By PAUL VITELLO
The Rev. Chuck Smith, a Southern California minister who shepherded flower children and rock ’n’ roll into the conservative wing of the evangelical movement while building a religious organization that grew to encompass 700 congregations and hundreds of radio stations, died on Oct. 3 at his home in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 86.
The cause was lung cancer, said a spokesman for Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, the flagship church of Mr. Smith’s worldwide Calvary Chapel federation.
Though lesser known than evangelical leaders like the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. James C. Dobson, Mr. Smith was influential for his liturgical innovations, for the cultivation of a new generation of prominent preachers and for the introduction of pop culture into the evangelical movement’s vernacular.
His amalgam of fire-and-brimstone theology and avuncular charm made him a successful if unlikely Christian fundamentalist ambassador to the youth culture of the late 1960s. He predicted the end of the world and condemned drug use, sex out of wedlock, abortion and homosexuality while serving as pastor to a hippie tribe known as the Jesus Movement.
To his ragged following he was Papa Chuck, and he welcomed them to his church by the thousands, accepting their barefoot, floor-sitting, outdoor-living habits and incorporating their rock music into his Sunday services — an innovation that other evangelical churches as well as mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches later adopted.
His decision to dispense with the traditional liturgy, replace pipe organs with electric guitars, preach from the pulpit in a Hawaiian shirt if he felt like it and give the same come-as-you-are rights to worshipers set the standard in the 1970s for what the church historian Donald E. Miller, a professor of religion at the University of Southern California, has called the “new paradigm” of independent Christian megachurches.
Mr. Smith’s disavowal of denominational labels — he did not call his church Pentecostal, Baptist or Assembly of God, but rather “just a Christian church” — has also been widely embraced in the evangelical world.
In 1971, Mr. Smith helped found Maranatha Music, one of the first contemporary Christian record companies in the United States, partly to provide a platform for the Christian musicians and songwriters who performed at his church. The group Love Song, one of the first Christian rock groups, was for a time a kind of house band at Calvary Chapel. In 1996, Mr. Smith and a protégé, Mike Kestler, founded the Calvary Satellite Network, which broadcasts sermons and Christian music over about 400 low-power and 50 full-power stations in 45 states.
Mr. Smith himself was never a fiery preacher and rarely appeared on television. His sermons, with line-by-line explications of the Bible, were more professorial than charismatic.
Outside Calvary Chapel, he was probably best known for the people he mentored. Those who went on to lead large evangelical organizations of their own included Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship, a network of several hundred churches; and Kenn Gulliksen, the founder of a church movement called Vineyard, who introduced Bob Dylan to evangelical Christianity, which Mr. Dylan embraced in the 1970s and early ’80s. (Mr. Gulliksen is often referred to as “Bob Dylan’s pastor.”)
It was Mr. Smith’s simple teaching style and easygoing manner, mainly, that drew members of the Jesus Movement to his church in 1969, after his own teenage children had introduced him to movement followers they had befriended at the beach. One was Lonnie Frisbee, a self-described mystic and prophet who became prominent in the movement.
With Mr. Frisbee as his liaison, Mr. Smith was soon holding mass baptisms in the surf at Corona del Mar, dunking longhaired men and women in the Pacific by the hundreds. Some called them “Jesus freaks,” a phrase Time magazine used in a 1971 cover article about the movement.
“It looked like no congregation anyone had ever seen before,” Mr. Laurie wrote in his 2008 memoir, “Lost Boy.” “Barefoot hippies sat on the floor, praising the Lord, while old ladies in hats smiled, shrugged and sang their hymns.”
Randall Balmer, a scholar of evangelical culture and chairman of the Dartmouth College religion department, said in an interview that even in a congregation that embraced the counterculture, Mr. Smith never sugarcoated his fundamentalist beliefs. Besides condemning illicit sex and recreational drugs, he called homosexuality “a perverted lifestyle,” warned of the eternal hell awaiting sinners and promised the imminent arrival of Armageddon. (He said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks signaled God’s displeasure with the general acceptance of homosexuality and abortion.)
Mr. Balmer said some of Mr. Smith’s young followers might have been disillusioned with the counterculture and searching for spiritual sustenance elsewhere when they joined Calvary Chapel. But the pastor’s genius for incorporating counterculture trappings into his brand of evangelism was part of his appeal too, Mr. Balmer said, as was his sheer likability.
“This was a very charming man,” he said.
Charles Ward Smith was born in Ventura, Calif., on June 25, 1927, to Charles and Maude Smith, whom he described to interviewers as “Bible quoting” Christians. His father was a salesman.
After graduating in 1948 from the Bible college of the Foursquare Church, a Pentecostal denomination, Mr. Smith served several of its congregations before leaving, convinced that internal politics was the “un-Christian” scourge of Foursquare and every other denomination.
“The more spiritual a man is, the less denominational he becomes,” he wrote years later.
He started his own church in the early 1960s and in 1965 agreed to become pastor of Calvary Chapel, which was then a struggling nondenominational congregation with about 25 members. By the 1970s, attendance at Sunday services averaged 3,000.
He is survived by his wife, Catherine L. Johnson Smith; four children, Chuck Jr., Jeff, Janette Smith Manderson and Cheryl Smith Brodersen; and five grandchildren.
Based on his reading of the Book of Revelation, Mr. Smith began predicting the end of the world in the early 1980s. Although his predictions repeatedly proved wrong, he was undeterred. “Every year I believe this could be the year,” he told an interviewer. “We are one year closer than we were.”