Emerging Churches and the Jesus People Movement Compared

Emerging Churches and the Jesus People Movement Compared April 25, 2012

Emerging Churches and the Jesus People Movement Compared

Earlier I blogged about similarities I see between the Young, Restless, Reformed movement and the Bill Gothard Basic Youth Conflicts Seminars movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Now I would like to discuss similarities and differences between two mostly youth-oriented Christian movements separated by about forty years—the contemporary Emerging (or Emergent) Churches Movement (ECM) and the much earlier Jesus People Movement (JPM).

Recently I’ve been reading Tony Jones’s new book The Church is Flat which examines eight leading ECM congregations. The book grew out of his Princeton dissertation and is quite scholarly—not your average, run-of-the-mill popular book about the ECM (not that there have been very many). Of course, Tony has been a leader in the ECM and is well qualified to write about it. I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far I’m finding it insightful and informative. (The eight churches used as case studies are Solomon’s Porch, Vintage Faith, Jacob’s Well, Pathways, Journey, Church of the Apostles, House of Mercy, and Cedar Ridge Community. For their locations and leaders google them!)

Before I draw my comparisons, I want to establish my qualifications for doing it. I was involved in the JPM in the early 1970s. I was present the night Larry Norman premiered “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” to a large audience. I was the local organizer of a very early concert by the then-new band Petra. (They took a free will offering!) I led a Jesus People coffeehouse for a while. I grew my hair long (almost getting expelled from Bible college for that!), wore the clothes and hung out at JPM coffeehouses all around the Upper Midwest. I read all the books by Arthur Blessitt and listened to Keith Green music and was assistant pastor at a church that was the local center of the JPM.

I was the main speaker at a retreat for ECM church planters in 2001 and spoke at several emerging churches including Journey (Dallas). I’ve attended many churches associated with the ECM and have gotten to know some of the ECM’s leaders including Doug Pagitt (who has interviewed me on his radio program and we’ve talked at length over meals, etc.), Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, Brian McLaren (who has visited my classes and done Q & A with the students). My daughter and her husband attended Pathways in Denver and helped start one of its neighborhood satellite congregations. I attended Pathways’ main meeting once and the satellite church many times. I attended and spoke at the National Pastors Convention in San Diego—a major networking event for the ECM. I have read many books about the ECM and by people associated with it.

So, I think I’m in a pretty good position to compare the two movements and I think I see striking similarities as well as profound differences. The similarities are striking enough, I think, to bear reflection about larger trends in American Christianity (especially) over the past half century.

It’s dangerous to generalize about either the JPM or the ECM. Neither had/has a headquarters or unifying organization. Both were/are grassroots movements that seemed to spring up spontaneously and then snowball first into apparently relatively cohesive movements and then fall apart over deep differences of philosophy, theology and practice. Both had/have strong, public personalities that provide a certain degree of identity to their movements, but neither had/has any single personality looked up to by everyone associated with them. Both were/are very diverse but unified by a common, minimal ethos that set/sets them apart from the “mainstream” of American Christianity—evangelical or mainline.

First, some similarities. (For convenience and simplicity’s sake I will now use only the present tense even though the JPM hardly exists anymore except in remnants here and there such as Jesus People USA in Chicago.) Both movements are marked by strong, mainly youthful dissatisfaction with “standard” churches and Christianity. Both are marked by belief that standard Christianity in America is shallow, inauthentic, culturally accommodated and suited mainly for middle class people whose main commitments are to middle class (or upwardly mobile) values.  Both display a sense of alienation from the dominant culture (religious and secular) of their parents. Both search for authenticity, often by reacting in rather extreme ways to their perceptions of mainstream Christianity. Both have older “guru” type thinkers and leaders most of the early adherents look up to. For the JPM it was Chuck Smith; for the ECM it is Brian McLaren. (Others could be named.) Both freely experiment with new forms of worship and break from traditional norms of reverence in worship and appearance, language, etc. Both have music that appeals to them that is not particularly appealing to their elders or peers in more traditional churches. Both highly value community, relationships, belonging before believing or behaving. Both prefer informality in worship to liturgy or forms of worship spelled out on a “worship folder.” (Although both also drew on older traditions, adapting them to their own preferences and styles.) Both prefer non-hierarchical patterns of church leadership, although both also tend to have strong leaders in local congregations. Both tend to have congregations without membership in any traditional sense led by small groups of elders (sometimes called by some other name) who are the only “real (voting) members.” Both tend to disdain authoritative tradition and formal, academic theology and emphasize the freedom to reinvent Christianity for their own cultures. (For the JPM it was the “hippie culture” and for the ECM it is “postmodern culture.”)

I think that’s sufficient to demonstrate some very real similarities between the two movements that don’t look much alike on the surface. And therein lies one of the main differences which is where I’ll begin with the contrast part of the comparison. My thesis is that these two movements are more similar than most people have thought or mentioned. And that could be instructive for the ECM as it looks into its future and tries to avoid pitfalls.

Second, some dissimilarities. The JPM was raucous, flamboyant, “in your face,” noisy and at times intentionally offensive. It bordered on fanaticism and sometimes fell headlong into it. The ECM is, by comparison, reserved, almost introverted. The ECM demonstrates its disdain for traditional Christianity (in terms of mainstream church life) with irony; the JPM demonstrated it with rallies characterized by open denunciations of mainstream Christianity. The ECM tends to be middle to upper class economically and more educated than the average American. The JPM was more diverse economically and in terms of education. The JPM was charismatic and/or fundamentalist; the ECM is theologically diverse. The ECM is socially transformative; the JPM was apocalyptic. The JPM was uncomfortable with ambiguity; the ECM revels in ambiguity (for the most, part with notable exceptions). The ECM incorporates elements of ancient traditions into worship; the JPM tended to disdain everything ancient and traditional (after the first century) and sought to restore “pure New Testament Christianity.” The “mission” of the ECM is to translate authentic Christianity into postmodern idiom for hipsters (and hipster wannabes). The “mission” of the JPM was to translate authentic Christianity into “hippie” idiom for the “flower generation” (and hippie wannabes which is what I was). (In neither case am I using those labels pejoratively.)

As an older person who was involved in the JPM when younger I see both as experimental religious movements led mainly by young people (who are now getting older). JPM meetings had very few children (at first) or middle aged people (except pastors who found a way to attach themselves to the movement) to say nothing of elderly people. The same was true and still is true to a very large extent of ECM meetings (although this is changing as it changed for the JPM after the first five years or so). In other words, both seem to be driven by youthful alienation from parental/”mainstream,” institutions, styles and values. This is a notable feature of culture generally over the last half century: teenagers and twenty-somethings believing their elders, for the most part, have little or nothing to offer (other than financial support). Ageism is a form of prejudice not much talked about (except with regard to aging actresses finding it difficult to land roles). I confess that as a twenty-something I fell into that American trend of a “youth culture” superior to “adult culture.” My parents and people their age simply “didn’t get it.” To me and my peers, they were just waiting to die. Now I feel the same attitude from many teens and twenty-somethings. (Not most of my students, fortunately!) Of course, over the past half century older people have done little to help the situation; we have tended to regard young people in general (our own children and other loved ones and students excepted) as blind fools rushing to make the same mistakes generations before them have made (and maybe worse ones) with little regard for history and what it could teach them.

I believe generational alienation is a notable but not much talked about social problem. And it has invaded the churches along with every other form of segregation. ECM churches tend to be youth-oriented. (Admittedly “youth” is a broadening category as the original ECM people age.) I recently stayed at a hotel where a church “for” older people met. I predict there will be more of them as more churches adopt contemporary worship and experimental styles of worship to draw in or keep younger people. One of the things I value very highly about the church my wife and I attend is its intergenerational richness. This past Sunday the teens led the morning worship service. One of them, about sixteen years old, gave the “children’s sermon” only she invited older people (than her) to come down to the front, sit on the floor and listen to her teach them. Many went. Unfortunately, as in most churches, our adult Sunday School program is generationally divided. I personally think it would be better to have intergenerational classes centered around subjects . The church life groups, however, are, for the most part, intergenerational. The Sunday morning worship service is “blended.”

My word of advice to ECM folks is a quote from essayist Alexander Pope: “We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow. Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so.” My word of advice to older people is taken from 1 Timothy 4:12: Don’t despise youth. My advice to both is, strive to overcome generational prejudice. It’s a cultural thing, not a Christian virtue.

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