Sunday, October 6, 2013

Pastor Chuck Smith, 1927-2013

Many of you may not know who Chuck Smith is. But if you use Ambleside Online, even if you use only the artist or composer rotation, you have directly benefited from his ministry.

Although I am the only "Calvary Chapelite" of the AO Advisory, I have been influenced by the Calvary Chapel movement for my entire Christian life. AO has the same top-down leadership model, with the Advisory making decisions: we seek to be true to our vision, rather than appealing to the changing whims of a user base. I don't often like to pull out the "AO was my idea" card because, although the initial curriculum concept was mine, the creation of the booklist was mostly the work of the more well-read members of the Advisory. My fantastic brilliance is not in putting together a curriculum, but in putting together the right people and convincing them that the project wasn't such a crazy idea, and convincing them that it was something doable. Then I mostly stepped back and relegated myself to webmaster. But I'm pulling out that card now. AO was my idea. And perhaps my biggest contribution, aside from recognizing who needed to be involved, was the insistence from its inception that it needed to be something anybody could use for free. Nobody had to pay us, or me, to utilize AO. AO was (and is) run by volunteers who view the project as a ministry. That is also Pastor Chuck's influence, modeled after his emphasis on blessing others as a ministry, not a profit venture, even though we recognize the obvious marketing potential of AO.

This is a more personal post, about my own history and my own life, which has been largely influenced and inspired by Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel. I became a Christian in 1983 while in the military in Okinawa. The group of young Christians I fell in with talked in glowing terms about this church called Calvary Chapel back in California that welcomed young people and taught straight out of the Bible. So when I ended up stationed in Oceanside, I naturally looked them up. The first time I walked into a Calvary Chapel (I think it was a mid-week Bible study), there was a guy with an acoustic guitar and a girl sitting on a stool up in front singing and leading worship. It seemed natural, no hype, and very real. It felt like coming home. The teaching was plain, no yelling, no theatrics, just a guy talking,  explaining the Bible in a way I could understand, and that was refreshing.

During the three years between military and marriage, I was a part of the congregation of Calvary Chapel Oceanside (at the time, they were meeting at the local YMCA and the pastor was Bob Dietz and we would hear YMCA announcements from the concession stand over the PA during church service: "Number 4, your pizza is ready!"). Every chance I got, I would go with friends to "Big Calvary" in Costa Mesa, about an hour away. Often that was their Friday night Christian concerts. We were also going to Thursday night Bible studies at Calvary Chapel Dana Point, where Chuck Smith Jr. was teaching, and I went to a women's study at Calvary Chapel Vista taught by Cheryl Broderson, Chuck Smith's daughter. Being young and single and a brand new Christian, I spent a lot of my spare time listening to sermons on cassette - mostly Chuck Smith. And when Calvary Chapel started a radio station - KWVE - I listened to a lot of Calvary Chapel teaching - Greg Laurie, Raul Ries, Jon Courson, Don Johnson. Thus, much of my understanding of what it means to live as a Christian was learned from Calvary Chapel -- either directly from Pastor Chuck, or indirectly from one of his students who had gone on to plant a church somewhere else.

During that time, I met a recently divorced guy at work who was interested in Christianity, so I directed him to the one Christian I knew at work, who was involved in a spin-off Calvary Chapel church called Horizon Christian Fellowship, pastored by Mike Macintosh. The guy ended up becoming a Christian and a year or so later, I married him and we went to his church, Horizon, and Maranatha Chapel, another Calvary Chapel spin-off where Ray Bentley was the pastor. Horizon was meeting in an old school the county was no longer using. When they needed a larger facility for Sunday morning services, they built a gymnasium at the church's expense on the school grounds that they could leave as a gift to the county when the county needed the school back. While the church was using the school grounds, they would allow kids from the neighborhood to use the gym when church services weren't going on. That act of generosity impressed me and modeled the ideal for me of how Christians should act towards their neighbors.

When we started our family a year later, we decided we'd like our children to grow up in a more rural area where they could have a more normal childhood, away from gang violence which was increasing in San Diego. We drove from San Diego to Tennessee with a 4yo and a 2yo. During the very long drive we listened to Praise Band music from Maranatha Music. We were confident we'd have no problem finding a church -- after all, we were going to be living in the Bible Belt. But it wasn't as easy as we had expected. There were plenty of churches, but nothing with the kind of Bible teaching we had grown accustomed to. We even found a church that was sort of a copy of California mega-churches. I think it would be considered a "seeker church" and they had rules they made new members read before joining about what wasn't allowed (no hand-lifting, for example) because "it might make new people uncomfortable." And, although anyone could walk in from the street and feel at home, the Bible teaching was not what we hoped for. We thought our hopes of finally finding a church would be realized, but we were only there for two weeks.

One morning during our search for a church family, I woke up and it hit me -- the natural, reverent, Spirit-seeking, Bible teaching kind of church that I had taken for granted for the past ten years was something I had left back in California and I would never experience that again. It was gone forever. At that point we began praying that a Calvary Chapel would be planted in our area, although the chances of that happening seemed remote. Eventually, though, it did happen after we met another family who had also moved from California and were praying for the same thing. We started our own little home Bible study, and that was the seed of the church we have been involved in for the last 17 years.

Calvary Chapel isn't the perfect church. In fact, I've had my own issues with a few things, mostly when homeschooling has changed me. As I learned about attachment parenting (Dr. Sears used to do a call-in radio show on KVWE, so even that resulted from Calvary Chapel's influence), I wished they were more family-inclusive, instead of segregating church, Bible studies and church activities into age groups. As I homeschooled (after hearing James Dobson talk about it, also on KWVE) and I read more because I was homeschooling, I noticed a slight anti-intellectual bias. It's not an official church-sanctioned attitude, but a church whose focus is on saving souls via street evangelism, and recovery of drug addicts, and group leaders and even pastors come from that background, is likely to have that side effect. So, the church is not perfect, but no church is, and I've found that the positives far outweigh the negatives.

So we've been involved in our local little Calvary Chapel, and made that our church home. But any time I had to miss church because of a sick child, I'd tune in to Calvary Chapel's live service and listen to Pastor Chuck. In fact, the last time I was home with a sick child and tuned in, that was the morning Pastor Chuck made the announcement that he had cancer. Maybe it wasn't just coincidence that I happened to stay home that morning, of all mornings -- maybe I needed to prepare for the inevitable. That was awhile ago, a year or two.

This past Wednesday evening we had a real treat -- Terry Clark, a musician we had known of from Horizon Christian fellowship in San Diego, gave a concert. At OUR little church in Tennessee! It was wonderful, like a taste of home. During the music, I had the inkling that there was a reason for the magical feeling of the worship -- almost like a last victory celebration, or a farewell. And I found out the very next morning that Pastor Chuck had died during the night, just a few hours after that concert.

Are you wondering what the point was in posting my life story? This actually does have an AO aspect. As I've mulled over Pastor Chuck's death and my own years as a Christian that have been entirely under his shadow, I've realized how much of Pastor Chuck's teaching has influenced my own actions, and I've also been struck by a couple of parallels. In the last few months, for the only time in the history of AO, I've seriously considered walking away a couple of times. AO has had its (small) share of critics over the years, as any organization does. Recently we've been alarmed to see our project re-posted, re-named, even sold, so we've had to be more responsible about protecting the work. As a result, I've heard AO come under some pretty severe attack -- mostly variations of AO being accused of being stingy because, even though we allow people to use it for free, we can't allow it to be copied, re-named, re-posted, or sold. During those times that I was tempted to defend AO, I would hear Pastor Chuck's voice in the back of my mind answering a question once asked in an interview about how he responded to those who criticized him or his ministry (and you know that a person in the limelight as much as he was probably had all kinds of things said about him). He said he refused to defend himself, that it was his job to continue doing what God had told him to do, and it was God's job to defend him if that was necessary. (And, as far as me walking away from AO, I've had the verses about "not being weary in doing good" pop up at uncanny times frequently enough over the past few months to convince me that I'm supposed to continue what I'm doing, so me walking away from AO is now off the table. That's no longer an option I'm entertaining.)

The other parallel is about the realities of all organizations. At the time we were praying for a Calvary Chapel to start in our rural area, we were told that the process of starting a Calvary Chapel wasn't as easy as the days I remembered, when anyone could rent a storefront and hang a Calvary Chapel sign on the door. There had been a lot of problems with spin-off churches bearing the Calvary Chapel name but being doctrinally off, so "Big Calvary" had started to require that Calvary Chapels be under the official organization and meet certain doctrinal standards. When I see AO going through some of the same growing pains, it's encouraging to know that even an organization as spirit-filled and well-intentioned as Calvary Chapel has had similar growing pains, though on a much larger scale, and they felt justified in protecting their vision and upholding standards of those who wanted to join them.

Calvary Chapel has lost the one who drove, inspired and directed it, and I'm curious to know what that will mean for them. Similarly, in 1923, Charlotte Mason died, leaving her project without the one who drove, inspired and directed it. Mrs. Steinthal, Mrs. Franklin, and all those others whose names I know from Parents' Review articles carried on the work for her successfully. Yet it wasn't the same. Without her wise but warm presence, listening and guiding with a smile but never any word that "left a sting," it couldn't be the same. Times were changing, the needs of the school system were putting pressure on the PNEU to make changes. Without Charlotte Mason there to hold firmly to the original vision, I'm sure there were things that were done that she would never have wanted, compromises made to meet the demands of modern educational board requirements. AO tries to model what a CM education would look like if CM was alive today, but we can't know for sure what concessions she might have made to accommodate today's society. Would she ban the use of computers for her students? Would she encourage BBC productions of Pride and Prejudice and Wives and Daughters? Even if one of the Steinthals or Franklins or others of her students were here to ask, they aren't her and they'd only be making an educated guess.

I tuned in to the live broadcast of this morning's service at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, and I've been listening as I've been typing. His son told a few anecdotes about him, and said that Pastor Chuck loved nature and knew the names of the birds and trees in his local area. Maybe he and Charlotte Mason will be taking nature walks in heaven. There's a thought!

I'll end with Numbers 6:24-26. Pastor Chuck ended all of his services with this; there's an audio of him singing it on YouTube.

The Lord bless thee, and keep thee;
The Lord make His face to shine upon thee,
And be gracious unto thee
And be gracious unto thee
The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee,
And give thee peace.


  1. Thank you for sharing this, Leslie. {{{hugs}}} I know this is a hard loss for you, my friend.

    ps. It was fun to read your story and recognize so many of the churches from the seven years I spend living in La Mirada and so many of my friends went to CC Costa Mesa!

  2. Leslie, I could have written many parts of this... Pastor Chuck and Calvary Chapel are in many ways my roots (although I was at CC Santa Barbara), and I had the same problem moving across the country to North Carolina for the same reasons, never finding a church family that was "quite the same."
    I too, as I have studied and grown in my faith and in my family into an educator have had similar reservations about CC and their thoughts on family and about the role of the intellect.
    In my case, I ended up coming home to my original roots in the Catholic Church, and as I read this, a challenged but committed Catholic AOer I felt so greatly and wonderfully connected to all the little dots that have made up my own life in many ways thanks to AO, thanks to Pastor Chuck, thanks to Charlotte Mason, thanks to the little people my journey has ended up being all about, and thanks ultimately to the Holy Spirit who walked me through it all. So I just wanted to say hi, and I LOVED this. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Leslie, I love haring your personal and family history, because there's a lot of missing pieces for us, between when we knew you in Oceanside, and now! I love hearing your heart!

    My Christian life and heart were impacted similarly by Chuck Smith, and I will be eternally grateful for his life and testimony! I got to attend services in "the tent" in the early 70's while visiting/touring CA and HI with Denver college worship team. We listened to KWave in Oceanside, where I first heard about home schooling from Dr Robert Moore/Dr Dobson. And have been part of CC's in CA, HI, CO, TX, NY, MD, VA, NC, Germany, and Canada. John and I listen to Chuck's Through the Bible series whenever we travel (which is a lot), and much more. His impact is inestimable. I agree with you---there is no perfect church on this earth. But Calvary Chapels always offered a safe place for our family to retreat to after being uprooted from a military move, longing for something familiar.

    I'm so thankful to see the seeds of the Word planted in you through so many tried and tested people, bear fruit so magnificently in your life through AO and your very own family! You are a blessing and I love you! Linda Owen

  4. Dear Leslie,

    Thank you for this touching and honest letter that pays such wonderful homage to Chuck Smith and gives me a glimpse into your heart and life. So, because of AO (and you), I too have been influenced by this man's ministry. And Mason (paraphrasing the Bible) herself tells us, " Let us not despise the day of small things nor grow weary in well-doing." (Vol. 3.23)

    Miss you,

    From joy to joy,


  5. Leslie, I've been thinking about our recent conversation about Pastor Smith and its parallels to an experience I had last year when the church we raised our children in back in Virginia disbanded -- basically because all the elders were called to the mission field but one. The first inklings of change came when one of the elders felt a call to another local church that was filled with young people, new believers who needed help living out the Christian walk. They were growing quickly and their pastor knew a few of our members. Our lead pastor had died suddenly in his sleep a few months prior, leaving a giant hole in our hearts and leaving the church in the hands of the other elders, several of whom had already been praying about missions. The Lord gradually revealed His plan to blend the congregation with this new, young church plant, to offer the wisdom of age to these young folks. I have not lived in Virginia for some time -- 11 years now. But I always felt like my old church would be there for me whenever I traveled back there. And now they are not. We went up for the final service, and it was glorious! Former members came from out of town, people we had not seen in YEARS. There were tears of joy and sorrow. The worship was robust. I left with a full heart and cried for an hour as we headed back to NC. But I hear the new church is feeling nourished. Times do change, and we have to adapt somehow. Still, it isn't fun to watch the end of an era unfold before us. As a momento, we were each given a small lump of Frankincense to take with us after the final service. I keep it in my purse and sometimes hold it in my hand during Sunday service here at home. It may sound silly, but it helps!

    Love and hugs,


  6. Thanks so much for your article! I had not heard of the connection to Calvary Chapel previously, but I loved hearing of Pastor Chuck's emphasis on ministering freely to all. It's such an important reminder in this world (and even the church) that seeks after personal gain.

    I am forever grateful for AO's "free-ness", for in our early years of using it, we had very little money and most of my books have come from used book sales. I have never been able to afford any fancy curriculum and how glad I am that I have not; so many people buy this or that, only to have it sit on their shelves. Since reading Miss Mason's volumes and working our way through AO's banquet, never have I felt tempted to do that. And now what a joy to hear that Chuck Smith had such a profound effect on our access to a Charlotte Mason education!

    My husband and I found CC when we were first married in Lawrenceville, GA in 1996, and we, too, we're blown away by the deep Bible teaching and spirit-filled worship and love that existed there. Our pastor sang those same verses every week at the end of service. What grand memories! We listened to Chuck's broadcasts from time to time and read all the stories in Harvest of the original pastors. What a work of God! We live in TX now and have never felt the same about the CC's we've visited, so we attend a family integrated church with some folks who are full of much love and sometimes fall doctrinally opposite one another, but yet remain united in the spirit on God's Word and love to the Body. Some are Charlotte Mason type educators, which has been refreshing for me, and some use traditional curriculum. It is another delicate balancing act of the Spirit that probably will not continue forever.

    I know its hard to see things change, but a fresh work of the Holy Spirit powerfully leads to God's greater glory eternally, especially as man's tarnishing influence inevitably corrupts the glory that once was. I loved the comment from the woman who said her church ended up melding with a young congregation to furnish it with wisdom. How wonderful and sad to see an end to something beloved. But how much healthier to end it when it was good rather than watch it weather and rust into ineffective or even dishonorable work.

    I wonder if Chuck's heretofore unrecognized ministering influence over something like AO proves Miss Mason's idea that there is no separation between things "sacred" and things "secular"?

    Thanks be to God for His good gift of a man like Chuck to lead His people in wisdom!