Let’s just go back to the recent past, to about fifty years ago and the founding of the Jesus People. Sometimes called the Jesus Movement or Jesus Freaks, these folks began in 1968 in California. This was the era of the hippie. As these hippies descended upon Southern California, Christians decided they would reach out to them and bring them to Christ. This was the beginning of the Jesus Movement.
In 1971, Billy Graham was invited to be the grand marshal of the Rose Parade. As he sat in his float, making its way toward the Rose Bowl, he noticed that the streets were lined with hundreds of long-haired youth holding up one finger, their index finger, pointed to heaven with the One Way sign. That was the sign of the Jesus People.
This caught Billy Graham’s attention, and he wrote a book called The Jesus Generation. That year it went through many printings and sold well over half a million copies, and it put the Jesus People on the map of the media, and on the map of the American church.
What can we make of the Jesus People phenomenon? First, we have to see that they had a huge impact on American evangelicalism. They both reflected trends in American evangelicalism and set some new trends. They tended to be very Pentecostal. They focused on signs and wonders, and they fixated on supernatural experiences they had and would share with each other.
Second, they changed the look of the church. These folks were not wearing suits and sitting in pews. These were tank top, shorts, flip-flops wearing kids who would sit cross-legged on the floor. But it wasn’t just how they looked; it was also how they approached church. I found this fascinating article from December 25, 1971, in the San Bernardino County Sun, the newspaper for Hollywood. It reads, “Pat Boone’s Home: Swimming Pool Used for Baptisms. Beverly Hills, California.” It was picked up by the Associated Press. The first sentence says, “In the swimming pool behind his magnificent home in posh Beverly Hills, Pat Boone baptizes the repentant.”
The article goes on to say that within about a six months’ time, well over 250 baptisms took place in Pat Boone’s swimming pool, and a number of those baptisms were of musicians. And that takes us to another significant impact of the Jesus people: the birth of what we call Christian Contemporary Music (CCM), or the birth of Christian rock. The early pioneers in Christian rock were Randy Stonehill and Larry Norman. In fact, Larry Norman wrote the song, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” Even some secular artists got in on the mix. Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary produced his Christian albums in the same era.
This was the time when Calvary Chapel founded Maranatha and the Maranatha! Music label, which launched the praise and worship and chorus phenomenon that is so much a part of American evangelicalism today. It all started in 1970 among the Jesus People.
Lastly, as we talk about the Jesus People, we see that they were much less countercultural and more within culture. This was true not only of music, but of all forms of the arts, and in how they approached the church. The Jesus People launched not only Christian music; they also launched the Christian bookstore industry of the 1970s. And they launched the start of evangelicals’ involvement in politics in the 1980s.
So what happened to the Jesus People? They faded in the 1980s. I had a church history professor who used to say, “What happened to them? They cut their hair, started families, and became insurance salesmen.” Well, who knows? But we do know that they left quite an impact on the American scene, on the American church, and on American evangelicals.