Friday, May 2, 2008

Where have all the "Jesus People" gone?

Coming of age in the late 60s and early 70s, I like many of my contemporaries were caught up in revolutionary and reactionary causes of the day. In our youth we were struggling to cope with an un-winnable war in Viet Nam, the Civil Rights movement and the cultural revolution of "free sex, drugs and rock and roll". To many it seemed like our world as we knew it was coming to an end with the continued threat of the cold war with Russia, neighbors building bomb shelters and the periodic testing of the civil defense sirens that would let us know if the Atomic bomb or missile was heading our way. I guess now they figure we will see it launch on CNN or Fox which will be the quickest way to let us know destruction is on its way…no more sirens.

In the middle of all this there was also a "religious revolution" taking place..."The Jesus Movement". In my hometown I found myself right in the middle of this phenomenon since I grew up in evangelical Christianity but had long hair and enough of my own radical ideas to try and "change the world". For a year or two we had large Saturday night youth gatherings in the basement of a large traditional church in town where 200-300 long haired youth would gather on a very informal basis, sitting around in a mass circle playing acoustic guitars and singing folk or rock style Jesus songs, praying informally, and sharing together a freshly found faith in a radical Jesus who we hoped would lead us out of an empty, hopeless world. I couldn’t get many of my non-church oriented friends to go to church with me, but a number of them did find these Saturday night meetings intriguing and touching. Part of that reason was probably not having more than 4-5 people there over the age of 25. I still look back at that in wonder that you could get 300+ teenagers together voluntarily in a church basement every Saturday night...Catholics, Protestants, street people, non-religious people, curious Jews, black white and Indian...pursuing a real experience with Jesus. This movement continued to impact our lives for a long time...and while for some people it was a passing fad, I have seen the lasting results of this movement in the lives of some of my friends who have continued on in the faith. I continue to hold those experiences as highlights of my own spiritual pursuit of faith.

I recently was made aware of the death of Larry Norman who was labeled the "Father of the Jesus movement" as one of the original Christian “rock and rollers”. I think his (the?) first Jesus Rock album was produced in 1968...and as the video above demonstrates, it became quite a stirring movement alongside the secular antiwar and anti government movements of the day. I co-produced a concert for Larry Norman in my hometown back in 1974. We had over 800 people turn out in the city’s main auditorium...a strange mixture of secular teens interested in what Christian Rock was all about...and about half were church oriented folk with some of the same curiosity. It was actually quite a unique experience to see a whole audience who were not there so much as fans, but as "curiosity seekers" who all saw themselves as very different from this artist. In the end, responses were mostly critical because his music and message was too "religious" for the non-believers in the audience and too confrontational for the "religious" crowd as Larry was quite cantankerous towards organized religion in both his music and words. Such has been the case in history for all "prophets" according to the various scriptures. People dont like being chastised or criticized...including religious people. reviewing Larry Norman’s songs and this video from, I can’t help but reflect on where all these "Jesus People" have gone and what are they like now? Thanks to the internet, I have found evidence or websites for many of the artists I knew back then...Randy Stonehill, Honeytree, Randy Matthews, Barry McGuire, DeGarmo & Key Band, Love Song and Petra among others. Some of these are still touring...and no doubt like some of the secular bands of the 70s and early 80's are gaining new ears and respect from younger listeners of this unique era from the roots of Rock and Roll. It doesn’t surprise me that many of today’s teenagers enjoy the old traditional rock after years of rap, trance and disco music being forced upon them. And it also won't surprise me if another wave of young freethinkers begins a new form of "Jesus People" tradition during these equally tumultuous times.

I have seen many former "hippies" and "Jesus People" become staunch conservative republicans with white collar jobs and short haircuts. Some others have become liberal, socially conscious Democrat types with strong senses of social justice for the poor or disenfranchised. I have also seen many of the "Jesus Movement" groups and churches turn into similar forms of organized religion or part of religious dogma that they were founded to avoid. I personally observed the "commercialization" of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) from the “inside”, going from "spiritually motivated" to "profits motivated". Back in the day, you saw a number of popular artists go Christian for an album or two (AKA… Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, U2), only to find themselves either uncomfortable in the traditional Christian circles, or unhappy with the smaller number of album sales. I also suspect a number of Christian artists were in that camp only because they could never make it as a secular artist. One of my biggest criticisms of the CCM craze was that the songs and the musicians were in my opinion almost always 2nd or 3rd rate behind secular artists...and I never figured out how God could accept or be happy being 2nd or 3rd best in any art form. Since those times I have come to believe that all GOOD music is of God...we don’t need the labels "religious" or "sacred" to describe spiritual music.

But back to this issue of where did all these people from the 60s and 70s end up. Like all of Gods world, I think it is a multi directional answer. Many of the young "Jesus people" were never really accepted or became comfortable in traditional Christian church settings. Many of those went back into the "party" lifestyle or lived the rest of their lives reacting to those traumatic "Nam Years". Others just melded back into traditional culture, went through programming (college) to gain a career, got married, had 2.5 children and are currently living the American dream paying off their mortgage before retirement and getting their kids through college. Many are now plugged back into traditional churches and religious practices, deacons and trustees of a variety of American churches. A few of us "strange" individuals have gone on our independent ways through life, still seeking truth and justice, and finding traditional religion and culture a drag on what we perceived to be "Jesus like". We have found it hard to see "Jesus" in traditional churches, government programs, or even modern day humanitarian movements. The commercialization of lifestyle which defines our pursuit of happiness is defined by media and big corporate spending. The simple message of treating your brother as you yourself want to be treated...of individual sacrifice for justice or to help your fellow man...of judge not less ye be judged...has flown out the proverbial window of all our institutions. We are now caught up in the global battle of the big three monotheistic religions; Christianity, Islam and Judaism, for controlling the dwindling worlds resources and minds of the masses. Belief and faith is about US versus THEM now...and we are all terrorized about how we are losing the war of the minds. Drugs and state welfare is taking over a large portion of North America’s social consciousness. The finger is always pointed at the other guy, or more often a “government representative”, when it comes to helping out our fellow man or meeting the challenge of a major disaster. There are a number of good citizen organizations out there…but they are dwarfed by the demand of the world’s crisis.

I confess to two conflictive personal reactions to all this. On one hand, I think we need to knuckle down in our country to some tough medicine, find what unifies us, work 70-80 hours per week to keep up with the global competition, give up some of our material pursuits and focus on being more productive citizens to solve our many problems and conflicts. On the other hand, I sure could use a few Saturday nights sitting around a large circle of fellow humans...hugging, singing, sharing our fears and tears openly, and counting on Jesus to bring us some answers.

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