In the late 1960s, early 1970s, mega churches exploded with growth in California. Popular evangelical pastor and author John MacArthur talks about it in an interview with Albert Mohler:
I can trace certain trends and a visible process over the past twenty-two years. When I first came to this church as pastor, I started to preach this way and people flooded the place. It was an interesting time. It was just after the publication of The Living Bible — for what it is worth — and that certainly gave people a fresh insight into Scripture. Then came the New American Standard Version, the “Jesus Movement,” Calvary Chapel, and the intensive interest in personal Bible study. People came to church carrying Bibles with covers featuring a dove and a cross, and all that. Christian bookstores and publishers began to flourish. Maranatha Music hit — and Christian music exploded. I really think that one hundred years from now the 1970s and the early 1980s will look like a revival — and that period really was.
MacArthur elsewhere says that the Jesus Movement was a primary cause for the phenomenal growth of his church:
We kind of caught the wave of that, the tail end of the Jesus Movement. There were new Bible translations, that was huge. People were beginning to understand the Bible in new ways. There was just a wave, I think, at that time when I came that the Lord sort of allowed us to catch that I think a real moving of the Holy Spirit in a special way.
Churches in southern California became huge at this period of time, filling up with the proselytes of the Jesus movement. Like so many other fads that start in California, those churches in turn had a huge impact on the church all over the United States through their radio ministries with now well-known names in addition to MacArthur—Chuck Swindoll, Chuck Smith, and Greg Laurie—among many others. These churches took on a flavor that was admired and mimicked all over the country before there was a Hybels, Osteen, or Rick Warren.
This was the beginnings, even by testimony of those who were part of it, of something that still today has a major influence in Christianity, evangelicalism, and fundamentalism. The leadership that pioneered this direction and style made decisions about how they would function that continue to affect churches all over the world. They were uniquely non-denominational, choosing to forego the typical church brands that repulsed the spirit of that era’s seekers. They made plain choices in their evaluation of cultural issues that clearly impact the belief and practice of churches today.
Was that place and period truly subject to God-given revival? Does what occurred represent what we would see as revival according to a scriptural understanding? Did the leadership make decisions befitting of a movement of God among men? Or was this a bevy of deceit that has since caused more problems than good?
What Kind of Movement Was It?
The Jesus Movement was born out of the sixties counterculture. Young people, distrustful of authority, attempted to find fulfillment in an anti-establishment attitude and behavior that characterized the war protesters. Disenchanted with the status quo, they became hippies. The Jesus Movement contrasted with established churches both in style and substance, keeping many of the mannerisms and appearance of the hippies yet tweaking the content of the message. The hippie culture infiltrated and then changed churches into its image.
Sally Thomas in First Things, The Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life characterizes the start of the Jesus Movement in an article entitled “Grooving on Jesus”:
There’s no denying that, in many places, have it your way was an effective formula. Witness the nondenominational Calvary Chapel phenomenon. In 1968, Pastor Chuck Smith, encouraged by other conservative evangelical California pastors, recruited a youth pastor, the groovily named Lonnie Frisbee, from the Christian-coffeehouse counterculture as a “hippie liaison” to draw in the unchurched. The results were electrifying. Traditional hymn-sandwich services gave way to an effusively emotive worship atmosphere more like the quasi-religious atmosphere of a Grateful Dead concert.
The Calvary Chapel was a struggling congregation of less than thirty until Lonnie Frisbee started bringing hippies to the meetings. Thomas explains what happened:
Hundreds of shaggy young people clutching Bibles in zippered leather cases turned up for Wednesday-night Bible study with Frisbees. The church outgrew its space, outgrew it again, and ultimately multiplied into a network of churches, its own freestanding denomination.
Rock music itself had already swept the nation through its collection of noncomformists and malcontents. The Jesus movement was the beginnings of Christian rock. It began when some hippie and street musicians of the late 1960s and early 1970s converted to this brand of Christianity. They continued to play the same style of music they had played previously, but began to write lyrics with a quasi-Christian message. Many music groups developed out of this, and some became leaders within the Jesus movement, rockers like Larry Norman, Keith Green, and others.
The same Chuck Smith founded the first Christian rock label when he launched Maranatha Music as an outlet for the Jesus music bands performing at Calvary worship services. It was here where the whole contemporary Christian music industry got its start as well as the new viewpoint that the music itself was amoral. The new innovation was that only the words communicated any moral content. The only ones still who hold this deceived position are those who like and support Christian rock, country, rap, rhythm and blues, and even grunge.
The churches that saw amazing numeric growth were those receptive of the hippie lifestyle, not expecting it to change. The Jesus movement was a trojan horse to wheel the world into the church. There were several keys for contextualizing God to this worldly crowd: non-denominationalism (an anti-establishment move), toleration, come-as-you-are dress, modern language translations, long hair on men, pants on women, the world’s music, and little application of scripture to the culture (dismissive of worldliness).
John MacArthur calls this time period of the Jesus Movement a genuine revival. This is when his church saw amazing numeric success. You see pictures of MacArthur in those days on his book covers wearing long hair. This is when, more than ever, you would hear the accusations of “legalism” and calls for grace. It was obvious in the counterculture hippie movement that the long hair was rebellion. If you moved that direction with your hair, you were making a statement that contradicted God’s Word in 1 Corinthians 11:14. Although MacArthur’s hair wasn’t as long as Lonnie Frisbee‘s, it was a clear signal to hippies that he wasn’t a part of the establishment.
A later contribution as a polemic for worldliness and the new view of grace to vindicate the worldly practices of this Southern California “laid-back” style was Chuck Swindoll’s 1990 book, fittingly named Grace Awakening. The Jesus Movement was a Grace Awakening in the opinion of the participants. Here are some of the statements by Swindoll that typify the defense necessary subsequent to lowering the barriers to the world:
[It is a] freedom from the demands of other people, from all the shoulds and oughts of the general public.
I can be me—fully and freely. It is a freedom to know Him in an independent and personal way.
It means I’m free to choose righteousness or disobedience.
At one point in the book, inspired by an “awakening of grace,” Swindoll asked why it is that we couldn’t visualize God in a pair of bermuda shorts.
You can’t explain a true revival outside of the gospel. When measures are adopted to produce results, you have revivalism. The Jesus Movement was very careful to adapt its methods to the tastes of the hippy culture. They liked rock music. Rock music was a new method to gather and excite a crowd. They labeled and relabeled their churches with names not packed with the theological dogma of denominationalism.
When you hear MacArthur talk about that time period that fueled the numerical growth of his church, you read of the key conditions that must be met for God to work in a tremendous way: new translations of scripture and even the paraphrase, the Living Bible, use of contemporary Christian music, and verse-by-verse teaching.
David Wells writes in No Place for Truth, speaking of fundamentalism and evangelicalism (p. 129):
Strong, authoritarian preachers emerged whose very demeanor banished doubt on sight. The stronghold of faith was thus made invincible. . . .Fundamentalism was a walled city; evangelicalism is a city. Fundamentalism always had an air of embattlement about it, of being an island in a sea of unremitting hostility. Evangelicalism has reacted against this sense of psychological isolation. It has lowered the barricades. It is open to the world.
Chuck Smith, MacArthur, and many others used the verse by verse expository type of teaching. Smith would sit on a stool in front of a microphone before a sea of hippies and work his way through the text. Certainly whatever good that did occur could result from the Bible they did get. However, what was missing was strong, authoritarian preachers, who wouldn’t lower the barrier for the world, who by their very demeanor would banish doubt on sight.
Like Finney’s Second Great Awakening, the numerical success is the main evidence for the revival. Iain Murray writes in Revival and Revivalism (p. 283):
Numbers seen to be responding were claimed as more than sufficient evidence for the rightness of the changes in practice and teaching. If the argument for the new measures had been based upon the testimony of Scripture or the witness of church history, the likelihood of the propaganda succeeding would have been small, but these were not the grounds on which the case for the new measures was based. The proof urged for them was much simpler: people had only to look at what could be seen across the country.
Finney himself wrote in his Memoirs (p. 83):
I used to say to ministers, whenever they contended with me . . . Show me the fruits of your ministry. . . . Much fault has been found with measures which had been preeminently and continually blessed by God for the promotion of revivals.
For the numerical success, the cooperation with Lonnie Frisbee, hippies, and rock bands was a necessary measure for continuing revival for Chuck Smith. Then numerical success validated the new measures. This was the way to revival that others had missed and became necessary to continue. Then, like Finney, new theological explanations must be developed that would authenticate the fellowship with the world. John MacArthur said this about that time at his church:
[I]t doubled about every two years for the first ten, just kept doubling and it went from three hundred, to six hundred, to twelve hundred. Obviously our growth has slowed down eventually. But in those early years it was amazing growth. We were doing something that was fresh, expositing the Scripture, there was a new hunger for that. We kind of caught the wave of that, the tail end of the Jesus Movement.
In his break-down of revivalism, Murray writes (p. 22):
Revival are not brought about by the fulfillment of ‘conditions’ any more than conversion of a single individual is secured by any series of human actions.
I believe that the Jesus Movement and Finney’s revival were both authored by human measures uniquely adapted to their time. Murray explains it this way (p. 298):
[A]ll christian rightly want to see success, and the new measures seemed to offer that possibility in a way not known before. . . . [T]he introduction of the new measures in a time of real revival gave weight to the claim that their ‘successes’ were due to divine blessing. . . [T]he illusion was ultimately accepted because the alleged successes received far more publicity than did the evidence of harm done to the life of the churches.
The Jesus movement was a revival in the tradition of the Second Great Awakening. It wasn’t. However, the numerical successes have influenced thousands of pastors and churches to follow the style of the Southern California mega-churches. If there is a new wave today, it is the manner of Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, or in another way, that of Mark Driscoll and those imitating him.
Lonnie Frisbee, as much as anyone, ignited the Calvary Chapel phenomena. He sat cross-legged in the front lawn of a local public school, wearing a long robe, beard, and shoulder length hair, the identical circumstance at which Greg Laurie made a profession of faith. Lonnie Frisbee died of a AIDS, a long time closet homosexual. Frisbee not only led in the beginning of the spread of the Calvary Chapel, but also the Vineyard churches.
Recently Phil Johnson, a right hand man of John MacArthur, has written a lengthy series against contextualization, coming from Acts 17. In a comment on vv. 16-18, he writes:
What’s crucial to notice here, first of all, is Paul’s relationship to the culture. He doesn’t try to assimilate. He doesn’t embrace the culture and look for ways to shape the gospel to suit it. He is repulsed by it.
As part of the Jesus movement, the churches of Southern California embraced the culture and did try to assimilate, including Johnson’s own Grace Community Church.
A new type of Jesus movement is exploding all over the country, perhaps best represented by Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill in the Seattle, WA area. They have embraced the grunge culture of Seattle. Driscoll’s presentation, the design of the building, the dress, and activity are like the world where Mars Hill exists. John MacArthur wrote about it in an article he entitled, “Grunge Christianity: Counterculture’s Death-Spiral and the Vulgarization of the Gospel”:
You have no doubt heard the arguments: We need to take the message out of the bottle. We can’t minister effectively if we don’t speak the language of contemporary counterculture. If we don’t vernacularize the gospel, contextualize the church, and reimagine Christanity for each succeeding generation, how can we possibly reach young people? Above all else, we have got to stay in step with the times.
Those arguments have been stressed to the point that many evangelicals now seem to think unstylishness is just about the worst imaginable threat to the expansion of the gospel and the influence of the church. They don’t really care if they are worldly. They just don’t want to be thought uncool.
We could turn the clock back to the early seventies and say the same thing about MacArthur’s compromise with the Jesus Movement. We could even look today at the youth conference of his church, called Resolved, that dresses up the room to fit the vernacular of secular culture, to make the preachers “cool” with the young people. What I see Driscoll doing is operating with the same strategy as the Jesus Movement and Lonnie Frisbee, except with the world having gotten that much worse and his targeting the Seattle grunge culture.
Even John Piper, whose churches have followed the Jesus Movement pattern of rock music, is rethinking this now. He was in a recent Q & A along with D. A. Carson, and he was asked, “What are some of the biggest issues you think the church and evangelical scholars will need to deal with in the next twenty years?” As part of his answer he said:
Whether the ethos of the explosion of contemporary worship music and worship forms (i.e., chummy rock music) can sustain the gravitas of the glory of God over the long haul.
How could he be questioning the gravitas of rock music? That’s a done and settled case, isn’t it? Piper knows in his heart that the rock music is a self-gratifying sell-out to the world. He said it in a very understated way, but you can still catch his thinking on it.
One of the tragic casualties of the Jesus Movement and its offspring is spiritual discernment. People see numbers and they assume it must be God. They have a feeling and it must be the Holy Spirit. They want to see something spectacular and so they produce it. And then the methods are copied with very little evaluation. Later they defend it by calling it grace, so grace becomes a casualty as well. Many evangelicals and fundamentalists who decry the revivalism of Finney latch on to the revivalist children of the Jesus movement.
Holiness is more than moral purity. It is separation from that which is common and profane. God in His unique and supreme attributes retains a majestic separation far above His creation. He desires a difference be put between the sacred and the profane. As He is holy, He calls on His own to be holy as well (1 Peter 1:14-16). The angels hovering about His throne repeat “holy, holy, holy.” He says, “Come out from among them and be ye separate” (2 Corinthians 6:17). The Jesus Movement was not compatible with holiness or separation, but that wasn’t a problem for its adherents, as long as they could catch its wave.
The Jesus Movement birthed modern day non-denominational evangelicalism, it’s music, methods, and mega-churches. It made worldliness the norm for the church. It spawned even worse paganism in churches for today. It concocted the entire Christian music industry with its Dove awards and entertainers. It encouraged an all-time low for reverence in the house of God. It watered down grace. It demeaned Christianity. As much as or more than anything that Finney did, it profaned the holiness of God. It contaminated and perverted true worship of God. It produced a wicked generation that seeks after signs.