As part of the Jesus People Movement Oral History, we interviewed over 60 people who experienced the movement first-hand. John Fischer’s story is included at jesuspeoplemovement.com and touches on his experiences as one of the JPM’s earliest musicians as well as his time at Peninsula Bible Church, Palo Alto, California, the hub of the movement in northern California.. This project is in partnership with Biola University on the upcoming ABLAZE Conference on October 7-9 where we will explore and celebrate the legacy of the Jesus People Movement.
This article is a revised and expanded version of what appeared on John’s blog: catchjohnfischer.com. For more information on John’s current ministry work among young believers, please explore his blog.
“Our parents had Billy Graham. We had Jack Sparks … Francis Schaeffer … Chuck Smith …”
On the surface, these three men are a study in contrasts. A hippie radial, a distant intellectual, and a middle-aged preacher.
Jack Sparks was a product of the student unrest of the 1960s and the drug culture in Berkeley, California. At the highpoint of the hippy counterculture, Berkley was ground zero for political and social radicals. Within this hotspot, Sparks led the emergence of a new group of radicals but with a message that set them apart from those on the campus. Sparks and his new Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF) adopted many of the same mannerisms and strategies of other radical groups but focused relentlessly on the message of Jesus. Sparks led that group which sought to contextualize the message of the gospel to radical and revolutionary university students. Within this environment, the CWLF spawned one of the most popular Jesus Movement street newsletters of the day, Right On. In large part due to the tireless work of others like Sharon Gallagher, Right On’s readership expanded well beyond Berkley and served as an important tether of the Jesus People Movement to causes of injustice. Through regular bible studies and community living, Sparks and CWLF spread the message of Jesus as the real and lasting source of peace the world craved.
From his community in L’Abri, Switzerland, Francis Schaeffer proved to be one of the most influential minds in American religion. A student of 19th century philosophy, theology, and culture, Schaeffer despaired at the numerous artists and students who saw no way out of the entrapment of existentialism and that so few saw the relevance of the Bible to current thought. Contextualizing the gospel message within discussions of art and philosophy, Schaeffer enlivened scripture by connecting its message to the broader cultural search for meaning and purpose. More than just influencing the Church through his writings, Schaeffer attracted thousands of young evangelicals struggling with their faith who flocked to L’Abri. Through these students, Schaeffer’s legacy of shaping the evangelical mind is still unfolding today.
Considered one of the leading voices of the Jesus People Movement, Chuck Smith was nothing close to the movement’s typical hippie. Rather, he served as the gentle father figure who contextualized Bible teaching and the reality of the Holy Spirit to a generation of students seeking a deep emotional connection with God. Committed to proclaiming Jesus to a generation looking for meaning, Smith cut past their long hair, jeans, and music that tripped up so many other pastors. In opening his church to hippies, Smith and his church, Calvary Chapel, blew the roof off the place with a flood of new worship and evangelistic music. Forced to erect a huge tent when their building couldn’t handle the crowds, Calvary Chapel and Smith helped launch a new generation of musician-pioneered ministry.
Each of the individuals is distinct in their giftings, methodology, and communities. Yet they remained united by one similarity: proclaiming the message of Jesus to those who felt unheard or unseen by traditional church methods. It was this similarity that made them great and that draw me to each of them individually.
Beyond this singular message, all men demonstrated an unyielding passion in its proclamation. They had a passion for truth, and a love for the lost — especially the lost members of a young, searching generation. And each of them felt they had a corner on something that their generation was looking for, and a way to communicate it; and because of that, a responsibility to follow it through. What drove them was the same thing that drove Billy Graham. They all had the never-changing message of the gospel, in an ever-changing form that was relevant to their day and the audience they were trying to reach.
I have stories about my own personal experience with each of these men, but the most profound was having Francis Schaeffer address the student body at Wheaton College for a week at a time, both when I was a freshman and when I was a senior. He was the first Christian leader to connect for me biblical faith and contemporary thought and culture, and to teach me, by example, to cry over the lost. As a young man looking for someone to care about me and my generation, here was an example that stood out against the sea of rhetoric and consumerism. Schaeffer cared for us beyond what we could do for him and his platform; he wanted us to know the living God and to be transformed by Him.
Three men, three different ministries, one unifying factor: they all sought to make the message of the gospel relevant to the immediately felt needs of the younger generation. While the message remained the same, they understood that each new age needs to speak in a language that can be understood and believed.
It is a critical lesson for pastors and church leaders today. Young people need to hear the message of Jesus in ways they can seize hold of. They need their questions answered, the longings addressed, and the fears assuaged. They need to understand how the gospel message not only meets these needs but surpasses their imaginations. As these three men demonstrate, the platform is not nearly as important as the heart. Three different ministries all flourished because of singular heart for the gospel to find the rich soil of young people.