Across Pacific Magazine
Across Pacific Magazine

Kenn Gulliksen:
Surprised by Grace and Rescued by Love

A younger Kenn Gulliksen

And it didn't matter who you were, your temperament, sex, age, ethnicity or previous religious or lack of religious affiliation-straight, kinky, right brain, left brain, marketplace, creative, housewife, male, female, young, old. Kenn Gulliksen had a way of opening minds and especially hearts to the possibility and then the reality of God. And not just any God, The God of First John, Chapter four: "God is Love."

In fact, because of his gentle and loving delivery, his song "Charity"-a musical exposition of the "love" chapter (1 Cor.13)-his emphasis on intimate worship, and his album Charity: Love Songs to Jesus and the Family, he was called "the pastor of love" by Chuck Smith.

Chuck Smith recognized Kenn's unique ability to connect God to those who were listening to him teach. When you ask Kenn about his most memorable experiences as a pastor, one of the first to surface goes like this: "My first nighttime message to a large meeting at a Calvary Chapel camp, I had no message though I had prayed for weeks. I was determined not to say anything God hadn't given me (oh for that kind of innocent heart again), and spent the entire day of the message in prayer and fasting. Nothing. Chuck introduced me and then sat in the front row (no little intimidation there, since he hadn't yet asked me to come on staff). I stood and walked across the stage to open my mouth to say I was very sorry, but God hadn't given me a message. Instead, I heard my mouth saying (no joke), 'They that have entered His rest have ceased from their own labors,' from Hebrews four, and I continued to speak prophetically for over half-an-hour, then I sat down. Chuck came up and said, I came tonight to hear Kenn, but what I heard was the Holy Spirit.' Wow. As they say, 'It doesn't get any better than that.'"

God had a unique work to do in a unique timeframe. Dozens of pastors before and since have come to West L.A. and Beverly Hills with a vision and a mandate to plant a work there. Most have left desolate, retreated to other parts of the city or state or country that are less hostile to the Christian message. A few have stayed to struggle to keep their tiny congregations alive. It is said that there are less Christians per capita in West L.A. and Beverly Hills than in Japan. Kenn and his wife Joanie saw human loaves and fishes multiplied as their church grew to 2000 and in Kenn's words saw "the church have unplanned pregnancies, birthing and planting other churches around Los Angeles and up the Coast." (All of the churches still survive and thrive to this day.)

This move of God grew pastors and worship leaders and sent them into every corner of the nation and the world. These men and women had experienced and embraced a vision for intimate worship and a focus on Scripture. Music that spoke directly to God and was a magnet for new believers exploded via a Diaspora of leadership and musicians that attended their church and then went out to other states and nations with a new imprint, a new story of the God of Love.

Between 1974 and 1982, eight churches had emerged which formed the foundation of a new denomination: The Vineyard. It now has membership that surpasses a number of mainline denominations, as does Calvary Chapel's association of churches, where Kenn was also one of a handful of early leaders.

But what happens when the message you bring, the message you believe wholeheartedly, the message of truth that the Holy Spirit can endorse by showing up and moving on a congregation, is being experienced by almost everyone except you?-crisis. What happens when like David, you start out with a sling shot, and then start looking for armor, stop relying one hundred percent on what God delivers and think you need to live up to your past victories.

It probably happens a lot. You start out transparent, authentic, someone says-a lot of someones-"You're great." "You changed my life." And then you start holding yourself to that standard. You start having a performance level you have to measure up to. You start watching yourself, and editing and critiquing. You start looking at your life and you see the cracks. You start comparing today's delivery with your best and you lose objectivity.

The amazing ascent to pastoral celebrity status must have been a little unnerving for a young man in his mid-twenties, the child of immigrant parents, brilliant, but unschooled in the ways of the world... God gives Kenn and his wife Joanie a vision for Beverly Hills. They go and all heaven breaks loose. Bob Dylan gets saved. T-bone Burnett and David Mansfield of Bob's Rolling Thunder Review join the fray. Bernie Leadon of The Eagles and Debbie Boone, who has a number one radio hit, attend-Priscilla Presley, Eldridge Cleaver, Bubba Smith, Maureen McCormick, Lisa Whelchel, Frank Peretti, and the list goes on. The most influential musical artists of the Jesus Movement make his humble church plant their home: writers and rockers, artists and photographers, actors and models. It would be overwhelming for someone twice his age. Davin Seay, one of his congregants, writes a feature article on his experience with God at Ken's Vineyard that ends up in Los Angeles magazine. It's not a good idea to read your own press.

Over-close personal scrutiny always makes one feel unlovable. The greater the success, the more unworthy one feels. Maybe that is what motivated Kenn to hand over his eight churches in 1982 and plant a church, first in Newport, California in '83, then in Framingham, Massachusetts in '84. "Giving the churches to John Wimber in 1982 was an unexpected turn in the road," Kenn says, as was the fact that we were "continually moving to plant churches when I continually expected the current church to be my last.."

Kenn Gulliksen with newly baptized believer at Pirate's Cove, CA, after a Calvary Chapel mass baptism
Kenn continued to plant churches through 2001, when his health-a severe degenerative disease of the spine which is extremely painful and precludes an ability to rest or sleep-and issues with his marriage demanded it. In the stillness provided, Kenn came to a new revelation of God, or perhaps rediscovered the revelation he encountered when he was first introduced to Christ and then filled with the Holy Spirit. Kenn says, "I realized I was seeing God as a kidnapper." In his early days at Calvary, he says, "I wanted to live in New England. I wanted to be an architect. I was engaged to a girl I'd been in love with for seven years." Kenn traded his dreams for God's dreams. "I ended up in L.A., not Massachusetts. I ended up as a pastor, not an architect, and marrying in faith rather than feeling." Kenn and Joanie married at God's direction, a course that resulted in significant challenges for them both. By the time Joanie was 26, she had four children and she had had three miscarriages.

"All those years, I saw god as a kidnapper. I was doing thus and thus and God kidnapped me. God was someone who steals joy, someone you run away from. I was serving someone you identify as a kidnapper. Then the lights went on, he hadn't kidnapped me; he rescued me from what would have been bad choices and lesser choices. He rescued me because he loved me and had a better plan. You run from a kidnapper and you run to a rescuer."

Kenn says, "The Holy Spirit clobbered me and I had to face the revelation about my self-centeredness, control, manipulation."

Most would think after a life of phenomenal success, Kenn and his wife Joanie would be securely planted, they'd own a home. Kenn thought that, too. "But the opposite occurred." Kenn says, "Every single thing that I had expected, the Lord took away to show me true grace. And I was born again, again... I recall one day, I was attempting to take a walk near our apartment. I had been throwing up. I could barely walk or stand. A jogger approached and when he got close he looked into my face as if in hazy recognition and said, 'Aren't you Kenn Gulliksen?' I looked at him and said, 'I used to be.'"

In losing his life, Kenn, as the Scripture says, gained his life. "I had thought I had to perform. I preached grace to everybody else and yet had to prove I was worth saving." In his dark night of the soul, Kenn rediscovered the God of Love, he once knew and preached. It changed his relationship first and foremost with God, with Joanie and his kids. Kenn sees it "as a work in progress." But out of the ashes, Kenn has discovered new life and new hope. The pastor of Love and the God of Love are no longer separated by a distortion of God's character.

Kenn says with sweet emphasis-there has always been a smile in his voice, even in his most painful moments-"I view this season, more than ever about personally knowing Jesus more and more; it's about just knowing Jesus. That's the point of everything. So when I serve I can serve from the overflow of that relationship, from the overflow of the deepening experience of knowing Him."

One of Gulliksen's great joys is hearing from the acorns, "people who came to the Lord through relationship with us." And that's something that he can look forward to until the return of the King, because of the remarkable amount of seeds he and Joanie have planted and continue to plant. In 2003 and 2004, he and Joanie had a chance to visit the churches they planted on the East Coast and the churches that those churches in turn had planted. Gulliksen got to see firsthand how God had allowed him to partner with Him in bringing true life and the message of God's love, evidenced in Jesus Christ.

Most recently Gulliksen has assumed leadership of a Thursday night Bible Study at Ocean Hills Church in San Juan Capistrano, California, whose pastor, Skip Heitzig, recently returned to Calvary Chapel Albuquerque. Knowing all about loss and recovery, Gulliksen is ideally suited to minister grace, comfort and truth. In fact, Kenn's vision for the next twenty years is "to speak the truth in love to the church." It's the vision and message he's really always had. Surprised by grace and rescued by love, he now runs to his Father. Now he is united with every word he speaks. Now he truly is "the pastor of Love."

"They that have entered His rest have ceased from their own labors."

For more information on Ocean Hills Church go to:


   Building Bridges ACROSS the Barriers                                                      APA Ministries                     

A - Across Pacific Magazine
S - Schools

God at Work