Pastor Chuck Smith: The Founder of Calvary Chapel

We’re praying that this page will be a blessing to those who sat under Pastor Chuck’s ministry. We also hope that it will be a reminder of the philosophy of ministry and its Biblical basis that has been passed to us – and now ours to pass to others.

For those of you who have only known Pastor Chuck through recordings or his books and have become part of the Calvary Chapel family, we know you will be encouraged and reaffirmed. To countless others – whom we may never meet until that Great Day, when our work is done – we pray you will be edified and encouraged, as we are all part of the Church, the Bride of Christ.

Pastor Chuck had been the pastor of Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa for almost 50 years and in Christian ministry for some 65 years. He was 86 years old when he entered Glory. His impact on the Christian Church in the 20th century was like few others. Directly and indirectly.
Thousands and thousands of churches have been planted all over the world as the fruit of his work. Tens of thousands of pastors – both in the Calvary Chapel movement and far, far beyond – have been influenced and trained by him. Millions of people came to a saving trust in and relationship with Jesus Christ, and millions more were led to Christian maturity through his Bible teaching and broader ministry. The worship environment of the contemporary Christianity was essentially birthed through his ministry. His emphasis on the verse-by-verse exposition of the Bible as the center of the teaching and preaching ministry of the church has had a vast influence.

The beginnings of calvary chapel

Chuck Smith was born and raised in Ventura, in a Christian home, under the strong influence of his godly, praying mother and his easy-going, evangelist father. It was in 1942, when Chuck Smith was 15, that he made a commitment to Christian service with his life. That year he was the only teen from his church at that camp; the following year he was leading the youth group and brought a large group of kids with him to the same camp.

He grew up in the Foursquare Church (in Ventura), and went to Bible College at the Foursquare “Life Bible College” in Los Angeles. Upon graduation, he launched out into ministry with his young wife Kay. Being a smart, gifted leader it was easy for him to think that the world was waiting for him and that success in ministry would come rather easily, but it did not.

Chuck’s first pastorate began in June 1948 at Prescott, Arizona. He made $15 a week, and their apartment cost $45 a month – but they never went without. God taught Chuck His faithfulness in providing every day.

Then there was a pastorate in Tucson, then Corona – where the church shrunk over his two years there. When he came there were 57 people, and on his last Sunday there were 27 – and 7 of those were from his own family.

Next was Huntington Beach. Chuck loved living there, and wanted to break the pattern of changing churches every two years because he ran out of sermons. That was when he started teaching verse-by-verse through the book of 1 John. Chuck learned expository teaching and the church doubled in a year. Next he taught Romans and it revolutionized his life by showing him the grace of God, after growing up in a works-oriented relationship with God. When speaking about this, Chuck said, “I don’t remember my conversion experience, but I do remember my grace experience.”

After many pastorates and many years of ministry, Chuck faced a crossroads. In Corona he worked as a produce manager at an Alpha Beta supermarket. He was eventually confronted with the decision to either choose ministry or the job at the supermarket. After a sleepless night, he added up the outstanding bills (which came to $416) and figured that since he had no income, the right thing to do was to forget about ministry. That next morning a caller promised him $426, to be sent by check. Chuck was elated; but God spoke to his heart about the elation he felt at the promise of a man, and the sleepless night he suffered because he wouldn’t trust God’s promise. “Trust cannot be partial. It is an all or nothing at all proposition. Christ’s lessons on faith were identical. There is no room for half-hearted commitment when we are called to walk on water.”

Eventually, a new Bible Study group in Corona started flourishing, and people started financially supporting Chuck and his work, so much so that the cassette tapes from the Bible studies could be produced into a radio program, that only served to increase the interest, and people overflowed at this group in Corona. It looked like finally the kind of church situation that Chuck and Kay had waited for their whole lives in ministry.

Yet, unexpectedly and by faith, trusting the leading of the Holy Spirit, he left that growing congregation in Corona to come to a little, troubled church in Costa Mesa named Calvary Chapel.

The impact of Calvary chapel

In one sense the impact of Calvary Chapel is evident – some 1,500 churches planted all over the world, and among them several of the largest churches in the United States. There are thousands more – tens of thousands – that are Calvary Chapel churches, yet not in name.

It is also worth saying that even in the early days there were sharp criticisms against Calvary Chapel. Others said that Calvary Chapel appealed to young people by having communion with potato chips and coke. More seriously, in the early days Calvary Chapel was criticized as being “Production line religion,” or that it “Caters only to what people want to hear by diluting the message for mass appeal.”

Nevertheless, the fruit over the years – in the depth of discipleship and the number of leaders trained and serving God – has thoroughly disproved this accusation. Instead, impartial observers have come away impressed as they look at Chuck Smith and the Calvary Chapel movement.

Dr. Donald Miller in his book, Reinventing American Protestantism, boldly said, “Calvary Chapel can be viewed as the pioneer of new paradigm churches.” Calvary Chapel was setting the pattern for the way that whole generation “does church.”

Additionally, almost single-handedly, Chuck Smith started a resurgence of expository Bible teaching in church pulpits with his emphasis on the verse-by-verse exposition of Books of the Bible. Of course, he was not the only expository teacher of that time – men like Ray Stedman and later John MacArthur also stand out – but he was certainly one of the few and most influential.

Hughes Oliphant Old, a noted scholar of preaching, observed that Chuck Smith was “reviving the systematic exposition of Scripture… In our day, he is one of the purest examples of a preacher who follows in the footsteps of Chrysostom, Augustine, Zwingli, and Calvin.”

Calvary chapel costa mesa

Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa was an independent church with Foursquare roots, started in the community room of a trailer park in 1961 by Pastor Floyd Nelson. In 1965, the church board and Pastor Floyd Nelson decided that the pastor would take a six-month leave of absence from his duties.

At the board meetings of these early years, Chuck would sit at his desk in the very small office of the little church that could fit 90 people at the most. He wouldn’t use an agenda for meetings; board members would bring up different items of business for the church, and he would listen carefully. They would ask for his opinion and Chuck would say something like, “Well, I’ve discovered that where God guides He provides. We should make our priority seeking Him first and He will take care of these other things.”

the last word belongs to pastor chuck smith

We never want to worship a man – so we don’t. Yet it’s great to remember what God did through him. In some ways Chuck was exceptional, in other ways he was not exceptional. God used a man exceptional enough to bear the load, yet normal enough so that God would get the glory.

“Calvary Chapel is not an ambition fulfilled. It is not the result of an egotistical desire to pastor a gigantic church. I became too tired to imagine pastoring a congregation of more than 250 people. The results you now see happened through the power of the Holy Spirit; ‘not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit of the Lord’ (Zechariah 4:6).”