Calvary Chapel

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Calvary Chapel

The first Calvary Chapel was founded in 1965 by Chuck Smith in Costa Mesa, California. Thirty years later, there were more than 600 Calvary Chapels in the United States, as well as nearly 100 mission churches in other countries. The largest concentration of Calvary Chapels (255 churches) is in California, but 42 other states also have Calvary Chapels, including Washington, Oregon, Arizona, and Florida, each of which in the mid-1990s had more than 25 churches. There were also Calvary Chapels in 35 different countries, including Russia, the Philippines, Hungary, India, and several European nations. In a survey of several hundred Calvary pastors done in the early 1990s, the median church had 138 people in weekly attendance, but the modest size of these congregations is due to the fact that a quarter of these churches were less than two years old, and three-quarters had been founded in the past twelve years. Within the Calvary Chapel movement there are a number of churches that average more than 5,000 people in weekly attendance, including 5 such churches within the Southern California area.

Calvary Chapels have several distinctive hallmarks. They typically meet in buildings that are highly utilitarian and lack religious symbolism (e.g., public auditoriums, former grocery stores and warehouses, rented school gymnasiums, and storefronts). Worship is contemporary, led by a team of people playing guitars, electronic keyboards, drums, and other assorted instruments, depending on local talent. The sermon is typically a verse-by-verse exposition of a chapter from the Bible. During the week there are home Bible study groups led by members of the church, and these informal gatherings often include time for personal sharing and prayer for each other's needs. Larger megachurches also have dozens of different interest groups that meet weekly.

When Chuck Smith started the church in the mid-1960s, it was in reaction to the organizational formalism of his own Foursquare denomination. His early ministry was to "hippies" and other people associated with the counterculture who were trying to get off drugs and live a productive life. In the early boom years of the church, it met in a circus tent before finally building in 1974 a permanent sanctuary that seats 2,300 people. In the first decade of the Calvary movement Christian concerts that featured the music of recent converts attracted many people who might never have stepped through the doors of a traditional church. Even today, worship services have a casual style, with members and clergy dressing informally. The constituency of the church is largely baby boomers and their children. In spite of the growth of Calvary Chapels, Chuck Smith claims that it is not a denomination but instead a network of independent churches. There is no central seminary where pastoral training occurs; instead, the conservative biblical theology of the movement is maintained through thousands of hours of tapes of Smith's sermons, which are now augmented by radio ministries and tapes by pastors of the many megachurches that have evolved over the years.

See alsoChurch; Denomination; Megachurch; New Religious Movements; Postdenominational Church.


Balmer, Randal. Mine Eyes HaveSeen the Glory. 1989. Miller, Donald E. Reinventing AmericanProtestantism. 1997.

Smith, Chuck, and Tal Brooke. Harvest. 1987.

Donald E. Miller

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Calvary Chapel

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