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.