Reflections on the Jesus Movement

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It was the middle of July 1967, the “long hot summer” in more ways than one. Protests against the Vietnam war were common, especially on college campuses. Three years earlier Martin Luther King had won the Nobel Peace Prize for leading the Civil Rights Movement, yet there was still ongoing racial unrest. Race riots were happening across the nation: Harlem, Philadelphia, and Watts, CA. The hippie movement had already been born on both coasts, in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and New York’s Greenwich Village district, and now the Summer of Love was in full swing. Experimental psychedelic drug use and the sexual revolution were growing in cultural vogue among the young and rebellious. Political tension was building and would explode a year later at the 1968 Democratic Convention. It was a time of such great social upheaval and unrest that many in the older generation thought the nation as coming unglued. What’s been called “the Greatest Generation”[1]feared that America was imploding.

In the midst of this upheaval, just two years earlier, in the small California beach town of Costa Mesa, Calvary Chapel had its beginning. Hippies, disenchanted with the both the drug and free-love culture, found their way to Chuck Smith’s church. With their long hair and dressed in bell-bottoms, they were fascinated with the counter-cultural teachings of Jesus on love, peace, and joy. Calvary Chapel is a large part of what Lookmagazine called The Jesus Movement. Other publications called them “The Groovy Christians” and “The Jesus Revolution.” Some conservative estimates put the number of young people across the US who gave their life to Christ in the Jesus Movement at a quarter of a million.[2] By 1970 Calvary Chapel had grown from 150 people to thousands of young hippies who became followers of Jesus. One particularly memorable story goes that the elders of the church put up a sign, “No Bare Feet Allowed in the Church” to protect the carpet in their new facility. “Pastor Chuck” told the elders that if they turned away one person because of bare feet or dirty clothes, he personally would rip up the new carpet.

I was a young boy in the summer of 1967 (9 years old) but I have distinct memories of watching the violence and social breakdown in our country, not unlike what we are experiencing today in a pandemic. In the midst of our own national/world chaos and the fear and anxiety that creates, how can we glean wisdom from the Jesus Movement to infuse us with courage to lean on God? What if he’s doing something profound in our lives and in the church in the present moment? We are the recipients of what the Jesus Movement accomplished and often we take it for granted. The movement grew in the midst of national chaos, but it should remind all of us that God is always working to bring redemption, spiritual revival and re-awakening out of chaos, often through people you and I would least expect. What were some of the effects of the Jesus Movement?

  1. Decentralized movement. Rather than organizing into a nationwide movement, the Jesus Movement was organic as people “caught the vision” and it quickly spread across the nation.
  2. “Casual” church. What had been up until that time, “You dress your best on Sunday because you give God your best” now was “Come as you are” – barefoot, braided hair with headbands, tie-dyed shirts – this was the beginning of a more casual dressed-down church. In addition, what had mostly been strict liturgy in worship had now been replaced with an emphasis on the relational, both with others and ultimately with God.
  3. Modern worship. Prior to the 60’s, worship consisted of choirs singing hymns focused on the piano. With the Jesus Movement, worship became influenced by the folk music of the day, which was guitar driven. Images of hippies sitting on the floor signing “praise choruses” accompanied only by a guitar. The enthusiasm for worship then became more of a rock-fueled upbeat music. When we worship today, we tend to think that its roots are in pop music. That might have influenced later forms but in reality, our worship today harkens back to its genesis in the Jesus Movement. Out of the Jesus Movement came worship such as Maranatha, the Vineyard, Hosannah, and our modern-day expressions in Passion, Hillsong and Bethel.
  4. Increased evangelism. There was a zeal to share their Christian faith with others. Rather than expecting people to come to them, those in the Jesus Movement saw the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) as them being sent out to others. Andrew McDonald and Ed Stetzer wrote, “[Those in the Jesus Movement]focused on entering into the spaces occupied by these people on the margins rather than demanding they come to them.”[3] It was very similar to Philip’s words to Nathanial in John’s gospel: You have to come and see this guy for yourself! (John 1:45-46, paraphrase)
  5. Dual emphasis of being grounded in God’s Word and open to the Holy Spirit’s work. In this way they retained what Bible-believing churches had done for centuries since the early church – they taught people God’s Word. Calvary Chapel was known for its verse-by-verse expositing of the Scriptures. Yet, at the same time they were open to the Spirit’s work. This was in direct contrast to many conservative churches at the time which had a very high view of the Bible yet left out the very power source for the Christian life, the Holy Spirit
  6. An increased awareness of Jesus’ imminent return. With so much chaos going on, many turned their attention to the biblical prophecies that accompanied what’s known as “end times.” I remember in early 1976 listening to Hal Lindsey, in a small gathering near UCLA, speak on his book The Late Great Planet Earth, which by 1990 had sold 28 million copies.  With any social upheaval there is always an increased interest in biblical eschatology (end time prophecies surrounding Jesus’ eventual return).

There is much more that happened as a result of the Jesus Movement (e.g. an increased interest in end times theology). Of course, like any movement some of it was very helpful for the church, while other parts led to unhealthy excesses. What then can we glean today from the Jesus Movement? We certainly seem to be at pivot point in history with much of the same ethos: uncertainty, anger, anxiety, and fear. It’s tempting to focus our emotional responses on the pandemic, division, and unrest. Yet if God is always working (John 5:17), the big questions for all of us are these:

  • People in the Jesus Movement and beyond were fascinated with Jesus’ return, and many thought it would be very soon. But we know he has already delayed another 60 years. What if his return then is not, even now, imminent but he waits another sixty years? How should that influence how we live?
  • What then might God be doing in our lives to shape our heart and how might the church step into the darkness and actually be the light of Christ?
  • What opportunities are there that exist right now for me to be a part of God’s Kingdom work in Valparaiso?
  • What if the generation to come after us (our children and grandchildren) marveled at our response to God rather than seeing us as people with a small soul who shrunk at the opportunity before us, upset at what was being taken away?
  • Will the generation to come speak of us as people of great faith or people who stubbornly clung so hard to their own opinions and attitudes that they were not open to any change that God might want to bring? (For example, think of people who have refused to change their preference for worship music.)

“For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of love and power and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7, ESV).


[1] The title was popularized by Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation, people who came of age during the Great Depression and went on to fight in WW2.

[2] Larry Eskridge, God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America

[3] Andrew McDonald & Ed Stetzer, “The Lasting Legacy of the Jesus People”. https://www.biola.edu/blogs/talbot-magazine/2020/the-lasting-legacy-of-the-jesus-people

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