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The beach boys

How a middle-aged pastor and some ex-hippies spoke life to a generation declaring God Is Dead


The beach boys
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COSTA MESA, Calif.--It was a Monday evening in southern California, 1968. Calvary Chapel pastor Chuck Smith invited everyone who wanted to be baptized to come down to the tiny 19th Street Beach near the church. About 50 kids made the trek, and Smith waded into the Pacific in his street clothes to baptize a French exchange student. "She was going back to France and wanted to be baptized," Smith recalled. When she emerged from the water, he said, "there was this bright light from heaven shining down on us."

The beam came from a police helicopter. Smith, now 81, chuckles at the memory: Someone had noticed all the hippies congregating surfside and called the cops.

By then, though, area law enforcement had heard something special was going on at Calvary Chapel. "Judges had these problem kids and saw these changes. Police saw the changes, schoolteachers saw the changes and came down to the church to see what was going on," said Smith. "These kids were on drugs, all messed up, and their parents didn't know what to do with them. Now, suddenly they're carrying around their Bibles and talking about Jesus. So the parents are wondering, just what are they getting into? They came and they heard the word of God, and realized we weren't a bunch of weirdos. We were just leading these kids into a better life."

The baptisms began to draw crowds so large that Smith had to move them to a roomier beach at Corona Del Mar. "You'd have a thousand people down there and six or seven fellows baptizing," Smith said. "People would line up on the bluff to see what was going on, and they would start asking questions. Of course, there were Christians in the crowd, and they would explain that this was a Christian baptism and would begin sharing the gospel. And we had people who would come right down out of the crowd and be baptized on the spot."

By 1968 the hippie movement in California had peaked in many ways. The "summer of love" was a year-old memory, psychedelic rock music was mainstream, and dropouts and runaways were discovering that the drug scene in West Coast communes was a dead end. Many were ready for truth, and the Jesus Movement was born. Smith at 41 was an old man on the scene who often noted in his sermons that he was balding and overweight. That sort of authenticity eventually drew hundreds, then thousands, to Calvary Chapel.

Smith, now known universally as "Pastor Chuck," as a young minister started his days catching a few sets on his surfboard. These days, the closest he gets to catching waves is wearing aloha shirts. At a time when many men are a decade or more into retirement, Smith is preaching three sermons each Sunday.

Born in 1927, Smith was ordained as a minister with the Foursquare Gospel church. By the mid-1950s, he was disenchanted with the denomination's emphasis on evangelism at the expense of grounding believers in the Bible, building spiritual fellowship, and equipping people for ministry. "Though we were encouraging them to witness, we weren't giving them the groundwork, the foundation," Smith said. His training as a pastor emphasized topical sermons, but he soon learned the value of expositional studies, preaching through 1 John then Romans, and watching his church double in attendance.

When Smith in 1965 took over the pastorate at tiny Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, Calif., its congregation numbered 25. So he began preaching through the Bible, he said, "line upon line, precept upon precept." The church grew, mainly adults and "straight" families-the hippies hadn't come yet. But Huntington Beach and the adjoining coastal towns were a mecca for the counterculture.

"The whole scene was drug-induced, under a delusion of spirituality," said John Higgins, then 29. Higgins had met Smith a few years earlier and had become a Christian. Now 70 and pastor of Calvary Chapel TriCity in Tempe, Ariz., Higgins in 1968 sold his belongings in California and opened his home "to all the kids on the streets and started trying to win them to Christ." He calls it the first Christian commune. That year he opened three houses in conjunction with Calvary Chapel.

Meanwhile, his mentor Smith at the time had two boys in high school and a daughter in college. "We were in this environment that had become so radical, living right here in the center of it," Smith said of the exploding hippie culture. Smith confesses he had a negative attitude toward the dropouts he saw multiplying around him: "I thought they needed a bath and a job." His wife Kay, he said, was the first to want to reach out to them. "She would have me drive down and park on Main Street and we would watch these kids walking down the street just stoned out of their heads. She would start weeping and praying that we could somehow reach these kids."

But the hippies were soon coming to Calvary. A clean-cut young college student named John Nicholson, himself a former hippie who frequented Laguna and other beach hangouts, brought them. So did a young evangelist named Lonnie Frisbee, who hitchhiked along the coastal highways just so he could meet hippies and tell them about Jesus. And Higgins' houses were filling up:

"The first week 30 people moved into a little two-bedroom house. We made bunks in the garage for the girls. The guys slept in the yard. I slept in the yard," Higgins recalled. "It was chaotic. Every day people came who thought they were great prophets. There was a lot of drug-induced psychosis. One guy came from Riverside, had a big following, colorful silk robes and a staff. He was a guru. He wanted to debate. I didn't win the debates; the Scriptures won the debates."

In May 1968 Higgins sent a team into the canyons to bring back hippies living up there. Everyone who showed up at his "commune" also got a ride to church "every time there was church." What attracted them to Calvary-and to Smith-was that they were accepted as they were. What kept them there was the solid expository teaching, according to Higgins and others who came in 1968. It was more profound than clever slogans and lasted longer than LSD trips. The serious preaching set apart the Calvary work from others in the Jesus Movement then spreading west to east. "The 'Age of Aquarius' had a snake in it," said Higgins. "Smith was genuine. No tricks, no games, no promotions."

Smith says for a while he took heat from traditional churchgoers: "They would say, 'When are they going to start looking like Christians? When are they going to cut their hair?' I would say, 'Well what does a Christian look like?' To me, it's a matter of the heart, not a matter of the way they dress or the length of their hair."

Today the number of Christians descended from the Calvary Chapel movement is incalculable. In the United States over 1,500 churches are loosely affiliated with Calvary, and there are hundreds all over the world. Sunday morning at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, where Smith continues to preach, draws 25,000.

Like many in the counterculture who found the Jesus Movement, Smith said God "had to bring me to nothing because He knew what He was wanting to do. He let me experience defeat to show me and reveal to me that all of the ideas and programs I was involved with just didn't cut it. So that when He began to give the success, there was no way I could try and take credit for it."


Lynn Vincent

Lynn is executive editor of WORLD Magazine and producer/host of the true crime podcast Lawless. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen nonfiction books, including Same Kind of Different As Me and Indianapolis. Lynn lives in the mountains east of San Diego, Calif.

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