- Like many of the Newport Beach hippies, I had no idea that my newfound faith had anything at all to do with church.
A View From Europe
I came to faith in 1973, through a street preacher dressed all in purple with a beat-up, sticker-covered guitar. Around me I saw many others from the hippy scene also finding faith – drug users and dealers; bikers; long-haired esoteric types. It was a time of revolution; of turbulence, but we weren’t in California. We were in Bath, a genteel city in the South-west of England famous for its healing waters and Jane Austen connections. Exactly how the Jesus revolution made its way so quickly across the Atlantic I never really knew, but there was no question that it did. We had the stickers; the songs. Within weeks I knew Karen Lafferty’s “Seek Ye First” as though I’d been singing it all my life. Within months a coffee bar had opened in the town, and Larry Norman was stopping by, followed not long after by Barry McGuire. Those who know of the impact the hippies had on the churches of the USA are often less aware of their European reach. Somehow, the whole culture of the West Coast Jesus movement found a home in our old-fashioned English town. Like many of the Newport Beach hippies, I had no idea that my newfound faith had anything at all to do with church. I had been an enthusiastic believer for six months – attending Bible Studies; sitting up late into the night to talk theology and life; persuading others to join the movement – before someone sat me down to explain that being a Christian did, after all, involve church attendance. We found a reasonably welcoming Baptist church, invaded en-masse, and became, for the next six years, their Youth Fellowship.
The Jesus Revolution Marked A Generation
My experiences in this small corner of the Jesus Revolution marked me for life. It introduced me to a way of doing faith that was relentlessly Jesus-focused, open to all, and willing to take risks. If you wanted to talk to us about Jesus, we would talk. ‘Number 74’, a shared house that was a particular locus of my own discipleship, played host at different times to recovering addicts; Hell’s Angels; fugitive criminals, and a circus-like array of musicians, story-tellers, artists, and bemused hangers-on. That’s me in the corner, gaining my religion. I had friends who drifted in, dropped out, and came back in, having sojourned for a while with the Guru Maharaji and his Divine Light Mission or with the pink-robed Hara Krishna crew. We had a local group from the Children of God cult we also sometimes swapped converts with. The idea of searching for truth was all around us and our fellowship both benefitted and suffered from its ubiquity. Benefitted because it brought so many in; suffered because it could just as easily lead them out. Over time, though, a few of us did make it through. My estimate would be around 20% – but that 20% went on to deeply impact the British church. Brian Eno famously said that only 10,000 people bought the first album by The Velvet Underground, but every one of them started a band. The impact of the Jesus Revolution was the same. The fact that only one in five of us made it through did nothing to deaden the impact since so many of us became change leaders in the church. Some of us found our way to Bible College; some got ordained or planted churches of their own design. Others started festivals and conferences or launched magazines and publishing enterprises. My personal view is that many if not all of the major breakthroughs and developments in the UK church of the 80s and 90s can be traced in some measure to the alumni of the Jesus movement.
So what was it about this movement that so marked us? What is it, in my own journey, that has me longing and searching for that same spirituality even now, fifty years on? I can offer three answers.
Three Reasons Why The Jesus Movement Changed A Generation
Firstly, we were ready for it. We’d been California Dreaming since 1965. Scott McKenzie had told us not only to visit San Francisco but to do so with flowers in our hair. We were aware of The Spirit in the Sky. We already loved Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Joni Mitchell. The idea of a revolution born in California and re-shaping the world wasn’t new to us. It was just a skip and a jump to add in the name of Jesus and make a movement of it. The questions we were asking went back to the 60s, so when someone told us “Jesus is the Answer” we were willing to give him a fair hearing. In my personal journey, I was ready for it. My family was chronically dysfunctional. My city’s ragged population of drop-outs and drug users, all older than me, had become my friends. The idea that I should search for truth, whether through drugs, exotic philosophies, or religion, seemed self-evident. I was open, and along with many others, I found a way forward in the new Jesus movement.
Secondly, this was about Jesus, not church. We saw the church as a bastion of the respectable, class-ridden, out-of-touch culture of our parents’ generation – a culture we despised and derided. The Jesus of our revolution couldn’t be further from such conformity and banality. He was, for us, the very essence of the counter-culture. We followed him because of our rebellion, not despite it. We were Rebels Without a Cause but in Jesus, we found one, and the same energy that had fuelled our nonconformity in such potentially destructive ways now fuelled our growth as disciples. In 1973 I bought a copy of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side. It became my anthem. I didn’t think for a moment that Lou’s tales of cross-dressers and streetwalkers were anything other than a perfect fit for my new faith journey. I knew that the “Wild Side” was exactly where Jesus would walk. That’s where I found him, and I knew he was in no hurry to cross back over to suburbia.
Thirdly, we were a radically inclusive movement. Not in the sense that we went easy on moral behavior. We were, by the measure of today’s culture, remarkably conservative on issues of sexuality. Once you had ‘bought in’ to Jesus, you were expected to live to the highest standards. But along the way – on the journey – you were welcome to travel with us no matter what your lifestyle. The invitation was to explore together the life and teachings of Jesus. Everyone and anyone could begin that journey, starting where they were. Our sense was that Jesus would ‘clean us up’ along the way – much as he did with his own first disciples. Shock and outrage had no place in our outlook, nor condemnation in our public discourse. We weren’t in the business of trying to build a “Christian” society. Our question was much more straightforward – addressed to one and all – “What do you think of Jesus?”
2023 is not 1973 But There Are Parallels
I highlight these three factors because they deeply resonate with our own cultural moment. 2023 is not 1973 – the 50 years between have changed some aspects of our culture beyond recognition. But there are parallels, just as there were between our own post-60s consciousness and the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’ first followers. Many commentators are sensing the same hunger in young adults for identity and affirmation. Many, too, have seen that the cultural furniture piled high in our churches is too cluttered and too complex for the seekers of a new generation. The question of inclusivity, in its turn, is more desperate than ever. The pre-emptive separation of sheep from goats – based on arbitrary criteria developed by a particular denomination or subculture – is smothering the gospel across our churches. Too many people just can’t get close enough to the fire to feel its warmth. We are in urgent need of a less finicky, more generous approach. The Jesus revolution was a “whosoever will may come” movement, and we badly need another.
Visiting Asbury University
Are we approaching another ‘Jesus Revolution’ moment? Like many others, I was able a few weeks back to visit Asbury University, where the ‘outpouring’ was in full swing. Outside the Hughes Auditorium, queuing in the cold Kentucky wind, I sensed little more than the enthusiasm of Revival Tourism, shofars and all. Inside, though, it was a different story. I was transported back in time – in a good way. I sensed an unconditional invitation to encounter the person and presence of Jesus, sensitive to the hunger of a generation. We didn’t sing Seek Ye First, but we might as well have. The feeling, the fragrance, was the same. It lifted my heart and gave me hope. No one knows yet quite what the Asbury awakening will lead to, or whether its influence will be poisoned by the hawkers and hucksters of cultural religion. If it is a sign, though, of something new – the first small puddle of a coming rain – then we have good reason to rejoice. Will this generation have its own Jesus Revolution? I pray they will, and I for one will cheer them on.
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A pastor, poet, and missionary, Gerard Kelly lives in Normandy, France, where he and his wife Chrissie lead the Bless Network. Alongside church-planting, Bless is involved in refugee ministries, support for Kingdom businesses and The Seven Stories School, a missional education programme. UK born, Gerard has French and Irish roots and has lived in England, Ireland, Canada, France, and the Netherlands. He holds a Masters Degree in Evangelism Studies from the University of Sheffield and has been a member of the research staff of King's College, London, and the teaching team of Redcliffe College in Gloucester. Gerard’s published works include poetry, a novel and several books on prayer, church, and mission.