How the Calvary Chapel Movement has Impacted Worship Worldwide

Zac HicksHistory of Worship and Church Music, Worship Theology & Thought4 Comments

**UPDATE: Several have commented and asked about how to get Fromm’s dissertation. It’s not formally published, so I emailed him and asked. He said the best way is to request it to be loaned out from Fuller Seminary’s library. (Sorry, it’s a little tedious!)** I have just finished reading Chuck Fromm’s fascinating dissertation with an impossible-to-understand title: Textual Communities and New Song in the Multimedia Age: The Routinization of Charisma in the Jesus Movement. Fromm is publisher and founder of Worship Leader magazine, Song Discovery, and National Worship Leader Conference. He’s a key player and thinker in the modern worship “industry,” but he is no industry hack. In addition to reading his work, I’ve been blessed to interact with him many times, and he is thoughtful, generous, wise, and analytical. 

Textual Communities is a fascinating exercise in interdisciplinary studies, particularly the intersection of sociology, theology, and ecclesiology. Fromm chronicles the birth and rise of Calvary Chapel churches out of the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 70s in Southern California and analyzes it all through sociological lenses.  I have many takeaways from this important study, but most perhaps significant for me and for worship leaders in our current age is Fromm’s detailed recounting of the history of Calvary and Vineyard worship.

The Underappreciated Impact of Calvary

Before this study, I had not put the pieces together of just how significant the impact of Calvary Chapel worship “shifts” were (and are) on worship today. Reading the history made me realize that so many of the taken-for-granted values of contemporary worship emerged from the sensibilities pioneered and championed by Calvary in the 60s and 70s. Again, these sensibilities, which were so novel back then, are now things I hear as “worship givens” from the lips of worship leaders and worshipers alike today. Put another way, when I hear many worship leaders often talk about “what worship should be,” or when I hear worshipers often talk about what “good worship is,” it’s shocking how many of those values I observe were birthed or newly emphasized in the Calvary Chapel / Vineyard construct.

Worship leaders and worshipers alike should make themselves aware of their own values and seek to ask questions of how they arrived at those conclusions. For instance, why is self-expression such an important part of the ethos of modern worship these days? Or, why do we modern worship leaders have an almost instinctive impulse to perpetually find new songs and discard old ones? Or, why do we see spontaneity as a sign of the Spirit’s authentic work in our worship services? I think the answers to these questions and more can be found, at least in part, in investigating what happened in and through Calvary Chapel, particularly from the mid 60s through the 80s.

Values and Emphases Observed in the History of Calvary Worship

From my own reading, here are the values and emphases I picked up as Fromm told the history of Calvary Chapel and Vineyard. For the sake of blog-post brevity, I won’t explain them, but just list them. Fromm did not list these things. They are my own gleanings from his historiography:

  • originality and perpetually “newness”
  • authentic, “real” worship expression
  • high performance standards for music and production
  • leaders and congregation are openly and mutually receptive
  • expressions and feelings of intimacy in worship
  • a liturgical “curve,” moving from thanksgiving to intimacy (i.e. “praise,” THEN “worship”)
  • spontaneous singing
  • “real/authentic worship” equated with something immediately emotionally moving
  • blurred lines between a worship service and a rock concert
  • flowing, seamless music “sets”
  • “rhapsodic” singing

We must realize that many of the above ideas were quite new or not widely practiced in Christian worship. Or, perhaps more accurately as Fromm would argue (and I believe somewhat rightly so), they were in some instances forgotten and rediscovered.  (For instance, Fromm highlights that the intimacy and quasi-romanticism of some Calvary/Vineyard/Jesus Movement music was a rediscovered expression of early church worship, demonstrated in the exotic-to-our-ears Odes of Solomon).

The Worldwide Impact

I don’t think it’s too grandiose to say that the above values have had a worldwide impact. Why? Because the commercial Christianity of the American West has successfully exported these values in packaged, transferable, reproducible form–i.e. recordings, worship concert tours, overseas church planting. Think of Hillsong’s impact in Latin America, South America, Asia, and Africa, for instance, or the fact that many non-Western Christians are likely to have sung a Chris Tomlin song.

The Point

Christianity is deep and wide. Sometimes, we worship leaders can have our heads in the sand about our values and assumptions. We can be oblivious to the way God has worked through His people across the centuries and well outside our traditions. Historical studies like these, if we’re paying attention, can give us an opportunity to jump out of the pond and do some testing of the water we’ve been swimming in. And when we do, several things will likely happen. First, we’ll probably discover that there are some toxins in the pond that we were previously unaware of. Second, we’ll appreciate the good things about our pond as compared to others on the terrain. Third, we’ll be able to jump back into our pond (our calling) with greater pastoral care for the blessings and liabilities of our ministry context, so that we can do our part in God’s disciple-making process.

4 Comments on “How the Calvary Chapel Movement has Impacted Worship Worldwide”

  1. Zac,

    In your typically charitable fashion, you pulled most of your punches. God bless you for doing so. May I add a little bite?

    Emphasis on perpetual "newness" is intrinsic to evangelicalism as a whole, especially following the First Great Awakening when such an emphasis on conversion and "new birth." One of the byproducts of such an emphasis, if untethered especially from Calvinism, is that it actually becomes a neo-Roman theology. How so? Well, because of the emphasis on "newness," Calvary Chapel worship often isn't aware of the historical continuity going back to the Holiness Movement of the early 20th century, which is closely linked to the 2nd Great Awakening, which is closely linked to moralism.

    The neo-Roman aspect of this is that "newness" became a type of law. You had to "feel" God to be a real Christian. You HAD to have a real, personal relationship with God, even "get a little cleaner," before the real authenticity of Christianity gets bestowed on somebody. Modern worship often does this when we prize authenticity. It isn't real worship unless WE are authentic.

    Instead of real worship being something God has defined, and something God does in us, it's defined as something we do. This is a far cry from justification by grace through faith in Christ alone.

    So much of my interaction with the charismatic movement (mostly in high school and college) was really just a new law. I never knew why I felt so guilty all the time in college worship settings (when other people were seemingly worshipping so much more authentically). The first time I "felt" truly free in worship was when I started singing Gospel-tinged hymns (in my parents home church), and most so since I've been at CCPC.

    You pulled your punches, but don't be afraid to land a few next time from your law/gospel paradigm. 😉

  2. Thanks Zac, I appreciate your thoughts and writings a lot. I didn't see a link to Fromm's work, and google didn't turn up anything for me either. How can I get a copy of "Textual Communities"?

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