The Jesus Revolution?

Taigen Joos

woman in white shirt with white flower on head

The worldwide release of a new film entitled Jesus Revolution is set for Friday, February 24. The film is based on a book by the same title written by Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, CA. The book and the subsequent movie tell the story of the so-called Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which was centralized in southern California.

Being rooted in the hippie culture, these young people were experimenting with all kinds of things like drugs, sex, and religious pursuits. Hippies were a counter-cultural group of adolescents and young adults looking for meaning in life in the face of what they viewed as a meaningless war in Vietnam and a frustrating American political climate.

The Jesus Movement is said to have been a major spiritual working of God in these hippie sub-cultures, not only in southern California, but also around the nation. Converted hippies were called “Jesus People.” There were, no doubt, many young people who were truly converted and sincere in their faith. However, I do not believe the Jesus Movement is something that should be celebrated as “revolutionary” or exemplary.

The best description of Jesus is not that he’s a revolutionary, but that he is a redeemer. Jesus did not come to overthrow some kind of political system. That is what the Jewish people of the first century wanted him to do, but that was not his purpose in coming. The salvation that Jesus provides is not meant to be a politically revolutionary movement either. Neither were those apostles who helped found the church revolutionaries either. They did not fight for political upheaval. They preached the good news of Jesus Christ and saw lives transformed for the glory of God.

Was the Jesus Movement transformational? When a person reads about the Jesus Movement and its people (called Jesus People) transformed lives are not immediately evident. Granted, a new convert does not always change everything overnight. However, there are certain practices that should change relatively quickly. The converted hippies continued in their hippie lifestyle, still experimenting in drugs and sexual escapades. Their appearance identified themselves more with the unconverted hippie movement than with a new life and “new creature” values.

This, perhaps, can be most easily seen in their leader, a man named Lonnie Frisbee, who is featured in the “Jesus Revolution” book and movie. Lonnie Frisbee’s claim of salvation is rooted in a time when he was 17 years old. While on an acid trip in a California wilderness, he stripped naked and called out, “Jesus, if you’re really real, reveal yourself to me.” He claims to have then seen a vision where hundreds of young people were being baptized in the waters off the coast of California. This sketchy salvation testimony led him to change his appearance to make himself look like an Old Testament prophet, or Jesus (the Hippie Jesus look so prevalent of his day). Frisbee became the defacto leader of the Jesus People movement. 

Frisbee was instrumental in the various Jesus People ministries, and even helped start churches. But he was also involved in a homosexual lifestyle and continued to experiment with drugs. That is not the kind of Church leader that should be elevated as an example, as the Jesus Movement does. Frisbee eventually contracted HIV and died from AIDS in 1993.

The Jesus Movement was built on a theologically weak foundation, with a theologically weak man (if he was even truly converted) as its leader. Yet, it has been called a Holy Spirit Revival amongst young people in that day. The movement also produced theologically problematic fruit. The Jesus Movement was a major contributor to the modern Charismatic movement, as well as the modern Contemporary Christian Music movement. The trifecta of emotionalism, charismaticism, and cultural accommodation have been the key ingredients that have made the modern Contemporary Worship scene what it is today.

While we should be thankful for any true conversion, we should carefully evaluate the fruit of movements such as these. By their fruit we shall know if they truly are from God, or if they are merely the products of overcharged emotionalism. Ultimately God knows, but as believers who are to be discerning and carefully judge with righteous judgment, we must not simply take everything at face value. Approve those things that are excellent, not merely those things that are exciting.

For further research on the Jesus Movement, consider the following resources:

  • God’s Forever Family, the Jesus People Movement in America, by Larry Eskridge
  • A History of Contemporary Praise & Worship, Understanding the Ideas that Reshaped the Protestant Church, by Lester Ruth and Lim Swee Hong
  • “Frisbee, the Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher,” a film documentary available on IMDb
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