in 1927, Smith grew up in a fiery, zealous family. He became an evangelist and preacher early, pastoring in the Church of the Foursquare Gospel. But Smith became disenchanted and wanted to both evangelize and ground believers in solid teaching. That conviction laid the groundwork for his ministry when the turbulent 1960s rolled around and Southern California became a stereotypical center for the hippie movement.
The Southern California “free-love” scene had a “drug-induced … delusion of spirituality,” said John Higgins, Smith’s longtime friend and now pastor of Calvary Chapel TriCity in Tempe, Ariz.
“I thought they needed a bath and a job,” Smith would say. But from the heart of his wife Kay, who wept at the sight of children “stoned out of their heads,” he began to change his mindset.
Smith became known as “Pastor Chuck,” who, along with friends like Higgins, lived among the hippies and preached simple expository preaching. The small Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, Calif., numbered just 25 members in 1965, but the congregation began to grow, making expanded buildings obsolete before they were finished.
One of his mass baptisms on the beach even gained a mention in a 1971 Time magazine article on Christianity in the doctrinally diverse “hippie” culture. Smith trusted that Christ would clean them up after He saved them.
As with many Christian leaders, Smith wasn’t without his controversies. Standing by the independence of member congregations, he became embroiled in what many called his lax reactions to financial and sexual misconduct of some authoritative pastors.
Still, Calvary Chapel and its “Jesus Movement” continues to grow, with roughly 1,600 congregations in the United States and abroad. Smith’s radio and publishing ministry, The Word for Today, now airs in more than 350 cities worldwide.
“I just thank the Lord for the anointing He put upon Chuck Smith to stand fast for His Word,” Higgins wrote to me in an email. “Chuck walked in that anointing and today finished his course.”
Smith told his story to WORLD in 2008, of when California beach boys, drugs, hippies, and Christ collided.