For more information on the Jesus Movement, order "The Jesus People Movement: An Annotated Bibliography and General Resource" - now available.
By most accounts, the Jesus People Movement began in 1967 with the opening of a small storefront evangelical mission called the Living Room in San Francisco's Haight Ashbury district. Though other missionary type organizations had preceded them in the area, this was the first one run solely by street Christians.
Within a short time of these first stirrings a number of independent Christian communities sprang up all across North America. In Seattle, the Jesus People Army was born in response to a vision experienced by evangelist Linda Meissner, who had seen an "army of teenagers marching for Jesus." On the Sunset Strip, evangelist Arthur Blessitt opened the His Place nightclub and coffeehouse as a 24 hour way station for youth. At the University of California at Berkeley, Dr. Jack Sparks and some other members of Campus Crusade decided to begin a countercultural outreach program called the Christian Liberation World Front (CWLF) directed towards reaching campus radicals.
The ensuing groundswell of activity spawned a number of other developments as well. Realizing the need to open their churches to the hippie generation, many conservative pastors recruited hippie liaisons to their ministerial staff. Both Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel (in Santa Ana, California) with the recruitment of Lonnie Frisbee, and Lyle Steenis of Bethel Tabernacle (in Redondo Beach) with the recruitment of Breck Stevens found their churches radically transformed in the wake of their decisions.
In order to proclaim the message of the gospel, hippie Christians simply adopted existing forms of communication. Mirroring the development of underground newspapers such as the Berkeley Barb, in 1969 evangelist Duane Pederson began publishing the Hollywood Free Paper as an evangelistic tool. Jesus papers with names like Right On!, The Fish, Street Level, and Cornerstone became a fundamental component of each street Christian community.
Another development was Jesus Music, the controversial combination of rock music and the gospel as one of the most effective (and subsequently lasting) institutions of the revival. Artists and groups such as Ron Moore, Love Song, John Fischer, Larry Norman, Randy Matthews, Agape, and the All Saved Freak Band are just a few of the performers that felt the need to communicate spiritual truths through a popular medium. Christian coffeehouses and Jesus rock festivals emerged as the music gained momentum as a popular alternative to the mainstream industry. Contemporary Christian radio shows sprang up as did magazines devoted solely to monitoring the fledgling Jesus Music scene. While many conservative church-goers lamented that Jesus Music was a spiritual compromise, these pioneers maintained that they were combating the negative influence of mainstream rock music. In an attempt to develop an apologetic for their evangelistic efforts they echoed the sentiments of reformer Martin Luther when he asked "why should the devil have all the best tunes."
Adding to the excitement of the era was the sense that the revival was a foreshadowing of the impending apocalypse. Hal Lindsey's runaway best seller The Late Great Planet Earth hit upon a deep seated nerve in the public with his combination of biblical prophecy and news events. Lindsey based much of his writing on the premise that the re-establishment of Israel as a nation was a prominent signal that the "countdown to Armageddon" had begun. Coupled with this end times theology was a premillennial doctrine concerning the "rapture of the saints" which taught that prior to the rise of the Antichrist and final war believers would be "raptured" (or 'caught up') to escape a time of tribulation perceived as being foretold in the Book of Revelation. Jesus musician Larry Norman's haunting song "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" touched on this theme:
Two men walking up a hill
and one's left standing still
I wish we'd all been ready
The revival also spawned a number of extremist groups such as the Children of God, The Alamo Foundation, and the Way International. Although at first accepted and welcomed as more militant and committed street Christian groups, as apologetic ministries such as the CWLF's Spiritual Counterfeits Project rose to expose doctrinal deviations, these groups were branded as heretical.
Though the revival had progressed for four years, the mainstream media did not really focus on the story until 1971. Though Christianity Today and Christian Life had followed the story from its beginnings in the Haight Ashbury, it wasn't until 1970 when articles about 'street Christians' and 'Jesus freaks' appeared in Time and Commonweal. The major breakthrough came in February 1971 when Look magazine printed a story that anyone had described it as anything more than a local California event. This article spawned a virtual cottage industry of press articles, denominational ruminations, television exposes, and films all detailing various facets of what was now being called a "movement." Ocean baptismal services, exuberant prayer meetings, long-haired evangelists, and Jesus rock musicians were portrayed throughout national magazines like Time, Newsweek, Life, Rolling Stone, and U.S. News & World Report. In 1971 the Jesus People were the religious event of the year while ranking third in Time's story of the year poll. Alongside the emergence of Black Panthers, hippies, Yippies, Diggers, student activists, Weathermen, and women's liberationists, the 'Jesus freak' was certainly the most curious social phenomena of the late 1960's and early 1970's.
Although the media's interest in the movement waned by the end of 1971, there was much evidence that the revival was still going strong. The Jesus People USA, an offshoot ministry of the original Seattle Jesus People Army, would soon find a home in Chicago ministering to street youth. In 1972 Campus Crusade organized Explo '72 in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas where many of the movement's top performers were invited to sing. In 1973 former Calvary Chapel pastor Kenn Gulliksen was just starting a string of Bible studies that would culminate in the Vineyard churches.
With Watergate and President Nixon's promises to end the war in Vietnam dominating the front pages, the counterculture receded thus removing the mission field that the revival had targeted. Where previous efforts of evangelism had been as simple as playing a guitar on a street corner for a group of spiritually interested hippies, the cynicism born of societal fears towards "cults" and their "brainwashing" techniques made evangelism a less fruitful endeavor than it once had been. As the counterculture came to an end, Jesus People groups either disbanded, institutionalized as churches, or stubbornly clung to their countercultural roots. Though the Jesus People Movement had effectively ended by the mid-1970s, there were still a host of churches, parachurch organizations, apologetics ministries, converts, Jesus musicians, independent evangelists, and missionary workers that had been funneled into Protestant and Catholic denominations of all theological skews.
Though the Jesus People Movement remains relatively neglected by mainstream and religious historians, its influence throughout the church had a profound affect upon shaping many facets of the contemporary evangelical movement.
David Di Sabatino