Confessions of a Jesus Freak

jesus signAs I continue to age, I find increasingly that a generation gap opens up unexpectedly at my feet. The first time it happened was in my first (Anglican) parish, in 1980. I had just heard that John Lennon had died, and I shared the news with a teenaged boy in the parish. “David,” said I, “John Lennon died!” He just stared at me blankly, so that I repeated the newsflash again. With wide and guileless eyes, he asked, “Who’s John Lennon?” It was the first time I ever felt old.

It would not be the last. Just a few weeks’ ago I was teaching my catechumen class after our weekly post-Liturgy coffee hour, and made a reference to the Jesus People. Again the same blank stares from people too polite to ask what on earth I could be talking about. Turns out they had never heard of Jesus People (or “Jesus Freaks”, as the less appreciative called them). A short history lesson was in order.

Admittedly the Jesus People were not a major movement, like (say) the Methodists. They grew out of the disenchanted Hippie movement of the late 1960s in California, and spread through North America and beyond. (A scholarly history can be found in Larry Eskridge’s God’s Forever Family, published by Oxford University Press.) By the early 1980s it was all over, leaving no trace on the North American denominational scene, with the exception of what came to be called “Contemporary Christian Music” (i.e. praise bands and guitars). All in all, not a spectacular legacy.

Unless, of course, you count such men as Jack Sparks and Duane Pederson, who finished their lives as Orthodox clergy—or even guys like myself. That is, I am but one of many former Jesus People who came to Christ through that movement and who went on to find a home in more traditional places, such as the Orthodox Church. Even now, if asked, I will confess that if you scratch me deeply enough you will find a Jesus Freak. Not, I hasten to add, that I am not truly Orthodox, but that just as converted Jews confessed that their conversion to Christianity did not mean renouncing their Judaism but rather fulfilling it, so I also have found that conversion to Orthodoxy fulfilled all that I valued as a Jesus People. Please allow me to explain, for it involves more than mere autobiography.

I came to true and fervent faith in Christ through the Jesus People movement, converting to Christ in 1970 through a group led by Merv and Merla Watson in Toronto called “Catacombs”. It began as a Christian club in a high school in which Merv taught music, and continued to grow, meeting in people’s homes and eventually in Bathurst Street United Church and then in St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Bloor Street. At its height it had up to one thousand young people meeting there every Thursday evening to sing songs, pray, listen to a message, adore and worship the Lord. Though not originally a church, it soon produced leaders who called themselves “elders” (if memory serves), identifiable by the little lapel badges they wore. Their job was to speak for the group and help shepherd new people who needed teaching and guidance. Every year they held a special “Maranatha festival”, which consisted of speakers, singing, and a more intense time of worship. It culminated in a Eucharist, led by a local sympathetic (i.e. charismatic) Anglican priest. Obviously I went to church somewhere on Sunday as well, but Catacombs provided the spiritual foundation for everything that came after.

I mention all of this not because my own autobiography could be of general interest, but because I think that the Jesus People Movement and my Catacombs experience have a significance beyond that of the merely historical. Specifically, I think that these movements represented something fundamental about Christianity and, without knowing it, reproduced much of the experience of the early church and therefore of the earliest Orthodoxy. Their fundamental characteristics represented the fundamental characteristics of Orthodoxy—characteristics that some of us Orthodox forget and need to be reminded of. Oddly enough, the Jesus People can remind the Orthodox of who they really are. For the Jesus People, like the Orthodox, are all about five things.

First of all, the Jesus People emphasized a living relationship with Jesus, insisting that one submit all of one’s life to Him as Lord and Saviour, and receiving a tangible experience of the Holy Spirit. In particular they would say that, “Those who received baptism in infancy and lived a life unworthy of it, will suffer a condemnation greater than that of the unbaptized…You, O Saviour, have given repentance as a second purification and You decided that its aim would be the grace of the Spirit…” The quote is not from a Jesus Freak, but from St. Symeon the New Theologian (Hymn 55), and he was insisting that faith must be truly experiential if it is be saving. The Jesus People (though not grasping the sacramental context of this experience of the Spirit as well as they might have) would still have agreed that the essence of the faith was experiential, not merely doctrinal or ethnic. It was about actually knowing and experiencing Jesus.   If one lacked an experience of Jesus, one could not really claim to be a Christian.

Secondly, the Jesus People approached Christian life and liturgical assembly (my phrase admittedly, not theirs) with an attitude of expectancy. That is, they came together anticipating that Christ would reveal Himself to them, pouring out His Spirit in power and grace. Here we may quote from the late first century Epistle of St. Clement, who praised those to whom he wrote, saying that “a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit was upon you all” (1 Clement 2:2). St. Clement here expresses the common patristic understanding of worship as involving a spiritual outpouring of divine grace upon those who assembled, so that one should come to the liturgical assembly expecting to be drenched. The Jesus People came to their worship with this attitude of expectation. How much more should we Orthodox come with such expectation, who know that the Chalice awaits us there, full of Christ’s Body and Blood, and “the communion of the Holy Spirit”.  We approach the assembly with open and trembling hearts, trusting that even if we come to the assembly empty, we shall leave full.

Thirdly, the Jesus People expected to see the Holy Spirit manifested with power, believing as they did in a fully supernatural world, one complete with angels and demons. They defined these manifestations largely in terms of such visual fireworks as speaking in tongues, healing, and prophecy. We define them more in terms of sacramental transformation. But even here we Orthodox do not exclude physical and miraculous healing from the transforming works of the Spirit. True, we more easily connect such manifestations of the Holy Spirit with prayers to the saints and relics and the miraculous flowing of myrrh than they did. But we, equally with the Jesus People, expect to encounter signs and wonders and healing in the Church, and we too confess that all such healing comes ultimately from Jesus, the Physician of our souls and bodies. We, equally with the Jesus People, believe in the reality of the supernatural, in the reality of angelic aid and demonic danger. Life in the Church is fundamentally life in the Spirit. If you doubt this, go through the text of the Divine Liturgy with all its prayers and underline every reference to the Holy Spirit. You will be doing lots of underlining.

Fourthly, the Jesus People concentrated upon worship and music. In their day music involved guitars and overhead projectors (remember those?). It was the 1960s, after all. We Orthodox will pass on guitars, thank you very much, and retain the primordial preference for the unaccompanied human voice. But both Orthodox and Jesus Freak agree that worship equals music, and that musical worship is paramount, trumping and taking precedence over the spoken word, whether that word be preached sermon or spoken prayer. For us, everything offered in worship is musical. (This means, may I add, that every single Orthodox choir director is underpaid.) Given the fact that the Jesus People arose from a Protestant milieu in which the spoken word was paramount, such an emphasis upon music should not be taken for granted. It did not arise solely from their culture, but from the Holy Spirit.

Finally, the Jesus People discovered that grace needs to be preserved in institutional structures and ordered community if it is to be preserved at all. My Catacombs group had no intention of becoming a church originally, but it still developed leaders (even calling them “elders”) because they discovered the need for accountability. This was the experience of the first century apostolic Church as well: it began with a message and an experience, but it quickly required an ordered community to preserve the experience from distortion, and the Church in Jerusalem soon enough had presbyters as well as apostles. Not all the Jesus People were as fortunate as the Catacombs community; some refused such structures and fell into cultic heresy or simply dispersed, scattered to the four winds. For me it was fascinating to see emerging before my eyes the same sort of structure as emerged in the first century, even if those creating it had little intention of imitating the first century—or even any awareness that they were doing so. It revealed that the structures of the first century church were not arbitrary, but rooted in the necessary needs of a growing community.

As my catechumen class would remind me, the Jesus People Movement has come and gone. But like any movement that was concerned to exalt Jesus as Lord and God, the Holy Spirit had His saving hand in it. And that means, like any fruit that came ultimately from the apostles by the power of the Spirit, that fruit would remain (John 15:16). At the end of the day, I am grateful to God to have been a Jesus Freak.


  1. I had to reply to this one for sure. I definitely remember the Jesus people, but I more importantly remember the music of Merla Watson that had an important influence on my Christian life in the late 60s and early 70s. After reading your email, I immediately searched the contents of my piano bench and pulled out a little song booklet published by Hope Publishing in 1967 called “A Time To Sing” – Songs of Faith for a New Generation. The 2nd song in it was “The Song We Sing” by Merla Watson written in Em, my favorite key to play the folk gospel music on my baritone ukelele. That song has remained one of my favorites to this day and even inspired me to write and compose a song (unpublished) which I called “How can there be no God?” I attended Covenant Bible Institute here in Prince Albert, Sk. in 1966/67.
    I don’t believe I am any relation to the Pederson you mentioned in your email, but I am on my personal journey into Orthodoxy with the hope of one day receiving the elements of communion within the Divine Liturgy.
    At present I am a Lay Reader in the Anglican Diocese of Saskatchewan which remains an Evangelical Diocese within the Anglican Church in Canada, unlike the Diocese where you serve the Orthodox Church.

  2. After further thumbing through the song booklet I mentioned in my previous post, I realized it was more accurately Merla Watson’s song “God is not Dead” on page 38 that inspired me to write my song “How can there be no God?” Thank you for the flashback. I would love to receive a response from you on my posts.
    A fellow servant in Christ,
    Art Pederson
    Prince Albert, Sk.

    1. What a small world! I served in the Anglican diocese of Saskatchewan as a priest for six years under Bishop Short (of blessed memory) until I was received into Orthodoxy in 1985. And (pathologically nostalgic as I am) I still listen to the old “Maranatha song book tapes” containing songs from “the yellow book” and “the blue book” from Catacombs. Terrible theology, but great memories. Do let’s keep in touch.

  3. Father,

    I don’t know if you are aware but part of the “Jesus People” movement continues to this day:

    Actually, this group has had a significant influence on my family in that after attending their (now defunct) music festival in the late eighties my wife spent a couple of months with them one summer. My wife’s younger sister lived there for several years and met her husband there – he has a sister that has been part of that community for 25 years or so. Indeed, I remember seeing my first “Orthodox celebrity” at their music festival summer of 94 (if memory serves) who was Frederica Mathewes Green. She was there giving a talk (can’t remember the topic) and I was on my way to becoming Orthodox so I went (can’t remember if she was Orthodox at the time – I do remember her admitting that her and her husband had seriously considered becoming part of JPUSA at one point). Your fourth point is what ultimately determines most folks essential experience with such a community (good and bad) as I see it…

    1. Yes, I did know about JPUSA, and also that they are a controversial group, with accusations of cultiness levelled at them. It looks as if the JP Movement has moved (as all movements do), with the bits of it that remain becoming either mainstream denominations or full-fledged cults. Thank you for writing.

      1. Based on my experience (or rather those close to me) I think the accusation of being a “cult” is probably too strong (using the usual definition(s) ). Are they lead by a close knit group of strong, eccentric personalities? Yes. Are they a “healthy” community? No. Are they worse off than many other theologically suspect protestant (and if we are being honest, a few Orthodox) communities? Not really.

        Don’t get me wrong, they can do some outright crazy stuff, but I don’t think they are a dangerous “cult” as is usually defined. I certainly would not recommend anyone joining, but then if given the choice between such a community and I don’t know, a typical “modern” (and oh so “normal”) american secular lifestyle I think I would choose JPUSA, warts and all. A few years back they actually joined a denomination (don’t recall which one) in an effort to normalize an bring in a bit of accountability – not sure if that has had an impact in pulling them in a healthy direction though.

        I say a this just as an FYI – no need to publish if you judge it to be irrelevant and/or critical…

        1. Thank you for this. I appreciate the opinion of someone who knows more about them than I do. My comments about “cult” were based on the observations about the “Children of God”/ Moses David Berg group.

      2. The JPUSA community joined the Evangelical Covenant Church sometime in 90’s, aligning them with a larger group with some accountability and support. Their long term future is uncertain as the founding generation is aging, but their communal home, a ten story apartment building in Uptown Chicago continues to house young families complete with toddlers.

        They are not isolated. They are active in the Uptown neighborhood, and run a shelter for homeless women and families. Individual family apartments will have internet, and smart phones are commonly seen. Exposure to the outside world is about the same as anywhere else.

        My son lived there for a few years, left for a while then returned after a personal loss, thinking it would be a temporary stay. Instead it has turned into several years including marriage.

        I find it to be an interesting community to visit. If you talk to long-term members, they will admit that mistakes were made over the years. They know that some former members are bitter about their experience, but life goes on and adjustments are made. In many ways they are pretty mainstream, once you get past the unconventional visuals and close living quarters. It is a lot like a college dorm, except with a multi-generational make-up.

        1. Thank you very much for the update–especially since the story seems to have a happy ending.

  4. I think to have limited the Jesus People movement as I read your thought, would be to miss significant components of what, in fact, is a huge legacy. I loved how you illustrated what they captured and what we should as well but to forget Chuck Smith and the Calvary Chapel movement, John Wimber and the Vineyard Movement, Kent Philpott, David Hoyt, Arthur Blessitt and even the Full Gospel revivalist movements being led by Che Ahn, Dr Randy Clark and Bill Johnson trace their roots back to the movement. No, it is a movement that lives on and has morphed into more and perhaps, unlike denominationalism before it, has found a way to bridge theologies and methods. Hopefully, these will pass a legacy on to Gen X, Y & Millennial’s that will continue an inter-generational move of Holy Spirit to God be the Glory, His Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

    1. All movements have legacies (usually mixed ones), but my main point was that movements move. Unlike churches or institutions which survive centuries (such as the Orthodox Church or even the Presbyterians), the Jesus People was a movement, and one that only lasted a decade or so, with the result that though it could inspire, it could not last. Morphing is not the same as surviving, which is why I received so many blank stares from my catechumens when I casually mentioned the Jesus People. One can learn from them, but nobody now calls them their home. And, with respect, I predict that when the history of the Christian churches worldwide is written in a hundred years, Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard will be no more than a footnote.

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