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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  • Joshua

    I enjoyed your critique, and found it very informative. I can attest that your observation of ageism in both mainline, traditional churches as well as the ECM is certainly a factor. There does seem to be a “shrugging off the shackles of tradition” in the ECM, and as a result, a lack of depth that comes with listening to the wisdom of the elderly.

    On the other hand, I have been on the receiving end of ageism myself. Once, after giving my own opinion and questioning someone else’s, their response was to belittle me on account of the fact that I didn’t have a mortgage, wife and kids; as if those things automatically qualify your opinions as legitimate. I further remember reading an older, traditional Evangelical review Donald Miller’s book “Blue Like Jazz,” thinking the whole time, “This guy just doesn’t get it. He’s not listening.”

    I suppose I should go back and listen to what he has to say, although I do think it possible that he was, in fact, out of touch. That does happen.

  • Good thoughts Roger. As I told you in person, I wrote a paper on this (already sent you a copy), which agrees with many of your points. For the benefit of your readers, here is the conclusion:

    It seems clear that the relationship between the Jesus Movement and emerging Christianity is much more complex than it would appear at first glance. In some ways the emerging movement is a reaction against the very aspects of the evangelical subculture that the Jesus Movement helped to create – from its sacred/secular dualism, to its overly individualistic and consumerist approach to church, to its right-wing politics. At the same time emergents have taken up and carry on the Jesus People’s emphasis on creativity and innovation, their willingness to adapt to culture for the sake of evangelism, their suspicion of institutionalism and conventional religious authorities, and their demand for a more authentic and passionately committed approach to faith. Furthermore, it is not certain that the emerging movement could have arisen at all if not for the earlier development of the evangelical youth ministry subculture that the Jesus Movement helped to create.

    In other ways, however, the Jesus Movement and emerging Christianity are still two very different movements. While the Jesus People were overwhelmed by the pluralistic options of their day, responding by confidently declaring only “One Way!”, emergents have embraced and seem to thrive on pluralism. While the Jesus People were emotionalistic, charismatic, and (in most cases) intellectually unsophisticated, emerging Christians are highly theological and frequently suspicious of some charismatic groups’ tendencies towards spiritual manipulation and authoritarian control. While the Jesus People were apocalyptic, emergents tend towards realized eschatology. And while the Jesus People were mostly fundamentalist primitivists, even the most conservative of emergents tend to skew more towards liberal theologies or, at the very least, progressive evangelicalism.

    Finally, while the Jesus Movement was largely a youth phenomenon, tied very closely to one rather transitory cultural moment, fading out or morphing into something else once that moment had passed and that culture dissolved, the emerging movement grows out of a much larger and longer-term historical shift – the transition from modernity to postmodernity. Accordingly, emerging Christianity is much less tied to a single generation. It consists of all age demographics: Millennials, Gen-Xers, Boomers, and those even younger and older. Emergents are therefore more flexible as they continue to interact with a changing culture. It is perhaps much less likely, therefore, simply to fade quickly from view as the Jesus Movement did. Ultimately, however, only time will tell.

    As you can see, my one main disagreement with your conclusions is that I don’t think the ECM is defined primarily by generational differences. It is not merely a youth movement, nor simply a rebellion against an older generation. The conversation may have started that way in the mid-1990s, as some were wanting to discover how to reach “Gen X” with the gospel, but it very quickly (in its earliest gatherings) saw that the main issue was not Boomers vs. Gen X, but Modern vs. Postmodern, which is a much larger cultural shift that has been in the works over multiple generations. In other words, the difference is not related to age (demographics) but mindset (psychographics). If some emergent communities seem to skew younger, that may be a function simply of percentages – a higher percentage of Gen Xers than Boomers have a postmodern mindset – though I think it may also have a lot to do with circumstances of when and where and how those churches were planted. In my own experience, there are an awful lot of older emergents as well. Every emerging church and cohort I have ever been a part of has included at least as many empty-nesters as twenty-somethings (if not more), and most emergent events I have been at also have a wide generational spread. In fact, after the Midwest Emergent Gathering I organized in 2007, some of complaints we received was that there weren’t enough younger people – most of the attendees were pastors and church leaders in their 40s and 50s or above.

    So yeah, based on my own experiences I would say that the perceived youthfulness of the ECM is an illusion, and where it does exist, doesn’t actually mean what one would first assume. Emergents aren’t rebelling against just their parents, they’re rebelling against (or attempting to move beyond) modernity as a whole.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for your insights, Mike. We’ll agree to disagree about the ageism issue. But I do agree that the ECM is moving away from that into a more age diverse demographic. I think a lot of boomers are attracted to the ECM, but so were many attracted to the JPM. The coffeehouse I led attracted all ages, but the center was clearly the younger crowd. The older were mostly observers. Everything about it was geared to the hippies (or hippie wannabes). The ECM congregations I’ve visited and conventions I’ve attended have been heavily skewed toward twenty-somethings especially in terms of taste in music (but not only that). There is every possibility, of course, that the ECM is evolving in ways I haven’t noticed. We old people are slower to notice change, you know. 🙂

      • I’m definitely not arguing that ageism doesn’t exist in the ECM. It doesn’t surprise me that you would have experienced that at times. I’m just saying that a distinction between generations is not at the heart of the movement, and that if you were to participate in other emergent communities or events you might not have those same experiences. As I said, my own experiences (in the more middle-class, middle-aged Chicago suburbs) have been much more age diverse than what you may have experienced in more urban, hipster settings (though even my emergent “hipster” church in Austin is still pretty old demographically.)

        BTW, where did you go with the Jesus People in the Upper Midwest? My dad recalls meeting some of them at a coffeehouse when they came to Northern Michigan University in Marquette back in the early 70s. (My dad was a bit of a Jesus Freak himself – even got told to cut his hair and shave his beard when he went to Moody for an evangelism conference once.) I wonder if you were one of the people he met.

        • rogereolson

          No, I don’t think so. The first time I was ever in Michigan was just a few years ago. But, of course, some of the same people may have swung through our coffeehouse and his. The JP were pretty peripatetic. Our coffeehouse was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Believe it or not, there were JP there! Two colleges–Augustana (Lutheran) and Sioux Falls College (Baptist, now University of Sioux Falls) fed into our coffeehouse and we were the center of what there was of the JPM in that part of the country. Some of our Jesus freaks (a term they used of themselves) went on to Jesus People USA and are still there.

        • Jimi calhoun

          Interesting conversation. Full disclosure here, I am a good friend of Mike’s, and I am also twenty years his senior. Additionally, I have worked at two churches that many would consider very influential within their respective movements, JPM-Hope Chapel Hermosa Beach California, and, ECM-Cedar Ridge Community Church in Maryland. I am a genuine hippie hailing from the epicenter of the hippie movement, San Francisco California. and I played bass with many musical icons of that era, meaning the late 1960s and early 1970s. I have attended several ECM events and conferences since 2003 and I am still connected to many Calvary Chapel and Hope Chapel boomer clergy. Lastly, I am African American.
          I believe that the similarities that exist between the JPM and ECM vastly outnumber the differences, and in my opinion this is a good thing. As to the “agesim problem,” i did experience a rather “chilly” reception at the Emergent Conventions that I attended in the the mid “00s.” But, on the other hand my acceptance within smaller settings was just the opposite. One can never know whether or not age, race, or simply my personality, was what caused many of the youth at those gatherings to appear to avoid me.
          That said I think the youth/age juxtaposition may be unnecessary when speaking of the broader American spiritual landscape. People of faith seem to be the most divided group in our hemisphere, and we are so proficient at dividing ourselves over so many issues that trying to isolate one or two could very well be near impossible. I am still hopeful that a day will come soon that if the term “Emergent” is used by someone, it will evoke the imagery of a group of people striving to live out faith in an interracial, inter-generational, cross cultural, and non-political manner. Idealistic? You bet ya, and further proof that I really am an old hippie.

          Peace Jimi

  • Excellent as always Roger. Two thumbs up on the contrasts between ECM / JPM. Interestingly, my earliest experiences as a growing Christian had been touched by the JPM movement, even though I participated in mostly mainstream evangelical churches. However, those churches had a passion for people, mission and ministry, and consequently, movements like the JPM had influenced us.

    Apparently, old hippies never die, and so the ECM immediately attracted me. However, in its earliest years it seemed to have abandoned all reason and spoke in an unclear muddle of youthful whim and theological whimsie. It took many years to sort out its “visage/image.” Unfortunately, it snapped all the clearer in the Spring of 2011 when Evangelical fury raged and it became evidentially clearer just what emergent Christian was, and was not, from its birthing parent of evangelicalism.

    Too, one of the very first things I met within my ECM church was ageism. It was ugly and taught us clear lessons about discrimination’s ugliness. We were thankful for the burden and resisted as we could. Still, it seems that if a “youthful theolog” isn’t representing the movement than it has very few followers. So our prayer, “God help the young, and the older to bear.”

    Finally, it is my hope that the ECM continues, expands and grows. It seems in the best position to heal, integrate, and unite all the many forms of Christianity (what is it? like 38,000 different flavors now, counting all the denominations, gatherings, cells and the like?). It offers the greatest freedom of expression and centers simply upon Jesus.

    One of the best things I’ve seen is the desire for an “open, dynamic” bible as human language returns to a less strict form of absolutism and allows for ambiguity to enter back in to a degree that can be helpful. Not quite mystical, but certainly divine, God is closer to man now than when held hostage to dogmas and doctrines. Thus, the fresh airs of the NPP (New Perspective of Paul) and the new impetus to re-examine Scripture as authentic and authoritative (vs. inerrant language) through the lens of postmodernism and open/process theology.

    – Russ

  • John C

    Thanks for this, Roger – I’ve read a lot of your posts, and this is one of the best, partly because it’s a pioneering attempt to compare two movements that are rarely compared. I wonder whether there’s a bigger difference in terms of trajectory. The JPM movement was primitivist and anti-intellectual and it tended to merge eventually with conservative or charismatic or seeker-friendly Evangelicalism; the EMC is much more bookish, postmodern and neo-traditionalist, and is more likely to move in other directions – especially towards mainline Protestantism insofar as it is liturgical, progressive and open to ancient Christian practices (think Phyllis Tickle).

    The other major difference which you don’t really highlight concerns evangelism – aggressive efforts to get people ‘saved’ were central to the JPM (think Calvary Chapel, Larry Norman, Keith Green, even Bob Dylan’s Christian phase). It seems to be a much lower priority for the EMC.

    • rogereolson


  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Roger said: “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.”

    Hey, Roger, did the church usher help you get back up after you sat down on the floor? lol

    • rogereolson

      Ivan, that’s a perfect example of ageism! You shouldn’t treat us old people liked that! But to answer your question–not the usher but Becky did. 🙂

  • Percival

    It also seems the ECM is driven by the children of evangelicals. The Jesus People were largely from non-churched or under-churched backgrounds. But actually, I don’t know any ECM people since I have lived overseas for the last 20 years, so I could be way off.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hi Roger,

    I only know of one of the JPM communities that still exist – in Chicago. I visited them many years ago. It seems to me that they wanted to go back to something – to some time – and be the 1st century church in our times. It seems that they made their peace with the Conservative Churches and were eventually merged into them.

    On the other hand, the ECM seems to embrace 20th century values (tolerance, green living, and egalitarianism/socialsim). After spending a summer attending Solomon’s Porch, I had to be done because I got the impression that the only vital part of their community was their 20th century values. I think that you were correct some months ago when you thought that the ECM would make an alliance with the Liberal Churches – eventually to be swallowed by them.

    • rogereolson

      I think that has yet to be seen, but it is a possibility I fear for them and hope they will avoid. Some ECM pastors and congregations, however, are decidedly evangelical. So I don’t think I or anyone can generalize very far about them.

  • please change your font

    • rogereolson

      I have tried! Since the changes made by patheos I haven’t been able to find the one I had before. I’ll continue to try, though. The only font size that’s decent happens to be bold.

  • Percival: “It also seems the ECM is driven by the children of evangelicals. The Jesus People were largely from non-churched or under-churched backgrounds.”

    I would agree. I am a Christian today because of the JPM, and this is a key difference between the two, imho. I was also at the coffee houses, Roger, but traveling the West Coast as part of a band playing at every one on the circuit (and still leading worship, by the way, as you are still leading!). My commitment to first century Christianity was absolutely established in those years – something I hadn’t realized until you voiced it.

    The outwardly focused JPM, rooted clearly in a fresh move of the Holy Spirit, seems fundamentally different to me than the comparatively more inwardly, or perhaps defensively (?) focused ECM which regularly appears preoccupied (consumed?) with justifying what it is/isn’t to the established church.

    Good to know we come from the same root!

  • I just can’t seem to get past the fact that you grew your hair out 🙂

    JPUSA up in Chicago is now connected with my denomination; an interesting combo of the hippie JPM and the pietist ECC. Thanx for another great post prof…

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know that I grew it out very long. Just long enough to get into trouble with the Bible college’s leadership. (They threatened to expel me over it! 🙂