I sometimes tell inquirers at St. Herman’s when they ask that I began my Christian life in earnest as a Jesus People—which usually results in blank stares, since most of them are too young to have heard of the cultural phenomenon known as the Jesus People Movement. The movement has recently come up again for notice in a film called “Jesus Revolution”, based on the true events of the founding of Calvary Chapel in California under Pastor Chuck Smith (d. 2013) and his long-haired hippie protégé Lonnie Frisbee. The film, a well done and positive presentation of the events, stars Kelsey Grammer and features the role of Greg Laurie (played by Joel Courtney) as a new convert to Christ at Smith’s Calvary Chapel, and as someone who would go on to found Harvest Christian Fellowship Church, with campuses in California and Hawaii. Harvest Ministries is the group which released the film.
The film apart, what are we to make of the Jesus People Movement?—in its time sufficiently significant as to make the June 1971 cover of Time Magazine.
First, a bit of history. The Jesus People Movement was a quintessentially American movement that began in the late 1960’s and peaked in the early 1970s. Historically speaking it was a flash in the cultural pan, which explains why my young inquirers have never heard of it. (They are not overly familiar with the hula-hoop craze either.)
It began with the youth rebellion of the 1960s, when a whole generation became disenchanted with the answers given by their parents, angry at the war in Viet Nam, and embarked on a search for something better. For many that search led to the Haight-Ashbury corner of San Francisco, where multitudes thought that truth might be found in “free love” (aka “promiscuous sex”) and mind-expanding drugs as preached by their prophet Timothy Leary, who advised a whole generation to “turn on, tune in, and drop out”. Thousands of young people, disillusioned with their parents’ approach and trying to “stick it to The Man” (i.e. “the Establishment”) were open to anything, from Zen Buddhism to occult spirituality to…well, people like Timothy Leary.
That openness also included an openness to Jesus—especially if Jesus were sharply differentiated from their parents’ church with its respectability, dress code, boring music, and (too often) geriatric membership. A number of Evangelical Protestant churches were open to a cultural sea-change and opened their doors to the “Hippies” with their drug background, bare feet, jeans, love beads, and (gasp) long hair. Churches like Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel suddenly found themselves inundated with new hippie converts. Those churches cast away their former “square” cultural clothing and adapted to the new opportunities.
And they grew as a result. Soon the Jesus People was a large and important movement, spawning new congregations, communes, and coffee houses. Like any movement without central coordination, it was far from homogenous and sometimes radical and culty. But all the Jesus People, radical or not, were characterized by a joyful and in-your-face presentation of the Gospel that was more direct than tactful, as well as a conviction that the end of the world was at hand. Through their honesty, their spontaneity, their joy, and their ability to talk to their fellow youth in their own language, many young people were coming to Christ and joining the new and renewed congregations.
Eventually the people in those congregations and communes got married and started families, which means that they had to find jobs and earn money. They lost their eschatological edge and, without renouncing their conviction that the End was a hand, began to look more for the paychecks they needed to support their families than for the Rapture. The newly-formed congregations looked more and more like just any other Evangelical congregation, though the new ones now had guitars and a band rather than just an organ and a piano. In other words, the kids grew up and settled down. Some of them even became Orthodox.
The Jesus People Movement defined itself as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter quotes the prophecy of Joel that God would pour out His Spirit in the last days. By “the last days”, Peter of course meant his own day, which is why he quoted the text to explain the events of the Day of Pentecost. The Jesus People (and others) understood the term “the last days” to refer to the time immediately before the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world—i.e. to their own time. They asserted that the Jesus People movement was a revival sent by God to fulfill the prophecy and herald the imminent end of the world. I was there, and I can report that the Jesus People expected that End to come soon—and certainly before now in 2023. Hal “Late Great Planet Earth” Lindsey strongly suggested that the Rapture must take place before 1988.
We were wrong. The events took place not because they were prophesied, but because Evangelical pastors like Chuck Smith were able and willing to take advantage of the spiritual openness and searching which characterized young people in the 1960s—an openness more or less gone by the end of the 1970s, which is why the Jesus People Movement was so short-lived. It would be interesting too to follow up how many of those thousands of conversions “stuck” and how many were still going to church ten years later.
The film Jesus Revolution was very enjoyable, especially to old nostalgia guys like me who knew the words to some of the songs the band “Love Song” was playing, who knew who Lonnie Frisbee was, and who knew about Kathryn Kuhlman. Like any film that wants to promote a particular point of view (in this case, Christianity) it ends of a high and heart-warming note. To be fair, the film did show how there was some egotism in the ministry and life of Lonnie Frisbee, and how his marriage to his wife Connie was in trouble, and how he came into conflict with Chuck Smith who asked him to leave his church. That is, the film was not a complete whitewash or a bit of hagiography. But its determination to end on a high note did involve some omissions—things that a promotional film would naturally omit, but that an historian would deem important.
For example, it ends by saying (just before the final credits rolled) that Lonnie and Connie did reconcile after they left for Florida in 1972. That is not exactly true, but is something rather like a lie. In fact they divorced in 1973 after Connie had an affair with their pastor there.
Moreover, Lonnie partied heavily on Saturday night before going on stage on Sunday morning and had a long history of homosexual promiscuity, something he struggled with. His homosexual promiscuity was in some places an open secret. As the oracular Wikipedia tells it: “Frisbee functioned as an evangelical preacher while also privately socializing as a gay man, before and during his evangelism career, although he stated in interviews that he never believed homosexuality was anything other than a sin in the eyes of God. Both of the denominations he helped to found prohibited homosexual behavior, and he was later excommunicated by the denominations because of his active sexual life, first removing him from leadership positions, and then ultimately firing him. He was shunned and ‘written out of the official histories’. Frisbee died of AIDS in 1993 at the age of 43. That also was not mentioned before the credits rolled. May he rest in peace.
The point of all this is not to vilify Lonnie, Connie, or anyone else, especially those who are dead and who can no longer respond. The point is to learn what we can from their movement, their struggles, their mistakes, and their lives. I suggest at least three things that can be learned: the importance of stability, of asceticism, and of real trans-local oversight.
Firstly, we the importance of stability. Multitudes of kids who came to Christ in that movement were broken, addicted, and were on the street with serious emotional problems, and it was assumed that once they said the sinner’s prayer and were baptized, everything would immediately be fine and that their problems would vanish. They didn’t, and the cost in broken marriages and recidivism reveals that the instability they brought with them into the church did not go away simply because they gave their lives to Jesus. This task of life reform, inner healing, and achieving stability must be kept front and center. The emphasis and goal should not be bringing souls to Christ, but on their sanctification and maturity. That is, conversion is not the goal; stability of faith is. Placing all the emphasis on “coming to Christ” to the effective exclusion of working with the convert on their problems is building failure into the system. Putting new converts into communes full of similarly broken and unstable people is hardly conducive to their stability and growth.
Secondly and following from this, we see the necessity to help converts develop discipline through a life characterized by a rule of prayer, fasting, quiet self-examination and confession, Scripture reading, and weekly Eucharist—that is, a commitment to asceticism. This asceticism is the path to holiness, growth, and stability. Singing songs, sharing testimony, and Bible study (led by whom?) may be exciting, but contributes little to the hard task of putting to death that which is earthly in you (Colossians 3:5). Asceticism, being foreign to the Evangelical churches which birthed the Jesus Movement, remained foreign to those in the Jesus Movement themselves—as people like Lonnie discovered to their cost. It was thought that because “God was using” someone, nothing else was really required—God, it was expected, would do it all. He didn’t. And He never promised that He would. Rather, He asks us to play our part. In a world where conversion and evangelism were everything, such ascetic discipline can be devalued and lost along the way—or even rejected as savouring of the dreaded “salvation by works”.
Thirdly, we see the necessity of testing and oversight. People with many problems, with little spiritual formation, and with no real testing, should not be put into positions of responsibility and leadership. In Biblical terms, we should not “lay hands suddenly” on them (1 Timothy 5:22). In the Jesus Movement, people who could preach were put into such positions far too quickly. Because the only thing that mattered was bringing people to Christ, anyone who could do that was thrust into a leadership role. It did not matter whether or not they had unstable pasts, or little or no theological education, or had not undergone no real process of testing by other mature leaders. The ability to preach (i.e. rhetoric) was everything and all that really mattered.
That was a recipe for disaster—as many scandals in their congregations demonstrated. There was no real accountability beyond the local church—no wider church which could exercise oversight, provide testing, or administer discipline. In the Evangelical “wild west” where anyone could start their own church at will, every man did what was right in his own eyes. Some churches survived and many (along with their new converts) did not, in a kind of ecclesiastical Darwinian survival of the fittest—or biggest. In the cost paid by those lost along the way, we see afresh the wisdom of the local congregation being accountable to the larger whole.
I am grateful to God for my time as a Jesus People and for what I learned there. It was not a bad place to start one’s spiritual journey. But the Jesus People Movement was a movement, not a church, much less the Church. It was a movement, and movements move by definition. The Orthodox Church, the goal and end of my journey, is not a movement. It is a rock. And rocks do not move.