The History of the Jesus People: “God’s Forever Family”

The History of the Jesus People: “God’s Forever Family” August 17, 2013

Over at the Religion in American History blog, Randall Stephens has a fascinating interview with Larry Eskridge of Wheaton College about his new book God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (Oxford University Press, 2013), which Anxious Bench contributor John Turner recently reviewed at Christianity Today.


Randall Stephens: What first got you interested in the topic of the Jesus People?

Larry Eskridge: 
I found the Jesus People an interesting topic at several levels.  At the most basic was the fact that I came of age during that period and had been personally involved in the Jesus movement in my local area in northern Illinois.  So, if doing history often serves as something of an exercise in self-biography, I stand guilty as charged by dint of being curious about the overall movement and the reasons for its success and eventual disappearance.

At a larger level I’ve long been interested in the way that evangelical religion intertwines with mass media and popular culture and the Jesus People offered plenty to study at that level as they were the subject of a great deal of media coverage as well as replicating various aspects of the counterculture and youth culture in a comfort with pop culture and music that was, traditionally, very unusual within the overarching evangelical subculture.

Finally, my interest grew as the result of conversations I had in the late ‘80s with a few evangelical historians who discounted the impact of the movement and who viewed it as some sort of immature, irrelevant, generational religious fad.  As I remembered the movement’s pervasive presence during the ‘70s I thought that it had been a pretty important influence in the lives of a lot of evangelical Baby Boomers and shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.  Not only were the Jesus People a colorful, interesting bunch with their communes, street papers, and Jesus rock bands, but they also represented a chance to take the religious life and experience of young people seriously. I was frankly taken aback by the manner in which some scholars apparently were able to easily discount the religious experiences and attachments of young people in our more-or-less contemporary settings—they surely didn’t do that with the young audiences that were impacted by the preaching of Jonathan Edwards!

Stephens: How influential do you think these countercultural evangelicals have been in shaping American Christianity?

Eskridge: Well the book argues that they were surprisingly important in shaping the nature of American evangelicalism and—by reason of the growth in evangelicalism’s organizational, cultural, and political influence in subsequent years—a larger force within the overall history of the ‘60s and ‘70s than has heretofore been thought. In many ways I believe you can’t have a real handle on that period—especially on the youth culture of that era—without acknowledging the Jesus People as one of the important aspects of what was going on.

In terms of the American church there were obvious institutional outgrowths—the growth of the Calvary Chapel network of churches and its offspring the Vineyard, for example. But the larger impact was felt at the grass roots level in the manner in which the movement modeled a different relationship with popular culture and youth culture.  Before the Jesus People evangelicalism had a very nervous, if not downright oppositional, relationship to “worldly entertainments” and all the allures of popular and youth culture.  The Jesus movement, however, was much more comfortable in baptizing popular/youth culture and making a Christianized version that could be put forward as a means to both evangelize unbelieving youth and build up the kids who came from evangelical homes and churches.  There was, and still is, opposition to this way of handling these boundaries between “the World” and “The Church,” but to a large degree, the Jesus People marked a revolution in handling these relationships.

In terms of the particular historical moment, the Jesus movement’s biggest bottom line was in generational terms: it played a major role in keeping evangelicalism together by providing a much easier path for a lot of people—particularly evangelical kids raised in the church—to navigate the massive changes that buffeted American society and culture during that period.  The Jesus People had a degree of “with-it-ness” and a cultural cache that the larger movement certainly didn’t possess going into the late ‘60s.  I think it’s fair to say that if the Jesus People hadn’t come along when they did the evangelical church would have been nowhere near as formidable a force throughout American culture come the 1980s and beyond.

Stephens: You spend some time focusing on Christian rock.  How did this genre emerge when and where it did?

Eskridge: Music was such an important element in what held youth culture together by the 1960s that it would have been truly surprising if any sort of popular movement could have had any grass roots traction without a musical component. The Jesus movement was certainly obsessed by music just like the larger youth culture—”Jesus Music” seemed to naturally pour forth in the form of halting, homemade folk songs and bluesy, rock tunes from the earliest manifestations of the movement all across the country. A whole network of musical groups and venues grew up within the space of a few short years along with the infrastructure to distribute the music to Jesus Music fans. Of course this was all surprising in that the music of the Jesus People was an obvious departure from the norms of the larger evangelical subculture. Certainly there was no shortage of resistance among older, more traditional church people to the new forms of music.  But the combination of cultural crisis, earnest Jesus People fervor, and the sheer size of the generational cohort eventually served to lessen most older evangelicals’ opposition. I think most adults in the churches saw that it would be a better alternative to cultivate their kids’ enthusiasm for Jesus by indulging their new worship choruses on Sundays and letting them listen to Jesus Rock in their spare time.

Read the whole interview here.

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