While the Jesus People Movement is often characterized as sensationalist and shallow, it was in fact deeply theological. It was not a homogeneous movement, and so there are various strands and threads that run throughout the various groups and leaders, and yet a common set of core values seems to pervade most of the central groups and figures. To rightly understand and learn from the Jesus People we must acknowledge their theological commitments.
The first core conviction of the movement was Biblical literalism. As a spawn of Evangelicalism the movement’s central authoritative guide was the Bible. If the Bible said it then they were to follow it. Their interpretative decisions were sometimes simplistic, but their commitment to the Divinely Inspired, authoritative Word of God was genuine. Their reading of the Scriptures lead to a number of related values, like supernatural emphasis and millennialism. This emphasis on literal reading of Scripture also spurred a sort of radicalism among Jesus People that the more “respectable” church lacked. They were passionate, serious, and fully devoted to whatever the Bible told them to do.
Their values also included a strong emphasis on the supernatural world. The Jesus People had a firm belief that God was constantly intervening in their world. They believed that they themselves had interactions with the spirit realm, both the angelic and the demonic. There were signs to be interpreted and wonders to encounter.
The particular branch of Evangelicalism which attracted the most Jesus People was Pentecostalism. While there were some Baptists and Presbyterians, the dominant perspective among Jesus People was of a more charismatic flair. Many participants believed in the gifts of tongues, prophecy, words of knowledge, visions, and healing. They have countless stories documented the manifestation of such gifts in miraculous ways at just the right moment.
As many Jesus People came out of the countercultural movement, they carried with them a sort of cultural pessimism which helped to reinforce their notions of imminent eschatological realization. The world was going to hell in a hand-basket. Many within the Jesus People Movement believed that they were in fact living in the Last Days and saw signs of the end of all things all around them. Larry Eskridge notes that “study of Bible prophecy and an emphasis on coming judgment came to preoccupy the Jesus People and figured strongly in their evangelistic message” (God’s Forever Family, 55). In fact, the most widely read book, outside of the Bible, among Jesus People was Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth.
Many of these values were not unique to the Jesus People Movement. They could be found among many other strains of Evangelicalism. The distinct marker, notes Eskridge, of the Jesus People was their countercultural tendency. The Jesus People combined these doctrinal convictions along with several hippie core values. Chief among those values were communal living, and the value of pop-culture.
Communal living had been a staple among the Hippie counterculture that preceded the Jesus People Movement. In fact, the forerunners to the JPM were all living together in a commune when they decided to start evangelizing hippies in Haight-Ashbury. Within the Jesus People, communal living was part of an overall bent of restorationist interpretation. The initial Jesus People saw themselves as restoring the modern church to the beauty and simplicity of the early church. The account of the early church in Acts, tells us that “all who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). They took that literally and believed that this represented the first Christian commune. Communes became a hallmark of the movement and began to pop up all over the country. While most did not last very long, some have continued even to the present day.
The final piece of significance to mention regarding the core values of the Jesus People is their adoption of popular culture. In both their corporate worship and their evangelistic endeavors they utilized the popular culture of the late 60s early 70s. Psychedelic art adorned their coffee houses, folk and rock music played in their services, and a casual style of dressed was accepted everywhere. They seem to have been the group most responsible for the “come-as-you-are” atmosphere in the modern church. They proclaimed their beliefs through all sorts of accessories, like Christian themed buttons, pins, cross-shaped jewelry, and t-shirts. They were very willing to contextualize the gospel message in the language of youth culture, a feature of their practice that caused no small amount of tension with the established church.
These values helped to shape the Jesus People Movement, for both good and ill at times. They helped to shape the church today as well, for both good and ill. While not everyone will be able to endorse all their methods and all their doctrinal values, to understand them correctly (and to learn anything of value from them) we must know these elements of their worldview. The Jesus People were not a-theological. They were not simply interested in sensationalist experiences, or in justifying the cultural items that they enjoyed. They were very theological and were driven by a serious devotion to the Word of God. Whatever we think about their methods and interpretive decisions we must acknowledge them as the genuine efforts of people who loved Jesus and were committed to studying the Bible.