Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa, is in the Santa Ana district of Orange County, south of Los Angeles, California. The church is based in a building located on the corner of S.Fairview Road on a large plot, which includes an enormous car park and rooms for the day school. The building reflects the Spanish architecture not uncommon in parts of California, with a striking orangey terracotta slated roof and beige brick walls. Weekend services see around 20,000 people on site; in the auditorium, in the overflow and at the children’s activities. The Church has a day school taking children from kindergarten to 12th grade; a Bible college; two conference centres; a Radio Station – KWVE Southern California connected to 350 radio stations nationwide on the Calvary Satellite Network. Chuck Smith is Senior Pastor and Brian Brodersen Associate Pastor, there are 20 Assistants. There are outreaches to various ethnic groups including Arabs, Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and Spanish. Every morning between 6.30-7.30 there is a prayer meeting at the church and during the night (10.30pm -7am) a prayer watch.
It was a warm and pleasant Los Angeles day. My wife and I were on holiday and visiting Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa in Orange County, just south from LA. Some 35,000 give regularly to this church, and with 20,000 regular weekend attenders this is one of the best attended churches in the United States. On Saturdays at 6pm, Brian Brodersen, the Associate Pastor is the regular preacher.
In 1996, after 13 years as Pastor of Calvary Chapel, Vista (north of San Diego), Brian had been sent by the church to plant a Calvary Chapel affiliated church that meets in a school in the Westminster area of London. He has been back in California at Costa Mesa, since Spring 2000, to work alongside the Senior Pastor, his father-in-law Chuck Smith, the Patriarch of the Calvary Chapel set up. I had met Brian on one of his visits to London and looked forward to talking with him after the service.
Stewards in T-shirts handed us an information sheet as we entered the foyer. The church building is simply decorated in pale white shades. There's a minimum of religious symbolism Calvary Chapel's dove symbol on the wall behind the pulpit the only visual reminder, other than the pews and pulpit, that this was a church building. The auditorium seats 2,500, with cushioned pew-like seating maximising space.
This meeting is laid back compared to the four services on a Sunday. To regular attenders Brodersen is effectively their Pastor. His role as an Associate allows him to take opportunities to preach in other parts of the US and overseas. A keen surfer, he had spoken at a surfers' conference in Devon and a Pastors' conference in York earlier in the year. As it would turn out, he would have a significant opportunity in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York.
As we waited I thumbed through the hymn book, Songs of Calvary. I knew this wasn't a hymn sandwich church – having been involved in pioneering the modern chorus movement in the late 60's early 70's, when the church really started to take-off and attracted the attention of Time and Newsweek magazines. More relaxed worship using modern songs was one of the changes that Chuck Smith, then 38, introduced when he took over back in 1965, when just 25 attended. At 6pm, Pastor Brian as he is known, welcomed us and led us in an introductory prayer before handing over to a small band made up of electric guitars and vocalists to lead us in worship.
The tempo varied from the slow and meditative to more upbeat and inspirational. It was a chance to tune in to God and what we had come for. By the time they handed over to Brian half-an-hour later, the congregation had risen to 300, with people drifting in throughout the worship time.
This was the first of a two-part series looking at the seven letters to the churches in Revelation. Brian's preaching approach was expository, a feature generally common to Calvary Chapel affiliate churches worldwide. Chuck Smith had discovered that topical preaching meant he ran out of texts he wanted to preach on in two years. His first two pastorates were of that length!
But using variations of expository preaching methods, Smith has taught through the Bible eight times in his 36 years. He believes this enables God to set the agenda for the congregation's diet, rather than the Pastor. Brian looked at each of the seven churches in time, section by section. For example, he outlined how Jesus rebuked the church in Ephesus for forsaking its first love. He then applied the point. We were reminded of the dangers of living like machines, conducting our Christian lives out of habit, and allowing the passion and fire to diminish. Jesus redeemed us first for relationship then to be his servants.
Brian's delivery is relaxed, warm and forceful. He doesn't shout or use a special preaching voice. My watch showed 35 minutes gone and two more churches to go. The letter to the church at Smyrna taught us that personal suffering and poverty were not necessarily signs of God's displeasure. The church at Pergamum was the inner city church of the day. Its people flirted with the world. The application was clear. How often do we seek to keep a foot in both camps? The talk lasted just under an hour. We sang a song to close. Brian, along with various leaders, was available for prayer or counsel afterwards.
A sovereign work of God
We chatted to Brian about the service and the church as a whole. Were messages always that long? "I am the long-winded preacher around here," he replied with a smile. "On Sundays they would be 30-40 minutes. With four services, it is important that preachers keep to time." We talked about how the church with 25 members had grown. I had heard there was a revival among the hippy movement. "That 's right, a few Christian hippies came to the Church back in the mid 60s.
Numbers grew with what I can only call a Sovereign outpouring of the Spirit of God. Chuck was in some ways a 'reluctant prophet'. His view was that they should cut their hair and get a job! But he wanted them to know Jesus. One time, just after a new carpet had been laid, a sign was erected in the church with the words: 'no bare feet'. Fortunately Chuck spotted it before anyone arrived at the church. His attitude was: 'I would sooner rip the carpet up and have bare concrete than prevent hippies coming to church'. God decided to move and there were thousands who came to faith in those years. The Lord is still blessing.
Three hundred people have been baptised at the Church within the last few months. We tend to have baptisms in May, July, and early September, down at the beach to maximise the opportunities for outreach."
"So how did Calvary Chapel plant other churches?" "We didn't plan a denomination. People from within LA and as far as Oregon and Seattle were asking: 'can we have a Bible study like the one you have at Costa Mesa?' Chuck Smith would send young men who had sat under his ministry here to lead Bible study groups. The churches grew and now we have around a 1,000 churches in the US. Worldwide there are affiliates in places like Peru, Israel, Moscow, Sydney and Yugoslavia, as well as around 20 affiliates in the UK, including York, Portsmouth, Oxford, Motherwell and Belfast.
"So why move to London?" I asked.. "We came to London to try and do there what we had been doing here; building a church through the expository teaching of the Bible. We came just after Premier Christian Radio was starting to rebuild (in 1996) and I had a slot which is now at 9pm each weekday evening. The fact that we grew to 300 is in part, due to the exposure my Bible readings received, "Brain acknowledged. In many ways my heart is still there, but I sensed a strong call to return to Costa Mesa."
Out on its own?
"So how does Calvary Chapel fit into the US church scene?" "We are mavericks as far as US scene is concerned. We don't fit into a denominational system. We don't 'ordain' pastors into the Calvary Chapel denomination because we are not a denomination, though we have our own Bible college. We are evangelical, see the Bible as the inerrant sufficient Word of God. We have a view of the second coming which includes a pre-tribulation rapture and literal millennial reign of Christ. "Other characteristics include believers' baptism, a concern that Christians look for the Holy Spirit's empowering, in addition to His work at conversion. The church is elder-led and believes congregational government has no biblical backing.
No hype: From my visit and background reading, I was impressed by the absence of hype. They look to God to work and are in awe of what he does. This is reflected in many ways: a commitment to prayer, a belief in the need for anointed preaching, a concern to abandon human agendas in favour of what God is doing.
The Basics: Time and priority is given to teaching the Bible – a reminder that it is not the length of sermons that is a problem for churches, but the giftedness of the communicator and the interest levels of the hearers. Many churches, in seeking to grow no longer see the Christian staples of Bible teaching, praise and prayer, and the evangelism that results, as priorities.
Removing barriers: Was the removal of the sign 'no bare feet' a pivotal event? We will probably never know. Most mega churches were once, like Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa – small. Many small churches like being small. Their practice serves to say to outsiders 'you are not welcome' just as surely as if the words were painted on a board.
Taking the gospel seriously: Calvary Chapel sees the paramount need to communicate the gospel with a willingness to put resources to that end (some two-thirds of their budget goes on mission).
Principles not personalities: In spite of Chuck Smith's profile as a well-known mega-church leader,and their stress on the importance of anointed leaders this is not a church that focuses upon personalities, but upon principles. And although Chuck Smith is suspicious of attempts to set Calvary Chapel up as a reproducible model for church growth, a church asking what it should do to make a difference for God,would do well to note the way He has worked here.
Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa, is in the Santa Ana district of Orange County, south of Los Angeles, California. The church is based in a building located on the corner of S.Fairview Road on a large plot, which includes an enormous car park and rooms for the day school. The building reflects the Spanish architecture not uncommon in parts of California, with a striking orangey terracotta slated roof and beige brick walls.
Weekend services see around 20,000 people on site; in the auditorium, in the overflow and at the children's activities. The Church has a day school taking children from kindergarten to 12th grade; a Bible college; two conference centres; a Radio Station – KWVE Southern California connected to 350 radio stations nationwide on the Calvary Satellite Network. Chuck Smith is Senior Pastor and Brian Brodersen Associate Pastor, there are 20 Assistants. There are outreaches to various ethnic groups including Arabs, Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and Spanish. Every morning between 6.30-7.30 there is a prayer meeting at the church and during the night (10.30pm -7am) a prayer watch.
9/11: The World Trade Centre attack
Associate Pastor, Brian Brodersen was involved, through Calvary Chapel's wider network, in the aftermath of the tragedy on September 11th. I e-mailed him to ask him how he came to visit New York."A friend of mine who pastors a church in Northern New Jersey asked me to come up from Washington DC to help him with the overwhelming situation he was encountering as a result of the World Trade Centre (WTC) disaster. (I had flown to Washington on the 10th to attend an event at the Capitol scheduled for the 11th.) We went into New York City and signed on as Chaplains with the Red Cross. We spent time counselling bereaved family members of those who died at the WTC." I asked him about an opportunity to preach in Union Square, which is at the heart of Manhattan Island, just north of the WTC."
After spending a couple of days in that effort we then ended up at Union Square where a shrine to those who died at the WTC was set up. Union Square is something like Leicester Square in London. Imagine Leicester Square with thousands of photographs of the deceased along with thousands of candles lit on behalf of the dead, and then thousands of broken, grieving people slowly moving from shrine to shrine, some stopping to light a candle, some stopping to weep over a particular picture of a friend or loved one, others just walking along in a daze. In that environment God opened a door for us to play music and preach in the open air, that was incredibly well received. People were also looking for comfort and answers to the basic questions of life.
Over a period of about a week we were able to share with literally thousands of people. We connected with many on a personal level and gave out thousands of pieces of literature. It was as if the whole attitude of New York City had changed. People were friendly, kind, helpful and open to the gospel like they haven't been for years. I asked Brian how he 'read' the situation in the light of prominent American church leaders' claims that the attacks were the judgment of God.
Brian replied: "On the question of judgment: there have been a number of varying opinions coming from Christian leaders all over the country. It seems that those farthest removed from the actual scene were the quickest to cry 'judgment'.
For those of us in the middle of it that wasn't even a consideration. People were suffering and needed to know there is a God who loves them and knows their anguish and is there to comfort them as they turn to him. "Considering the number of Christians that also died in the disaster and God's declaration that he would not judge the righteous with the wicked, my personal conclusion is that this was a satanically inspired attack, carried out by sinful men, breaking the sixth commandment, 'you shall not murder'. The lesson for all is that life is uncertain, death can come suddenly and without warning, and that Jesus alone has the words of eternal life!"