The Calvary Chapel Chronicles: The Music, By Tom Stipe
History, like beauty, is always in the eye of the beholder and either can be interpreted in many ways. It can be a little like Wikipedia where anyone has access to alter encyclopedic fact at will.
There was an important dynamic at work in Southern California’s contribution to the media dubbed “Jesus Movement” of the early 70’s. Often lost in today’s fog of historical amnesia concerning those unique times was the role of artist driven music. Those days of mass conversion and rapid church growth are shrouded in revisionism leaving gaping holes in concepts of revival. The historic contributions of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa and its primary leader Chuck Smith have surfaced in the content of this series and I have been asked to comment.
Often revised or forgotten while reporting the history of CCCM is the profound effect that artist music had on the glory and growth days of the church. Further, the impact of music in general on the last 50 years of “contemporary” church liturgy is rarely referenced enough during ruminations about the good old days. These omissions need reconsideration.
I had the opportunity to have a view and a platform to observe, fairly up close, the spiritual dynamics of the times. So, here’s my two cents.
First of all, let’s go back to the mainstream musical caldron of L.A. at the time. Along with other parts of the country as well as in the U.K., there was an explosion of musical creativity in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Glen Frey of the Eagles once said that history will remember those times like the “roaring 20’s” of our generation. New genres were being invented and others redefined. Local artists, singer/songwriters, folk balladeers, different expressions of country rock, soul and heavy metal all found a home in and around the L.A. basin. Musicians from all over the country were arriving to be part of the SoCal music scene. Add to this that an hour drive in any direction were live audiences of collective Baby Boomers all interested in the performing arts. This mass of young people was now entering their late teens and early 20’s and were aptly called “The Rock Generation.” They were obsessed with the voice and message of their favorite artists.
Compressed into the areas cities and beaches were swarms of culturally orphaned young people looking for love, peace, sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. They were called by many, “the hippies”. A recipe for revival existed for every side of the spiritual spectrum in that assortment of youthful humanity. (Perhaps God looked down on those social conditions and decided to “send workers into the harvest field.”)
Along with the established mainstream record labels, new ones were springing up in frantic acquisition of new talent surfacing from the great Monterey Music Festival and the then recent Woodstock explosion.
Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa at the time, had a rather conservative Sunday service lead by Chuck Smith which was composed of 3 hymns, a responsive scripture reading, baby dedication, sermon, prayer and dismissal. Nothing particularly earth shattering happened there in the area of artistry except for the significant and growing influence of Bible teaching.
Meanwhile, Smith’s new, young and extremely charismatic protégé Lonnie Frisbee, took the CC platform with alternative weeknight services that were quite different. Along with the familiar “hippie” look of the times Lonnie’s passionate preaching was matched with CC’s first band Love Song. After just a few months of this new spiritual chemistry Calvary’s little 300 seat chapel was overflowing requiring immediate plans for expansion. As an effective street evangelist Frisbee would be sure to take a music group or solo singer with him on every spiritual venture. One time he called me at 3:00 a.m. from England saying “You’ve got to bring the band (Country Faith) to London right now. Revival is breaking out.” 48 hours later we were standing in front of thousands with Lonnie, Larry Norman and Arthur Blessitt, guitars in hand sharing our faith. On another occasion it was “Tom, bring your guitar we’re going to preach at some seminary somewhere.” (Fuller Theological in Pasadena) And on and on.
As the number of music groups multiplied so did the stories of such evangelistic partnerships.
The outside world was beginning to be reached beyond the boundaries of the “little country church.” At the beach, on the pier, in makeshift coffee houses, surf film openings, bars, biker rallies, high school lunches and assemblies, senior centers, Jesus marches, home gatherings, jails, county fairs and eventually organized concerts, the growing community of musicians were singing about their faith in public.
Jumping back in time a year or so before, I was a 19yr. old piano player and self-taught guitar strummer and I was stunned to hear Love Song for the first time. It was my kind of music performed flawlessly while openly expressing love for Jesus. Wide eyed and a complete wannabe I approached one of the band members named Tommy Coomes and suggested that it might be a good idea to maybe hijack popular songs of the day and insert “Christian” lyrics into them. With a look of complete disgust, as though I had suggested drinking a Slurpee from the Holy Grail, he said “Why don’t you write your own.” That became the artisan mantra of every songwriter and singer to surface during those seminal days at the beginning.
Within a year of that experience there were at least 12 to 15 bands and solo performers of various styles and genres ready to tell their stories of faith through song. They were becoming a sizable music community born in an atmosphere of faith and intense bible teaching. We were mirroring but not mimicking the rest of Southern California’s rich creative, if not drug infested, mainstream musical atmosphere. No line between sacred and secular had been drawn yet. We were just being a part of our “Rock Generation” penning our life stories and core beliefs in song.
The music was reflective of conversion, sin, repentance, reconciliation, forgiveness and personal faith encounters.
Now, here is what many people fail to contextualize. Imagine being Chuck Smith, Pastor of a small but growing church. You have, without organized intention at the time, a spontaneous group of over a dozen fervent, faith filled rock bands, solo artists and youthful evangelists out playing and proclaiming faith in Christ four to six times a week in venues that I have already described and you do the math. There were hundreds if not thousands of people a week being contacted beyond church walls. These Christian musicians out of their own personal experience naturally referenced their home church where there were now free Saturday night concerts featuring their music and a Sunday service featuring a loveable, warm hearted father figure teaching the Bible every week.
Was the rapid growth of CCCM really a mystery or just the way the gospel is supposed to work? We witnessed culture penetrating evangelism against a backdrop of Biblical literacy. I think that Jesus referred to this kind of activity as “casting seed.”
This was the normal practice of the day to day “Jesus Movement” musicians for several years. To me, these dynamics equate to the basic qualities found in any definition of evangelism. I personally knew some of these details because I kept the calendar of outside events involving what would soon become the Maranatha! Music community. The musicians were declaring the Gospel in equal partnership with gifted teachers, evangelists and other orators of the time. History tends to remember the latter more often than the former.
We were not reaching “out” to the culture, we were not “infiltrating” the young people of our society, working the dry mechanics of “relevance” to disguise our faith, only then to surprise our listeners with our religious agenda. We were the culture with a belief that Jesus could somehow change lives. The integrity of honest, peer to peer communication of the Gospel through music and preaching was at the heart and bare root of the Jesus Movement.
There were many other regional contributors to the music ministry of the time. Many, outside the modest ranks of Calvary Chapel. Larry Norman, the Talbot Brothers, Second Chapter of Acts, Michael and Stormie Omartian, Andre Crouch, Jannie Grine, Keith Green and the gang up at Sparrow Records. I would highly suggest The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music by Mark Powell, Hendrickson Publishers for a more complete biography of the players and personalities pertinent to the era of which I am speaking.