The Jesus People Movement: Birthed from Despair

The 60’s were one of the most tumultuous times in the history of American culture. The decade known simply as “The Sixties” or the “Swinging Sixties,” was a season of massive revolution in social norms, particularly as it related to¬†clothing, music, drugs, dress, sexuality, formalities, and schooling. The hippie movement, one particular manifestation of this counterculture, was particularly focused on changing the countries attitude on matters of war, racism, sex, and drugs. The movement as a whole held out hope for a brighter future full of personal freedom and individuality for all. It failed, however, to achieve such goals and it was this failure that sparked the birth of the Jesus Movement. The combination of the collapse of hippie idealism and the compassion of Christian evangelists served to birth a massive youth revival.

The counterculture of the Sixties had major flaws but it started from some positive points of contention. Not all of the rebellion was hedonistic, or at least it didn’t start that way. As Carl F.H. Henry observed:

What was first demeaned in the mid – 1960s as simply a “hippie and drug” fallout of adolescent malcontents soon became a formidable countercultural revolt the aggressively challenged many of the perspectives prevalent in modern Western society. The easy acceptance of war, with its maiming of the young, as the readiest solution of international hostilities; the widespread resignation to long-standing patterns of racial animosity and discrimination; materialistic affluence as the chief goal of life; and a work ethic that views the daily job mainly as a means of accumulating more things than one’s neighbor possesses and of personal advancement to executive prestige and privilege – these were special targets of countercultural dissent. (God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1, 112)

There was a deep critique of sinful patterns in American culture that sparked the youth rebellion. Perhaps the most central and significant issue at the heart of the counterculture was the scientific-mechanistic worldview which dominated the cultural landscape at the time. This view reduced all reality to the empirically observable and the impersonal. Life had lost beauty and meaning and what mattered most was technological advancement. The hippie critique of American society had a lot in it that was right and good, and its vision of the future came full of hope. But by the late 1960s it was devoid of power.

Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco had been the cite of the Hippie’s greatest social experiment. Here, youth from all over the country would gather to participate in a common culture of Hippie ideals, drugs, and music. It was the epicenter of hippie culture, with the likes of Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Starship all immortalizing the place in song. But the 1967 Summer of Love drew such a rapid influx of teens and college students to Haight Ashbury that the city was overwhelmed – 75000 young people flooded the city. Unable to provide food, housing, and medical care for all the new residents the idealism of the counterculture began to crash. Larry Eskridge describes the scene:

For all its colorful eccentricity and idealistic hopes, the hippie reality of the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury had devolved in to a mixture of overcrowding, hunger, filth, bad drug trips, crime, and predatory personal behavior. The streets of San Francisco’s do-your-own-thing hippie ethos often turned into an every man for himself struggle for existence. This jarring reality ultimately proved fatal to the countercultural dream, even as it provided a powerful impetus to the nascent Jesus People Movement. (God’s Forever Family, 30)

If the Mama’s & the Papa’s urged kids to bring flowers in their hair when visiting San Francisco, the reality was people needed to bring food and money. Eskridge continues:

The free and easy hippie celebration of sexuality also manifested itself in all sorts of unforeseen “bummers.” Venereal diseases were rampant in the Haight, and hippies seeking treatment for syphilis, gonorrhea, and herpes combined with drug overdoses to overwhelm the Free Clinic and the city’s health department.

In addition to sexually transmitted diseases, there was a flood of prostitution and rape that made young girls particularly vulnerable in the district. “By midsummer 1967, women in the Haight were at risk for all sorts of emotional and physical violence from their male counterparts.” So much for the love, peace, and equality of the counterculture.

For many young hippies the movement was failing them. Their hopes had been dashed and their vision of a brighter future disappointed. It was in this context of philosophical, moral, and spiritual crisis the revival began to stir. It seemed to many that Jesus actually offered to many young hippies the future, the truth, and the life that they were most longing for. The gospel began make sense to many young people who had grown up with vague familiarity, but who suddenly had fresh eyes to see it.

The counterculture saw real problems in American society, to be sure. It began the important revolution. It lacked, however, both a clear diagnosis of the problem and the true resources to make change. The gospel saw more clearly what the counterculture only grasped in part. As Henry states:

Many in the Jesus Movement … boldly identified themselves with much of the general countercultural protest against contemporary social trends…But the Jesus movement declared sin, and not technocracy, is the root of all evil, and disputed the countercultural assumption that man is basically sound and need only to be liberated. It proclaimed unapologetically that “Christ is the answer.” It boldly emphasized that the Christian gospel carries in it a divine revelation and redemption absent from the counterculture no less than from the technocratic society it assailed. (123)

The collapse of hippie idealism was the right soil in which the seeds of the gospel would grow to produce one of the greatest youth revivals in the history of the church. The collapse of this false hope was the doorway to true hope for many young people.

Francis Schaeffer, something of a mentor to many disaffected hippies, spoke of the value (and sorrow) of a worldview collapse for evangelism. The collapse of the idealism of the counterculture means that people are in a more ready position to hear the truth, to find the enduring hope of the gospel. This comes not when we rejoice that their worldview has collapsed, but when we have compassion that they are, like we once were, lost sheep without a shepherd. Schaeffer wrote:

But to rejoice that romantic answers will no longer do, and to be glad in one sense that men like Dylan Thomas have ended by weeping, does not mean that we should not be filled with compassion for our fellowmen. To live below the line of despair is not to live in paradise, whether that of a fool or any other kind. It is in a real sense to have a foretaste of hell now, as well as the reality in the life to come. Many of our most sensitive people have been left absolutely naked by the destruction. Should we not grieve and cry before God for such people? (The God Who is There, 66)

Indeed we should cry for such people. It was that combination of opportunity and compassion which severed to birth the Jesus People Movement, and it will serve us again in this age too. God is providing opportunity once again, will you have compassion on those whose worldview is crumbling?

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