The Scandalously Powerful Ministry of Lonnie Frisbee

by Adam J. Sonneland

“How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”1 This question, which was asked of Jesus after healing a blind man on the Sabbath, was one that characterized the unique ministry of Lonnie Frisbee. According to Calvary Chapel founder Chuck Smith, Lonnie was “a real, honest-to-goodness hippie – long hair, beard, flowers in his hair, bells on the cuffs of his pants.”2 Because of his involvement in the Counterculture movement and his homosexual identity, Frisbee became a controversial figure in the context of American evangelism and has largely been written out of both Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard movement’s history books. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Lonnie Frisbee was a man filled with the Holy Spirit and used by God to spread the Gospel to a generation that desperately needed it. Thus, the question at hand is: do the alleged personal failings of Lonnie Frisbee discredit his powerful teaching, healing, and evangelistic efforts to the degree that the lack of recognition he has received is justified? To fully examine this question, a detailed analysis of Lonnie’s ministerial work, as well as his personal life is necessary.

Born in Costa Mesa, California in 1949, Lonnie grew up as a neglected and abused child in a troubled home. Not long into his high school years, Lonnie left home and dove headfirst into the emerging hippie movement. After receiving a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Academy, Lonnie became involved in a ministry in the midst of the Haight-Ashbury district that sought to bring the gospel to the counterculture youth of the city. Eventually, Lonnie moved back to Southern California, where he became influential in the foundation of Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard movement. It was here that Lonnie’s ministry exploded and he became one of the charismatic Christian leaders of the late-twentieth century.3

Although Lonnie’s ministry could be characterized as unpredictable and abstract, there are several distinguishing features to his charismatic evangelism. One of these defining attributes is his heavy emphasis on baptism. At one point, Lonnie stated “I kinda relate to John the Baptist down in the wilderness, baptizing in the River Jordan … I can feel the presence of God coming down upon me and upon the person being baptized.”4 This illustrates his view of baptism as essential to his ministry. While on a camping trip in Tahquitz Canyon, California in 1967, Frisbee received a vision from the Lord revealing that he was going to use Lonnie as a light to thousands of people. Lonnie would later recount that “I entered into something that the Bible calls the born-again experience … I became a new creature in Christ Jesus and the old things passed away.”5 After this divine revelation, Lonnie dedicated his life to Jesus, baptized his friends in the waterfall they hiked to, and began to tell others about the powerful love of Christ. Similarly, Connie Bremer-Murray, Lonnie’s later ex-wife, recalled the instance when she and Lonnie reconnected in their late teens after several years apart. Lonnie started reading to her from the Bible, asked if she was ready to accept Jesus into her heart, and then immediately baptized her in a small pool nearby.6 Both of these early examples point to the urgency and importance of baptism that Lonnie believed was necessary upon acceptance of Jesus.

While serving on staff at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, Lonnie was one of the key figures involved with the mass baptisms that took place at Corona Del Mar beach. Starting in 1970, these events, which occurred roughly once a month, attracted thousands. According to one observer, “You’d see this mass of humanity, thousands of people sitting on the rocks and down on the beach and all around the outsides of the cove. And then down by the water itself would be the pastors and hundreds of people lined up to be baptized – usually three hundred or more.”7 Chuck Smith, pastor of Calvary Costa Mesa, claimed “Dope addicts, panhandlers, and just regular kids who were confused have come through here and accepted Christ … baptizing is the symbol of this acceptance.”8 However, it was Lonnie who was responsible for bringing this wave of outcasts into salvation. In the first six months of Lonnie’s work at Calvary, the church grew from about two hundred members to two thousand, many of which were counterculture misfits.9 Thus, the mass baptisms that became characteristic of Calvary Chapel at the time were a result of Lonnie’s contagious excitement about Jesus that infected a multitude. Furthermore, they exemplify the powerful ways that Lonnie was able to work in people’s lives through the sacrament of baptism.

Another prominent aspect of Lonnie’s ministry was his emphasis on Holy Spirit-inspired actions, such as speaking in tongues, prophesying, and other dramatic physical manifestations. Lonnie was frequently known to enter an intense, spiritual state when preaching. “The Holy Spirit seemed to be present whenever Frisbee asked, ‘[flowing] through him as if it were a faucet. When the anointing hit … it was like he was a walking apostle.’”10 However, this type of Spirit-filled experience was not something that Lonnie sought to keep to himself. Frequently, Lonnie would approach an individual in the congregation, lay hands on them, and request that the Holy Spirit make itself present to the individual. One congregant recounted: “[Lonnie] said, ‘Well have you been baptized in the Holy Spirit?’  I go, ‘I don’t think so’ … I felt the spirit of God come down upon me in such a powerful way, and Lonnie was kind of encouraging me to start speaking in this – this unknown prayer language.”11 Consistently assisted by the Holy Spirit, this type of behavior was characteristic of Lonnie’s approach to ministry.

One of the most dramatic examples of the spiritual potency that Lonnie possessed was his sermon at Calvary Chapel Yorba Linda on Mother’s Day, 1980. Towards the end of the service, Lonnie invited all those who were under the age of twenty-five to come forward, which was about three-hundred people. After a time of worship, Lonnie simply invited the Holy Spirit to come into the room. “Almost immediately, everybody just fell on the floor,”12 remembers Bob Fulton – a founder of the Vineyard church. Others who were present claimed “The majority of young people were shaking and falling over. At one point it looked like a battlefield scene.”13 Many of those affected began speaking in tongues, weeping, and laughing for joy. Although this episode eventually landed Lonnie in hot water, Lonnie clearly called upon the Spirit in such a way that it dramatically affected hundreds present. Furthermore, regardless of one’s belief in charismatic activity such as this, it cannot be denied that there was something unique about Lonnie’s spiritual abilities and that God worked through this man in powerful ways.

In addition to baptism and intense spiritual reactions, healing, both physical and spiritual was a distinguishing mark of Frisbee’s ministry. These healings were not simply temporary antidotes, but rather, lasting, life-changing events. In one instance, a blind man was sent to Calvary Chapel to be prayed over by Lonnie. Without hesitation, Lonnie exclaimed, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you can see!”14 Miraculously, the man instantly regained his sight. There are also numerous accounts of Lonnie performing exorcisms of spirits and demons from people.15 These miracles cannot be credited to anything other than the power of the Holy Spirit at work through Lonnie Frisbee.

Aside from the profound workings of the Spirit that shaped Lonnie’s ministry, his ultimate desire throughout his evangelistic career was for others to know Christ Jesus. Recollecting on his own conversion, Lonnie stated, “I started telling other people about [the transforming work of Jesus]. I wanted everyone to experience the experience of Jesus Christ.”16 Sandi Heefner, one of the members of the “Big House” – a communal ministry that Lonnie was a part of for a time – claimed, “Lonnie would be driving down the road and tell somebody, ‘turn at this corner, stop at the next stop.’ There would be somebody standing on the corner that he knew when he was a child. Lonnie would jump out, and the person would get saved right there on the corner.”17 It is difficult to point to anything other than a passion for Jesus and a desire to share this love with others as the motivating factor behind Lonnie’s ministry.

After a thorough analysis of the powerful ministry of Lonnie Frisbee, it is necessary to address Lonnie’s most commonly cited shortcomings. For many, Lonnie’s involvement with the Counterculture movement is in and of itself a major flaw. As a self-proclaimed “nudist-vegetarian hippie”18 at the age of seventeen, there is certainly validity to the claim that Lonnie was fully engulfed in the hippie lifestyle for a period. In fact, Lonnie would attest to the fact that he was tripping on LSD when he heard Jesus’ calling in Tahquitz Canyon.19 However, there is significant evidence pointing to Lonnie’s abandonment of these activities following his conversion, or soon thereafter. As previously stated, Lonnie referred to his “[becoming] a new creature in Christ Jesus and the old things passed away”20 upon his conversion. In addition, there are clear examples of God’s redemptive power in people’s lives throughout the Bible, the apostle Paul most notably. Thus, it is not a valid argument to claim that Lonnie’s ministry was invalid because of the rebellious actions in his youth. To make this argument is to limit the redemptive abilities of God. Furthermore, these experiences that Lonnie carried with him equipped him with the unique ability to engage the hippie population in a manner completely foreign to pastors such as Chuck Smith.

The primary argument that is brought against Frisbee, and indeed the one that removed him from formal ministry, was his homosexuality. Throughout his life, Lonnie struggled with homosexuality, and at times drifted into homosexual behaviors, though most significantly before his conversion. However, while working under John Wimber at the early Vineyard church, a young member of Calvary Chapel sorrowfully admitted that he had been in a six-month affair with Lonnie.21 Apart from the homosexual aspect of this event, it was certainly inconsistent with the standard of marital fidelity held by him and his Christian community. Therefore, this account does blemish Lonnie’s reputation and calls into question the authority of his ministry. In response to this episode, one must again look to Scripture. It is evident there are men and women who committed sins of equal magnitude scattered throughout the Bible. For instance, David’s affair with Bathsheba and Peter’s denial of Jesus are certainly equally troubling. Nevertheless, they were used by God and have been commemorated as heroes of the faith. It is also important to note that, both publicly and privately to those that were closest to him, Lonnie recognized the sinfulness of homosexuality. His friends would later emphasize that “Lonnie was not a practicing homosexual … he might have fallen into the sin, and given over to some things at different points of his life, but he certainly wasn’t practicing that…”22 While Lonnie admittedly possessed flaws regarding his sexual tendencies, this fact again does not discredit the power and authenticity of his ministry. This is because, as Paul the Apostle emphatically testifies in his letter to the Romans, all people are flawed and fall under the influence of sin, yet are freely forgiven by the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ.23

When applied to the life and ministry of Lonnie Frisbee, the question of “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”24 proves to be both a limitation on the redemptive power of God and a misunderstanding of God’s tendency to use imperfect humans to reveal his glory. Tragically, Lonnie died from HIV/AIDS in 1993 and was not able to continue his remarkable life of ministry. Despite his human errors, the impact of Lonnie Frisbee’s work in the growth of Calvary Chapel, the Vineyard church, and the Jesus People Movement that swept the Western United States cannot be overstated. Each of these movements and churches has gone on to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to people around the world, an accomplishment that would have been diminished without the passion, charisma, and power of Lonnie Frisbee. Thus, the attempts to erase Lonnie’s name from the histories of these churches is, as one author poignantly states, “an act that arguably amounts to iconoclasm.”25 Lonnie Frisbee must be remembered as a man who dedicated his life to furthering the gospel of Jesus Christ, offering himself as a vessel of the Holy Spirit – making him one of the most gifted evangelists in American history.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Balmer, Randall. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Di Sabatino, David. Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher. Directed by David Di Sabatino, 2005.

Ellis, Mark. Communal ‘hippie house’ in S.F. Bay Area was ground zero for Jesus Movement. God Reports, August 30, 2018. http://blog.godreports.com/2018/08/communal-hippie-house-in-s-f-bay-area-was-ground-zero-for-jesus-movement/.

Ellis, Mark. The early roots of the Jesus movement, as recounted by Connie Frisbee. God Reports, May 25, 2018. http://blog.godreports.com/2018/05/the-early-roots-of-the-jesus-movement-as-recounted-by-connie-frisbee/.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Skjoldli, Jane. Charismatic Controversies in the Jesus People, Calvary Chapel, and Vineyard Movements. In Controversial New Religions. Edited by James R. Lewis and Jesper Aa. Petersen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.


NOTES

[1] Gospel of John 9:16b, NRSV.

[2] Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 27.

[3] David Di Sabatino, Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher, directed by David Di Sabatino, (2005).

[4] Di Sabatino, Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.

[5] Di Sabatino, Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.

[6] Di Sabatino, Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.

[7] Randall Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 24.

[8] Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, 24.

[9] Di Sabatino: Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.

[10] Jane Skjoldli, “Charismatic Controversies in the Jesus People, Calvary Chapel, and Vineyard Movements,” in Controversial New Religions, edited by James R. Lewis and Jesper Aa. Petersen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 84.

[11] Skjoldli, Charismatic Controversies in the Jesus People, Calvary Chapel, and Vineyard Movements, 84.

[12] Di Sabatino, Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.

[13] Skjoldli, Charismatic Controversies in the Jesus People, Calvary Chapel, and Vineyard Movements, 90.

[14] Di Sabatino, Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.

[15] Di Sabatino, Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.

[16] Di Sabatino, Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.

[17] Mark Ellis, Communal ‘hippie house’ in S.F. Bay Area was ground zero for Jesus Movement, God Reports, August 30, 2018, http://blog.godreports.com/2018/08/communal-hippie-house-in-s-f-bay-area-was-ground-zero-for-jesus-movement/.

[18] Mark Ellis, The early roots of the Jesus movement, as recounted by Connie Frisbee, God Reports, May 25, 2018, http://blog.godreports.com/2018/05/the-early-roots-of-the-jesus-movement-as-recounted-by-connie-frisbee/.

[19] Di Sabatino, Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.

[20] Di Sabatino, Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.

[21] Luhrmann, When God Talks Back, 33.

[22] Di Sabatino, Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.

[23] Romans 3:23, NRSV.

[24] Gospel of John 9:16b, NRSV.

[25] Skjoldli, Charismatic Controversies in the Jesus People, Calvary Chapel, and Vineyard Movements, 92.