Why we left Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa

Several readers have asked me why we left Calvary Chapel several years ago. This was a difficult post to write since I hold a warm, affectionate debt of gratitude to this church which was, for a few years, a place of spiritual triage and healing in the wake of us leaving our imploded fundamentalist cult. The purpose of this post, then, is not to repudiate or criticize Calvary Chapel, but merely to serve as an explanation for why we eventually moved on. Some of the wonderful things we experienced at CCCM had to do with the freedom and zero-pressure atmosphere of the church. We could come. We could go. We could wear jeans. We could clap or not clap. There was an openness of spirit and an enthusiastic worshipfulness that had been so entirely lacking from our fundamentalist church. There was a lot of great, expositional Bible teaching and awesome children's ministries. For the most part it was a positive experience.

But after about two years at CCCM, we began to notice some unsettling trends in the church which were uncomfortably familiar:

  1. This was "Chuck's church." CCCM was indelibly imprinted with Chuck's personality, way of doing things, opinions and even his particular interpretation of Scripture. We began to realize CCCM really was a non-denominational denomination, headed by a central personality. Even people we met outside the church referred to it as "Chuck's church." And although there were "independent" Calvary Chapels all over the place, each of the pastors were approved by Chuck. So, whether or not CCCM ever admitted it, for all practical purposes, it was the denomination of Chuck.
  2. No children allowed. Although we sincerely appreciated the children's Sunday School ministry, occasionally we preferred taking our children into church with us. But every time we attempted to bring our children with us--we were stopped at the door and asked if our children would "disrupt" the service. Eventually we realized this was code for: Will Your Child Cry When Chuck Is Preaching And Perhaps Ruin Our Audio Taping/Live Radio Broadcast Today? Our children were accustomed to 3 hour Sunday meetings. We assured the ushers/bouncers that our kids would be fine for a one hour meeting. Once, a young mother brought her baby into the service and the baby started crying. She left and as she did so, Chuck stopped his message and said: "Yes, babies are like New Year's resolutions. They ought to be carried out." Everyone laughed at this but I felt really bad for that embarrassed mother. The emphasis on keeping kids out of "Big Church" seemed contrary to the admonition of Jesus: "Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." (Lk. 18:16, NASB)
  3. Elitism. On many occasions, Chuck made disparaging remarks about Catholics and other Christian denominations. This was nothing new since I'd grown up with that kind of perspective. But I knew from experience that the We Know Better attitude is a contagious poison--even if you ARE right. "We're a church that relies on the Holy Spirit," Chuck said one Sunday morning. "We're not the church that relies on a Purpose Driven Life." The entire congregation laughed at this. And then? They clapped. I dunno. That kind of attitude struck fear into my heart because we used to talk like that all the time. And our church ended in absolute disaster.
  4. Locked in a time-warp. The incredible work of revival accomplished through CCCM in the 70's and 80's seemed to have settled into a sort of apathetic stubbornness. In lots of little ways, we saw resistance and a refusal to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit could, perhaps, still be working in all those "dead" denominations. The de-facto conclusion seemed to be that the "Calvary Chapel Way" was the Right Way because it had rendered so many personal decisions for Christ in the 70's, 80's and 90's. I think what eventually troubled me was the idea that the Holy Spirit worked exclusively within the Calvary Chapel ministry.
  5. End Times Prophecy. One of the final turn-offs was CCCM's preoccupation with prophecy. I had been born and bred on this kind of stuff. I could quote Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation with the best of 'em. This was nothing new. However, it troubled me that CCCM devoted so much time and attention to what can only be described as speculative conspiracy theories. For all the talk of us not knowing the day or the hour of Christ's return, CCCM spent a lot of time dissecting news headlines and trying to piece together "signs" that would foretell the Great Tribulation, the rapture, etc. The problem with doing this is that it whips people up into a frenzy only to discover that there's NOTHING you can do about it. Obsessing, analyzing, speculating and stockpiling food isn't going to help one bit if, in fact, the End is Near. I guess I just didn't see the point of working ourselves up over stuff that we have no control over. It seemed like a waste of time and emotional energy. And I just didn't have energy to spare.

I'll always hold a debt of gratitude in my heart toward CCCM and the healing role it played in my life. I'm also grateful that when it was time for us to move on, no-one harassed us, called us or tried to get us to stay. For that gracious freedom alone, I will remain forever grateful.