Pastor Chuck Smith: A life well-lived

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Early this morning I received a text that made me pause and breathe deeply. It said, “Pastor Chuck just passed into glory a little while ago.”

Instantly I felt my heart simultaneously sink and then soar. I thought of the sadness of his wife, his family and Christians around the globe who will miss him; and yet I also knew the great cry of his heart had been answered — he was present with the Lord. Pastor Chuck Smith, who pastored Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, that lead to an entire tribe of Calvary Chapel churches that would spring up the world over, was intrinsically connected to the storied “Jesus-movement” of the 70’s. He who faithfully and relentlessly exposited scriptures, pointed people to grace and trusted in the Holy Spirit has left the tent and gone Home.

I thought of how he was no longer in the tent of his body, a tent that had been afflicted by a stroke and then through a prolonged fight with cancer, and how he would never struggle or feel pain again. Like my daughter Lenya, he was in the Paradise of God, in Heaven. The house has got what the tent does not. He had run his race, fought the good fight, and there was laid up for him a crown of righteousness that waits for all who love His appearing.

Pastor Chuck is a hero of mine. There is no doubt that there would be no Fresh Life Church if it weren’t for him. He directly impacted those who impacted me, and through attending the Bible College he started I learned so much. As part of our curriculum we listened to hundreds and hundreds of his messages through the Bible. I thoroughly enjoyed it. His distinct, rich, warm voice and loving tone as he methodically worked his way from Genesis to Revelation, chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse is permanently engrained in my heart. I still regularly listen to him teach, both on Fresh Life Radio and as I teach through books of the Bible myself. Just a couple months ago I spent several hours listening to him teach the entire book of Philippians in two monster-sermons in prep for the Rampart Series. Speaking of Fresh Life Radio, it was Pastor Chuck who gave us the radio station we operate in Billings, Montana. Which is a perfect snapshot of his generous heart.

I had the chance to say hello to him just a few months ago when I saw him in passing at a conference. It was brief but in his eyes I could see he was as strong as ever inwardly, but you could tell he was in pain and a shell of himself outwardly. Last summer, however, we were both backstage at a Harvest Crusade and I had the opportunity to sit down with him and tell him how thankful I am for him. I told him that what God is doing through Fresh Life is all fruit to his account — the thousands of decisions for Christ and all God has done. I will never forget when I was trying to decide whether I should stay in California or move to Montana and I went to see him in his office. As I communicated the options, I waited for him as the General to tell me where I should deploy to. He wouldn’t. Instead, he told me, “Both options are good Levi. People need Jesus everywhere.” I see his wisdom now. He refused to be Yoda. He knew I would put stock in his opinion and wanted me to discern the will of God myself.

I celebrate the tremendous life he lived and marvel at the impact one man committed to Jesus can make. Millions and millions of people experienced God’s love because of him. Much like the late Steve Jobs, who innovated in not just one but in multiple areas, God used Pastor Chuck to change the game on many different levels. He altered the landscape when it comes to Christian music by embracing modern worship and giving birth to Maranatha music, pioneered in church-planting, and disrupted ministry in general through his evangelistic approach that reached out to a counterculture while maintaining both doctrinal orthodoxy and an openness to the Holy Spirit (Ed Stetzer made the case on his blog that he altered the face of Protestant Christianity in America). I grieve that we will see his face no more on the earth but rejoice over what he is now experiencing and the way his life will continue to make waves and ripples for many, many, many years to come and on into eternity.

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Just reel it in!

I’m not good at fishing but some of my favorite childhood memories involve trying to catch fish. Growing up, my dad would take my brothers and I on excursions where we would camp and fish. These “manly man fishing trips”, as they were called, involved a lot of laughter and running around in the woods but I don’t recall all that many fish actually being caught. Maybe that’s because my dad hardly ever got to drop his line in the water because he was too busy untangling our rods from the tangled mess we had inevitably gotten them into because we hadn’t listened to him.

I had a mickey mouse fishing pole and I vividly recall my dad doing everything for me. He would set it all up: hook, bait, weights, and even cast it out, telling me to sit still (so as to not scare the fish away) and keep my eyes on the bobber. That was it. I just needed to not be hyperactive and when I saw the bobber bounce just slowly reel it in. When ever a fish was caught he would even take care of getting the hook out of it’s throat and do the dirty work of cleaning it. All I had to do was reel it in. He took care of everything else.

The cool thing is that I have discovered when you follow Jesus’ instructions and go fishing for men it works the exact same way. God takes care of everything! He is the one who nailed our sins to the cross making it possible for us to have a relationship with Him. He is the one who works in hearts, drawing people to Christ and giving them the option to respond to Him, He is the one who sets up situations where we can invite people to church and share the gospel with them, and He is the one who knows whether someone is genuinely saved or not. All we have to do is to be faithful to cast out the net and reel it in.

As we preach the gospel and bring people with us to hear the gospel we must not trust in ourselves. For all practical purposes, we are like me as a little boy, sitting there on the dock with my mickey mouse fishing pole. But just like I have a great dad, we have an amazing Heavenly Father who sets everything up for us and, even though we often get things tangled up and make it more complicated than it needs to be, He loves us and allows us to play a part in the ultimate fish story!

Matthew 13:47–50 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a fishing net that was thrown into the water and caught fish of every kind. When the net was full, they dragged it up onto the shore, sat down, and sorted the good fish into crates, but threw the bad ones away. That is the way it will be at the end of the world. The angels will come and separate the wicked people from the righteous, throwing the wicked into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

By the way, there is an opportunity for you to go on a fishing trip tomorrow night! Skull Church is the first wednesday of every month and for the month of May that is tomorrow night. After music by the skull church band and our guest artist we are going to be casting the net and dragging it in. Is there someone you could invite to come with you (if you live in this neck of the woods) or to come over to your house to watch the webcast with you? It all starts at 7pm MST and streams in HD at www.skullchurch.com.


2010 in review

I sat down to think about the year that has just passed. Reflecting on the past 365 days I can only marvel at all the things God has done this year. My spiritual resolution at the beginning of 2010 was to follow the Lord like Caleb, who was a contemporary of Joshua. Six different times in Scripture we are told that he followed the Lord fully. No matter how much Caleb had seen God do in the past, he faced the future at full throttle, desiring new mountains, new challenges; he wanted to see God do more. My desire for 2010 was for God to pump that kind of blood through my veins, that He would ignite my heart. With the year now fully in the rearview mirror I can definitely say that God answered my prayer for new mountains and challenges.

It was a beautiful year. It was a difficult year. It was a phenomenal year. God did exceedingly above all that I could have asked or thought. I used a blank piece of paper to write down my top ten list of memories from this year and was overwhelmed. I ended up with a lot more than ten and had to ferret it down. Here they are:

1. The Birth of Daisy Grace
The happiest baby I have ever met. I love her. (c’mon–is this like cuteness overload or what?)

2. The Release of the iPad
It is the ultimate preaching machine. period. It is also cool that if you google “preaching ipad” the two blogs I wrote on the subject are the top hits. That probably explains why those are by far the most visited blog posts I have ever written. It was also super sweet that the first message I ever preached on it was on the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter. That’s what it’s all about baby!

3. Skull Church.
Everything about it. It is my favorite day of the week. I loved: the bands from this past year (Family Force 5, Charlie Hall, Robbie Seay), the different series (High Fidelity, Spoiler Alert, Forerunner), the energy, the merch (Thanks Hurley!), the text-messages, but ABOVE ALL the hundreds and hundreds of people who have made professions of faith in Christ–that’s what it is all about! I want people everywhere to experience what God is doing through Skull Church.

4. The pregnancy of the Fresh Life Whitefish Campus (specifically the Night of Worship)
The Campus will officially be born in 2011 but the whole process of preparation has filled much of this year (in fact it began in 2009). But it has been one of the most difficult, exciting and adrenaline filled adventures of my life. We have had to exercise muscles of faith that we didn’t know we had. The barriers, opposition, and roadblocks have been MANY. But through it all we have held onto the fact that OUR GOD WILL FIGHT FOR US! We know that the battle belongs to the Lord. End of story. Even the night of worship in preparation for the launch was wrought with hardcore drama and came close to being canceled. But at the end of the day hundreds of people gathered in Whitefish, Montana and lifted high the name of Jesus. Tears fell down my face and my heart was filled with faith as I praised God for what we knew He would do through this campus and the others that we believe are to come after it.

5. Being a part of the Greg Laurie Harvest Crusade in Chicago
Over 220 churches came together to make this event happen. Chicago has a long legacy of evangelistic events with men like D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham having held meetings there in the past. Remarkably, this event was the first time churches worked together to put on a large-scale event like this in fifteen years. Exciting. God has His hand on Greg Laurie’s life and it is an extreme honor to get to host his crusades.

6. Reaching the 50 mile benchmark on my road bike
boo-yah! Next year I wanna hit 100!

7. Rock this City
Giving 3,000 hours of community service to the Flathead Valley through the Rock This City Initiative was awesome. I conquered my fears and gave blood for the first time. take that, Needles!

8. Killing our Youth group.
We decided we haven’t been called to be a church with a youth group but a church that is a youth-led movement. Busting a cap on our youth groups was a little Snoop but it has been awesome. We aren’t having students sit at the little kids table anymore. They aren’t the church of tomorrow, they are the church of right freaking now. No matter who you are, if you come to fresh life you gather in worship experiences, get plugged in through community groups and are unleashed to serve and take part in the action. Best…Decision…Ever.

9. My cheerleaders
Every week, before I preach, my daughters pray for me. Their prayers rock my world. They pray that God would fill me with His Holy Spirit, that I wouldn’t be afraid, and that people will come to know Christ. My three year old once prayed that I wouldn’t fall of the stage! Then they give me a high-five and tell me, “preach the Word Dad!” They are amazing.

10. Watching Jesus build His church
Nine out of ten church-plants fail within the first five years. The average three year old church is 45 people. What we are seeing at fresh life is a lot of things–but it is certainly not normal. I am thrilled, humbled, and blown away to be apart of a move of God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus is doing what He said He would do, building His church (Matthew 16:18) and no one can stop Him. What thrills me even more is the fact that with all my heart I believe that the best is yet to come!

Happy New Year!


Whitefish Campus

This weekend at fresh life we announced a new campus that we will be launching in Whitefish, Montana at the beginning of 2011. We are stoked on this venture in faith that the Lord has us taking and are praying that many people meet Jesus through it!

Please join with us praying:
For many people, who live in the North end of the valley and attend fresh life, to view this as their home church and be apart of the mission and community of this campus.

That God would continue to bless the awesome churches that are already making a difference in Whitefish and that we would have the opportunity to be a blessing to them.

For God to raise up an army to accomplish all that will be necessary for this to happen; and for those who will leave ministry holes behind in Kalispell–that God would raise up new people to step up to the plate.

For those who see and believe in the vision to continue to give generously as we advance the cause of Christ.

That we would find ways to reach the tourists and visitors who come to the Valley to ski, vacation and visit Glacier.

For protection from the enemy who would love to keep Jesus from building His church…but can’t!

For many to find life and liberty in Christ as we seek to make Jesus famous!


Global Missions

I had an interaction with a church planter recently that startled me. He told me that his church isn’t going to do any overseas evangelism until every last person in his city knows Christ. I was troubled by this. I walked away stunned and wondering how many other pastors, even if they wouldn’t be so blunt about it, share his perspective.

Let me say for the record that I am a thousand percent for churches being missional. I don’t think you can pattern your ministry after Jesus or Paul without contextualizing the gospel to the culture you are trying to reach. And we do need to be passionate about reaching our cities. Do I believe that we have a mission field right under our noses 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Yes! But that certainly doesn’t free us from the mandate to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15)

Today, church planting is ultra hip. And I am grateful that God is raising up an army of young pastors to plant slick, relevant churches that will reach this culture. I embrace the latte’s and the foyer’s that feel like you are in an Urban Outfitters and all the tech,(provided we remember that we don’t make the Bible relevant–the Bible makes the Bible relevant!) but in our efforts to effectively reach our cities we must not neglect the rest of the world.

In my life, the desire to plant a church and reach a new city was born out of a missionary heart that God had awakened. When I was 16 I had been around the world a few times and I viewed missionaries like Bruce Olson, William Carey, and Hudson Taylor as rockstars. As a result, it is a part of my DNA and I couldn’t lead a church that would ignore the lost in the world if I wanted to. You just can’t undo what leading someone to Christ in a squatter village in the slums of the Philippines does to you, on the inside. And it would be incompatible with following Christ, who died for and will be worshipped in heaven by every tongue, tribe and nation.

Being on mission in my city hasn’t replaced or eclipsed the desire to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth, it has intensified it.

We certainly haven’t perfected this at fresh life but we are being intentional about integrating global missions into our daily lives and ministry as a church. Here is a video clip from this weekend that will give you an idea of what this looks like for us.


don’t just say it’s important….prove it.

I have recently been thinking about the correlation between input and output. Meaning that what you choose to put into something will have an impact on what comes out of it. This is true on a number of levels. Paul said (Galatians 6:8) that if we sow to the flesh, of the flesh we will reap corruption–garbage in, garbage out. The Psalm 1 dude, on the other hand, chose to pour God’s Word and righteous company into his life and because of that he grew fruit. We are determining who we are going to be tomorrow by what we are doing today.

I have also realized that this principle also applies to other areas too, like the allocation of energy. Meaning that the areas where attention, passion and time are invested make a statement about where you are wanting to see growth. You can say you want to be a better tennis player, but if that’s really true you will be spending hours every day practicing your serve. This is so simple that I shouldn’t need to be learning this, but I am. There have been times where I have been disappointed by a lack of improvement in an area but if I step back I can usually see that it was directly related to a meager allocation of passion. There is no growth without sacrifice.

Maybe I saw Field of Dreams too many times as a kid or something but something I have had to overcome is the “If you build it, they will come” mentality in ministry. Just put it out there, and let it go… That approach works great if you are playing with a top, but for something to keep spinning there must be the continual introduction of force. This mentality can be spiritualized though, all you have to do is bust out a “we are just letting go and letting God.” (whatever that means) And all of a sudden you are able to be lazy in Jesus name. But from what I see in Scripture God doesn’t want us to let go of the things we are trusting Him to do-He wants us to work out what He works in. (Philippians 2:12-13)

Here’s one way this has been working out in my life lately. We just launched another trimester of fresh life groups (our intentional approach to meeting the need for community within the church) and we were blown away by the tremendous response. We are going into this fall with over twice as many groups as we had one year ago today and 19 times as many as we had two years ago! In that time nothing has changed in how important we view community as being, but A WHOLE LOT has changed in what we are willing to do to facilitate it.


A line of people waiting for the Lab to open so they can enroll in a fresh life group.

We have always believed God wants our church to meet in large and small groups, but now it’s not just a line item in our bulletin, it is being shouted from the rooftops–almost to the point of obnoxiousness. We have also put our money where our mouth is, so to speak. Before, if you came to fresh life you might have heard about our small groups, now it would be impossible to go and not know all about them. This is not a coincidence, we took a number of steps to accomplish this: we dedicated digital and print resources, allocated staff through a full time groups pastor, carved out pulpit time to the subject, and even terminated competing ministries to make this happen. In short we have backed up our conviction that these groups are important with action. The increased input of energy had a direct and immediate impact on the output.


Here is a video we created to promote fresh life groups.

I have found that, because resources are finite, doing things with your whole heart will lead to doing fewer things. There is only so much money, manpower, and time to go around. Shaun White is a professional snowboarder and skateboarder–a man of the board. He does those two things incredibly well. He doesn’t also professionally fight bulls or pole vault on an olympic level. He spends all summer on the vert ramp and all winter on the snow. His time and his energy are focused like a laser on what he has deemed important. You gotta pick where you are going to spend your passion or you will end up doing a lot of things poorly.

Here’s a test: If you were to write down the things that you believe are important in your life, church or ministry– your core values, the ministries that matter: and I was brought in as a consultant, would I be able to name those things without seeing your list? If I were to superficially assess what you were broadcasting to be important through the allocation of time, energy, resources and passion: would our lists match? Make it so!

Don’t just say it’s important…prove it.


I’m coming to ABQ!

Next Saturday, October 9th, I will be emceeing and speaking at a LoveLife conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico with Mark Driscoll. The event is being put on by The HUB and it will cover the Song of Solomon. It is designed for anyone 16 years of age or older–whether single or married–and will be full of super practical, Biblical insight on love, sex, dating, romance and marriage.

I highly recommend this event to you, whatever stage of the romantic spectrum you find yourself in, if you live in the Southwest. I love the Song of Solomon and have found that a proper understanding and application of the principles that are in it will unlock God’s best in anyone’s love life. Unfortunately, it is often ignored. J Vernon McGee called it “the most neglected book in the Bible.” If we let it remain silent, it’s to our own hurt. You can purchase tickets here. I hope to see you there!


I’m trying but the mouse is a beach-ball…

Last week was one for the books at fresh life. By that I mean the record book of how many technical things can possibly go wrong in a week. I think it was written by a dude named Murphy. I hate that guy. It would be hard to try and come up with more things that could have gone wrong.

Here is a snapshot:
While preaching at skull church my mic went out briefly and came back on with some terrible feedback that continued for what seemed like forever. What I didn’t know was that whatever had happened also took out the live radio broadcast. The webcast also crashed at some point in the night as well. And our system that sends txt msg questions, that come to my skulpit, to the screen went down. This weekend, I was supposed to preach the 11 o’clock at the Strand but, due to a series of events, they moved me to the Liberty at the last minute. I was supposed to be piped live into the Strand but they had to resort to a video backup because, for the second time ever, our fiber optic feed freaked out. When the video backup was fired it first came up with only audio before (fortunately) coming on correctly and playing all the way through. Man, just reading that list stresses me out.

Stuff like this makes the hair on the back of my team’s neck stand up. Excellence is something that we value highly. I can’t see how we really have a choice about that. Our mission is to see those who are stranded in sin find life and liberty in Christ. Eternity literally hangs in the balance. Like it or not, that injects importance into everything. We simply don’t have the luxury of dismissing even the smallest detail as being trivial. The stakes are too high. Hell plays for keeps and forever is a long time. Even small things deserve our very best effort.

Coming out of a week like we have had there is definitely the temptation to be upset, to be bummed, to beat ourselves up and only focus on every single thing that went wrong. But we won’t. You can’t live that way. If you do, eventually you will end up in the fetal position under your desk mumbling, “Laces out, Laces out, the Laces were supposed to be facing out...” And that’s not good for anyone. You have to accept that if you are are committed to thinking outside the box and pushing the envelope; there are going to be bad days. Things happen. Computers crash. People make mistakes. That’s life. Deal with it; don’t dwell on it.

Instead you have to learn to focus on all the good that happened in spite of the problems. The people who gave their lives to Christ listening to a message with feedback coming out of the speakers. The fact that people were blessed who were ministered to by the Bible study and felt God as they took communion even though according to our runsheets everything took way too long to come out of the meet and greet. The hundreds and hundreds of people who signed up for small groups even though at two of the services the amazing small group promo video never even played. And above all, the fact that the Word of God cannot be chained! (2 Timothy 2:9)

I think it’s also important to be thankful for the hundreds of services a year that have gone by without major meltdown. All the webcasts that didn’t go whack, all the times the fibre hasn’t failed and the projectors didn’t show the blue screen of death. Thank God for the other thousand times that your mouse didn’t turn into a beach-ball.

I’m not saying that you are supposed to just be ok with things that go wrong. You shouldn’t be. We aren’t. I can assure you there will be meetings where the glitches will be analyzed and assessed. We will ask: Why did this happen? Has it ever happened before? What could have prevented it? Was it human error or just a freak–the devil is in the details– kind of a thing? Do we need to upgrade a system? buy new equipment? Retrain someone? Conduct an exorcism? And we will do our best in the future to learn from our mistakes and move forward. We will pursue perfection and seek after seamlessness. As I said, I believe that the urgency of the gospel requires nothing less than our very best efforts.

But at the end of the day if anything eternal is going to be accomplished it’s not because of us, it’s because of Him. It’s all about Jesus and what He did for us at the place of the skull. In our weaknesses His strength is made perfect. If you keep that in mind, you can keep your eyes set on heaven even in the midst of a technological week from hell.


Why We killed Our Youth Group

For quite some time I had this nagging suspicion that there was something wrong with our approach to student ministries at fresh life. I tried to shrug it off. After all, our youth pastors were doing a great job. They were doing the same things I had done during my years in youth ministry, the same things that just about every other thriving church around the country was doing (I know that because we checked).

As time went on I couldn’t shake the thought that something was missing, that our approach was based on an institution, not on what God wanted us to do. After several months of meeting, praying and brainstorming with the pastoral staff we came to the conclusion that the real problem with our youth groups were the youth groups themselves. I mean having them–at all. So we decided to pull the plug. Here’s the story…

I wanted to make sure and chronicle the thinking behind this decision for other pastors and church planters out there. Perhaps some will be inspired by what we are doing and rethink preconceived notions about how youth ministry has to be done; and I’m sure that others will disagree. Regardless, I hope that, at the very least, this can serve to provoke discussion and fresh thinking about how we can most effectively reach the next generation and empower them to make Jesus famous.


The view is sweeter when you fight for it

We have recently made some changes at fresh life. We are simplifying and scaling back in order to expand our ability to fulfill the vision that God has given us. As a church, change like this is nothing new, it’s part of our culture and it’s practically a core value–I partially blame that on us being a little A.D.D.

These particular tweaks, however, have implications that impact us on virtually every front and as a result, there was more than a little hesitation before pulling the trigger. We had bathed this decision in prayer and were confident that, even if it wasn’t the easiest, it was right thing to do. I still felt as I always do right before shaking things up, scared.

Fortunately, once it was done and we were committed, I felt like I almost always do right after shaking things up, stoked. It’s funny, when you do something you’ve been needing to do, especially if you have been dreading it, there is often a surge of, I should have done that a long time ago! that follows. I think they call that 20/20 hindsight vision.

As we were processing all of this in our weekly, all-staff, prayer meeting we had a laugh at our track record of: gravitating towards complicated solutions to what are ultimately simple problems, having a moment of epiphany, subsequent streamlining, and repeat. I told our team, “I just wish I knew what I know now when we first planted this church.”

That same day I joined some friends on what has become one of my favorite bike rides, the world famous Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park. It is pretty much 13 miles up hill and then 13 miles downhill. You ascend at all of 9 miles an hour and then descend at 39. Once we reached the top we took our helmets off and enjoyed the view that we had fought so hard to reach.

As I stood there, catching my breath and drinking in the beauty, I thought of the comment I had made at the meeting and realized I am glad I didn’t know everything that I know now when planting fresh life. That would have been like being airlifted to the top of this mountain. Would that be easier? Absolutely. But without the sweat and burning lungs and legs I would never appreciate the view the same way.

I’m not saying you should make life harder than it needs to be so there are things to fix later. Let me tell you, the next time you are at the bottom of a ministry mountain choosing a vehicle and there is a helicopter and a bicycle–get on the chopper! But there will probably come a day when you will take the long way and suffer for it. When that day comes: throw your weight over your handlebars, give it all you’ve got and remember, The view is sweeter when you fight for it.

The view from the top!