The Jesus Movement

I keep copies of two historic Time magazines in my study.

One is the famous 1966 Time asking the question: Is God Dead?

The other is from 1971 reporting on: The Jesus Revolution

Following up on my Revival? blog, here are some thoughts on the Jesus Movement.

Modernity’s 300 year Enlightenment Project ended badly. Not only did it result in the abandonment of Utopian dreams brought on by the Holocaust and Hiroshima, it also inserted Nietzsche’s assertion that God is dead into the postmodern world, at least in the form of a question: Is God dead? In keeping with what Nietzsche was really saying, the question is intuitively understood in the postmodern Western world as — Is Christianity still relevant?

The Jesus Movement was the answer.

April 8, 1966: Is God Dead?

June 21, 1971: The Jesus Revolution

The Jesus Movement was the first postmodern revival and as such is a kind of prototype for what I’ve taken to calling unrevival.

Over the years I’ve read dozens of books on Revival — The Great Awakenings, The Welsh Revivals, The Moravian Movement, The Korean Pentecost, etc. But I’ve never read a book on The Jesus Movement. But I could write one. I lived it. It was my experience. It’s my roots.

The Jesus Movement began in the late 1960’s in the counterculture centers of California and throughout the 1970’s it spread across America and other parts of the Western world resulting in the conversion of multitudes young people. By the end of the 70’s the Jesus Movement had pretty much run its course but by then it had made a lasting impact on the church in the form of new music, new styles of worship and a new generation of energetic leaders. The number of conversions resulting from the Jesus Movement probably exceeds any of the previous historic revivals.

But oddly enough most of the wider church did not recognize the Jesus Movement as a revival when it was happening (and many still don’t!) because it didn’t fit the 19th century paradigm for revival. One of the most interesting aspects of the Jesus Movement was that it was not a geographically centered revival but a kind of demographic revival. The Jesus Movement was not defined by a particular location, but moved primarily among counterculture youth throughout America and parts of the Western world. This is very different than the previous historic revivals which were very localized and usually centered on a few prominent evangelists. Who were the prominent evangelists of the Jesus Movement? Certainly there were various people who gained notoriety during the Jesus Movement (far more musicians than preachers), but they could hardly claim to be responsible for the movement. It was much more like “the wind which blows where it wishes.” It was in that regard unusual. And perhaps a kind of prototype of postmodern unrevival.

Many of the thoughts I have concerning unrevival were present during the Jesus Movement — which is perhaps just another way of saying that the Jesus Movement was very unlike the 18th, 19th and early 20th century revivals. And it probably explains why so many people still fail to recognize the Jesus Movement for what it was — the Spirit of God moving in a new way among the first generation of the postmodern world.

Some random observations about the Jesus Movement (from one who was there).

The Jesus Movement had a very strong counterculture vibe.
Although it did not stay confined to the hippies, the Jesus Movement most definitely began there. And this was absolutely the last place that the First Baptist Church of Mayberry was expecting a new move of God to come from! The God of Surprise strikes again. So where might the next unrevival spring up? I don’t know, but it might just be the place we expect the least.

The Jesus Movement was not politically conservative.
Mostly the Jesus Movement was a-political. But in its early days it was also was at least somewhat influenced by the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements. Larry Norman’s The Great American Novel captures the political overtones of the Jesus’ Movement. Here’s a sample of some of the lyrics:

You kill a black man at midnight
Just for talking to your daughter
Then you make his wife your mistress
And you leave her without water
And the sheet you wear upon your face
Is the sheet your children sleep on
At every meal you say a prayer
You don’t believe but still you keep on

You are far across the ocean
But the war is not your own
And while you’re winning theirs
You’re gonna lose the one at home
Do you really think the only way
To bring about the peace
Is to sacrifice your children
And kill all your enemies?

And your money says in God we trust
But it’s against the law to pray in school
You say we beat the Russians to the moon
And I say you starved your children to do it
You say all men are equal, all men are brothers
Then why are the rich more equal than others
Don’t ask me for the answer I’ve only got one
That a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son

Just trying singing that in the First Baptist Church of Mayberry in 1969!

I’m not commenting on the validity of Larry Norman’s lyrics but just emphasizing that although the Jesus Movement was Pro-Life, it was not politically conservative. Historically very few revivals begin among political conservatives because conservatives by definition are generally interested in preserving the status quo. In his day Charles Finney would have been considered politically Left because of his abolitionist views. But I digress.

The Jesus Movement embraced the Arts.
Ever since the Reformation the arts had been increasing marginalized in the Evangelical church. The Jesus Movement changed all that. And it changed it amidst much controversy. I can still remember the uproar that occurred in my Baptist church when they allowed a visiting music group to use drums in one single Sunday night service. Sacrilege in the temple! The Jesus Movement springing from the artistic counterculture movement celebrated all kinds of artistic expression. Music, dance, painting, poetry and I still remember the Jesus freak potter from Arkansas.

The Jesus Movement felt “Underground.”
The Jesus Movement was just that — a movement. It wasn’t an event, it wasn’t organized, it wasn’t franchised — it was a movement. Yes, there were events, like Explo ’72 — a week long festival in Dallas that drew 200,000 young people, a kind of Christian Woodstock. But the movement itself far transcended any event. And as such it had an “underground” and subversive feel to it. For good and bad the Jesus Movement had an air of rebellion about it. We were not only rebelling against the traditional church, but we were also rebelling against the drugs and “free love” of the counterculture. We were rebelling by becoming Jesus freaks. When I began to baptize my converts in the river I was “summoned” before the local ministerial alliance (which I fondly referred to as the Sanhedrin) to give an account of my actions. Oh, yeah, there was definitely an underground feel to what was happening. The Christian coffeehouse I was a part of was appropriately named The Catacombs. (The Catacombs is the antecedent to Word of Life Church.)

The Jesus Movement made lots mistakes.
Like every historical revival the Jesus Movement was marked by plenty of mistakes, abuses and weirdness. Too much rebellion, too much disdain for the established church, too much eschatological obsession and too little good theology and adequate discipleship. I think it’s important to recognize that revivals are messy by nature.

So do I think it can happen again? Yes and no. Yes, I do think there will be more postmodern (un)revivals, but they will not be a repeat of the Jesus Movement. That was the baby-boomer’s postmodern revival. I do believe we may soon see some new and powerful moves of God among young people for which the Jesus Movement is the closest precedent. My hope and prayer is to be a part of it. And I hope and pray that the churches now being pastored by converts from the Jesus Movement can do a better job recognizing an unrevival then the previous generation did.

Such are my thoughts on this thinking day.

Time to get outdoors.

One Way!