What was the Jesus People Movement?
The following article was published in Biola Magazine in Summer 2020.
The Jesus People Movement
The late 1960s marked one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. Anti-war protests reached a fever pitch culminating in a near war like confrontation at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. At the same time, the successes of the Civil Rights movement were threatened by the assassination of Martin Luther King in April of the same year. This underlying cultural friction combined with the sexual revolution and significant increase in access to psychedelic drugs to give rise to an emerging counter-culture that defined itself by its rejection of what it viewed as mainstream America.
Despite this season of uncertainty and transition, a revival would emerge from the midst of this counterculture that would profoundly remake much of American Protestantism. While many were calling for revolution, one of the most enduring legacies of the period was the Jesus revolution inaugurated by what came to be identified as the Jesus People Movement (JPM).
Featured on the covers of magazines as famous as Time and Life, the beliefs and practices of the JPM defined a generation of youth who felt disenfranchised. Many of the forms of worship, approaches to evangelism, and attitudes towards the unchurched that are commonplace in evangelical—and even some Catholic and Mainline Protestant—churches draw their origins from this movement. While capturing such an eclectic and broad movement is challenging, four common features of the JPM emerge.
Built on the Counterculture
An initial step in understanding the Jesus People Movement lies in grappling with the counterculture out of which it sprang. Undoubtedly, few would have picked a culture defined in the popular conscience by its embrace of sex, drugs, and rock and roll as the ground out of which revival would grow. However, a pervading narrative across many in the JPM was in how they built upon the longings of the counterculture and its inability to satisfy as a springboard for the gospel. As such, central to understanding JPM lies in exploring not only how it synthesized features of the counterculture with the Christian faith but how these were then utilized to expand its windows for evangelism.
Many of the central innovations of the JPM – such as the coffeehouse movement or local underground newspapers – were intentionally built upon a model established by the counterculture. This was most evident in the emergence of Jesus music. What many in the mainstream church had dismissed as the Devil’s music, JPM musicians reclaimed as powerful tools for both worship and evangelism. Leading figures such as Larry Norman and groups like Love Song began bending the rock and roll genre to gospel purposes in ways that captured the imagination of young people throughout the country. Even in the title of one of Norman’s signature songs, “Why should the Devil have all the good music?” we catch a glimpse in the adaptive project of JPM musicians in claiming a stake for the gospel in popular music. As historian David Stowe has argued, it was through this popular music that the JPM reinvented much of evangelical Christianity. Not only giving rise to an entire industry of Contemporary Christian Music, the JPM adaptation of rock and roll quickly proliferated much of evangelical worship through the seventies to become the dominant paradigm for most churches today.
Often these adaptations of the counterculture were powerful tools of then evangelizing to communities in the counterculture the church had previously dismissed as too radical for the gospel. Most notably, four Campus Crusade staffers launched the Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF) at Berkley, playing upon the Third World Liberation Front. Quickly turning independent under the leadership of Jack Sparks and Susan Gallagher, CWLF embraced a similarly radical message through participating in campus protests. Through these efforts in adaption, the CWLF was able to evangelize to some of the most radical elements of the counterculture.
This synthesis was not always successful. Struggles with drugs and sex often plagued new converts as illustrated in one memorable exchange between David Wilkerson, whose book The Cross the Switchblade was a central text of the movement, and JPM leaders. While news cameras rolled, Wilkerson berated Ted Wise among others, for their claims that drug use was compatible with their calling as “psychedelic ministers.” While examples such as this reveal the inherent messiness of cultural adaption, many of the movement’s most notable leaders emphasized grace for those struggling with the transition between the two worlds.
A Theological Blend of Pentecostalism
Tracing the contours of the theology of the Jesus People is challenging. In part due to their own pragmatic tendencies, no substantive theological work was created out of the movement. However, through their writings, songs, and practices, the movement represented a popular blending of key evangelical and Pentecostal doctrines. Indeed, historian Richard Bustraan argues that the JPM served as an important catalyst in the blurring between the two streams of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism.
Drawing from Pentecostalism, the majority of the JPM developed a pneumatology that emphasized supernatural experiences, spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues, and stressed the immanence of God. Prophetic words from God became almost expected as a means of validating authority or calling among early JPM leaders. Reflecting on his early days of street evangelism, Kent Philpott remembered, “I heard God telling me to go to the hippies in San Francisco… the very next night about eight o’clock I drove into the city, found the Haight-Ashbury District, and started walking around.” This experience was fairly normative as many expressed a similar direction from God either to join certain projects or evangelize in specific locations. These supernatural experiences also served to legitimize JPM ministries in contrast to established churches and Christian organizations who, without similar events, were depicted as dead.
The evangelical roots of the JPM lay most prominently in its intense priority of the bible and premillennial eschatology. Across the various expressions, the JPM emphasized both the authority of scripture and its accessibility to all believers. Bible studies served as fundamental building blocks for most movements not only as evangelistic gatherings but ongoing discipleship of members. Moreover, many of its leading pastors and evangelists adopted a simple, verse-by-verse hermeneutic that instilled a belief that all Christians could, through careful reading, likewise understand and apply scripture.
Just as their Biblicism synergized well with the countercultural emphasis upon personal investigation and discovery, premillennial eschatology layered neatly upon the counterculture’s pervading pessimism about society. Yet what distinguished the JPM from other evangelicals was in the fervency with which their apocalypticism propelled their evangelism. The popularity of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth reinforced the connection between eschatology and evangelism in the movement. As a result, throughout their songs, newspapers, sermons, and tracts, the imminent return of Christ was utilized to cultivate a sense of urgency not only into a decision for faith but a commitment of believers to reach the lost.
A Spatial Approach to Evangelism
Central to understanding the Jesus People Movement was their singular devotion to and zeal for evangelism. At the core of the movement’s identity was an abiding belief that the gospel was good news for a generation that was lost and wandering. Thus, it was not simply that leading JPM evangelists down through to their enthusiastic members called young people to renounce their past but rather that they believed that it was only Jesus that could fill the longings that they were perpetually searching for.
The aim of the JPM was straightforward, coming from its name: adherents sought to reach people for Jesus. Street evangelism, evangelism bands traveling across the country to share Christ, and a host of evangelists and evangelistic ministries arose from its ranks. Even in their defining slogan–the raised finger and words “one way,” was an acknowledgement that in the midst of such pain, chaos, and uncertainty it was solely through belief in Jesus that people could find the peace and joy they craved.
What was particularly innovative for the JPM was in how they thought through the spatial dynamics of evangelism. Encountering a counterculture that was largely hostile to established forms of authority and religion, JPM leaders focused on entering into the spaces occupied by these people on the margins rather than demanding they come to them. The most effective JPM evangelists were those who either adopted counterculture clothing and language, such as Arthur Blessitt, or who were hippies themselves prior to coming to faith, like Lonnie Frisbee.
JPM leaders also went to great lengths to transform religious spaces to be more accessible to the counterculture. Recognizing that even many youth had experienced bitter rejection due to their appearance or language, leaders focused on reinventing religious space. As the JPM spread, coffeehouses became the primary local expression of the movement. In cities and towns across the country, coffeehouses sprang up in the wake of local revivals or as Jesus music began to filter into community. While there were a variety of expressions, coffeehouses generally provide informal meeting place for youth to hear local or traveling Jesus music bands and a gospel message by an evangelist or local youth pastor.
In addition to physical space, JPM leaders crafted literary space to address the questions and concerns relevant to young people through underground newspapers and magazines such as the Hollywood Free Paper, Right On, and Truth. These papers, built on a tradition established by the counterculture, provided a forum for the issues local JPM leaders believed were being discussed in addition to offering space for evangelistic collaboration.
Churches who were effective in reaching the youth of this period did so by adjusting their forms to accommodate the newly converted. Pastor Chuck Smith, whose wife in particular had a deep burden for the hippies in the Southern California area of Costa Mesa, saw his church explode with hippie conversions, quickly growing from 150 to thousands beginning in 1970. In a famous incident where elders of Calvary Chapel put up a “No Bare Feet Allowed in the Church” sign to protect a newly installed carpet, Smith told the church that if they turned away one person because of bare feet or dirty clothes he’d personally rip up the carpet and pews. As historian Larry Eskridge points out, these acts by established pastors were pivotal not only for the JPM but for growth of the churches themselves.
A Decentralized Movement
Despite several notable figures, it is critical to understand that the JPM was not a cohesive movement. In many ways, it would be more accurate to speak of the JPM as a series of interconnected revivals and evangelistic campaigns rather than a monolithic phenomenon. From the late 1960s through to the mid-1970s, thousands of churches, parachurch ministries, and independent evangelists claimed the mantle of the Jesus People yet massive variations existed across these groups in theology, hierarchy, and practice.
The result is that it is hard to encapsulate every element of the movement or give proper due to its various expressions. In academic and popular histories, the JPM in Southern California have received the bulk of the attention but there are countless other expressions. While Calvary Chapel was exploding out west, First Baptist Church of Houston hosted a SPIRENO (Spiritual Revolution Now) crusade featuring youth evangelist Richard Hogue. Pastor John Bisagno told his people he would rather see hippies sitting on the floor at their church worshiping Jesus than sitting on a park bench smoking pot. The resulting revivals saw over 4,000 young people saved requiring the church to hire a pastors imply to handle the necessary follow up and baptism.
Colleges as well became centers for revival. Most famously, Asbury College experienced a revival during a chapel service on February 3rd, 1970 that lasted 185 hours long. Asbury students almost immediately began spreading out, sparking similar revivals in surrounding churches and on other college campuses. In one such revival, Asbury students led services at the South Main Church of God in Anderson, Indiana with services lasting multiple consecutives days. In the same winter, Wheaton College underwent a revival sparked in part by students returning from Christmas vacation who had witness the JPM revivals in Southern California.
Outside of churches and colleges, coffeehouse and communes often originated under the direction or singular evangelists or pastors. At times these individuals had visited JPM hotspots such like Calvary Chapel and brought back a similar theme and model but others were independent manifestations. From Jim Palosaari in Milwaukee to John Lloyd in Fort Wayne to David Hoyt in Atlanta, JPM communities sprang up across the United States in the early 1970s and with extremely wide variance in oversight or guidance.
While this decentralization allowed for the broad and rapid diffusion of the movement, it also exposed it to abuse and false teaching from groups such as the Children of God; The Way, International; and the Tony Alamo Foundation. The inability to regulate one another also led at times to issues with overly authoritarian leaders. Thus, when Kent Philpott published a scathing rebuke of the Children of God in the Hollywood Free Paper in the summer of 1971, it did little good.
The long term impact of the JPM, a disparate collection of movements though it was, recognizes entire networks of churches (Calvary Chapels, Vineyard), a revolution in corporate worship music, and evangelistic renewal. For instance, the greatest years of evangelism in the history of Southern Baptists to this day is the early 70s. Ray Ortlund offers the most succinct and personal evaluation of the movement and his its legacy:
Woodstock is overrated. The real story of 50 years ago was the Jesus Movement. Yes, Woodstock was fun. But the Jesus Movement was high-octane, industrial-strength, heaven-sent joy. Now my life mission is for *you* to experience that. You will never again settle for mere fun.
 Ronald Enroth, Edward Ericson, and C. Breckinridge Peters, The Jesus People: Old-Time Religion in the Age of Aquarius (Grand Rapids, 1972), 12; Duane Pederson, Jesus People (Regal Books, 1971), 34; Richard Ellwood, One Way: The Jesus Movement and Its Meaning (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1973), 59
 Erling Jorstad, That New-Time Religion: The Jesus Revival in America (Augsburg Publishing, 1972), 48.
 Edward Plowman, The Jesus Movement in America: Accounts of Christian Revolutionaries in Action (Pyramid, 1972), 43-44.
 Marc Allan, What Happened to You?, 54-55.
 David W. Stowe, No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism. (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2011), 8.
 Jorstad, That New-Time Religion, 53-55.
 Larry Eskridge, God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in American (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 50.
 Richard Bustraan, The Jesus People Movement, 186-187.
 Kent Philpott, Awakenings in America, 82.
 Vern Fein, Radical Faith: From the Sixties Counterculture to Jesus, 53-54.
 Betty Price and Everett Hullum, Jr., “The Jesus Explosion,” in Home Missions, June/July 1971, 22.
 Eskridge, God’s Forever Family, 85-86.
 Don Williams, Call to the Streets (Augsburg Publishing, 1972), 44-45.
 Plowman, Jesus Movement, 45.
 Eskridge, God’s Forever Family, 75.
 Plowman, Jesus Movement, 11.
 Howard A. Hanke, “God in Our Midst,” in One Divine Moment, ed. Robert E. Coleman (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1970), 17-25. Coleman included many student testimonies and faculty appraisals in this book.
 Ray Ortlund Jr. Interview. December 27th, 2019.
 For further information on these and other groups see Enroth, Ericson, and Peters, The Jesus People, 21-66.
 Enroth, The Jesus People, 42.
 Ray Ortlund, Twitter @rayortlund, 12 August 2019.