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Religion: The Jesus Evolution

6 minute read

When word got out that the Danish government was helping to fund Jens Jørgen Thorsen’s blasphemous new film The Love Affairs of Jesus Christ, the Young Christians mobilized a protest march of 5,000 people through the streets of Copenhagen. In Amsterdam, a summertime citadel for hippies, many of Holland’s 10,000 Jesus People joined a throng of young evangelists from overseas in distributing roses and Gospels as they marched to a park service. Some 8,000 youths, most of them from eastern Pennsylvania, descended on a potato field near Morgantown for an exuberant three-day Jesus festival, complete with prophecies and rock bands.

Such gatherings are not large compared with the major rock festivals, but they indicate that the Jesus movement, unlike many aspects of the youth counterculture, has survived the fad phase and is settling down for the long haul. Says Christine Clausen, 22, a Californian who is now evangelizing in Germany: “The trippers, the bandwagon jumpers, the people who were just looking for another high have left.”

A recent directory lists 259 Jesus communities and 49 newspapers in North America, but compilers claim that these are only a fraction of the Jesus groups. Many youths have blended into conventional churches or inconspicuous little house fellowships. Others have departed for rural areas.

Thriving Groups. California’s Jesus People, who started the whole movement, are not seen on the streets much any more, but many of the earliest groups still thrive. Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, which has six touring bands, had to put up a tent for the overflow crowds, then an auditorium that holds 2,000. The Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation near Saugus has bought a 160-acre farm, a gas station, a thrift shop and a motel. Kent Philpott s ministry north of San Francisco runs a construction business and several farms, plus rehabilitation centers, a counseling center and a bookstore.

“We used to get most of our people off the street,” Philpott reports. “Now most of them are referrals from social agencies.” Since hard-drug usage has tapered off, The Center in Menlo Park now spends up to half its time on emotional problems instead of only addiction. Says Director Ted Wise, one of the first hippie Christians: “We use the Bible as therapy. It is as effective as anything going.” Wise adds that the Jesus kids are growing up, marrying and having children. “They are more concerned with working out their life situations as families, rather than as Gospel gypsies.” Other Jesus alumni are less noticeable because they are going to school. The new seminary at Anaheim’s bustling Melodyland Christian Center hopes its nearly 250 students will provide theological leadership for the Neo-Pentecostalists, who form a major element in the youth revival.

Jesus centers outside California are also becoming solidly established. Carl Parks’ Voice of Elijah in Spokane, Wash., is three years old and still expanding. It has a staff of 100, the Truth newspaper with a 250,000 press run and it has bought 260 acres north of town for its new headquarters. Crews of young “highway missionaries” travel cross-country. This week Parks and the group’s rock band, The Wilson McKinley, hit Iowa and Colorado.

A ten-acre former dude ranch outside Tucson became Maranatha House two years ago, and now houses 40 young evangelists and draws 600 people to weekly services. At Virginia Beach, Va., under-25s predominate in the congregation of 1,200 at robust Rock Church; Pentecostalist Pastor John Gimenez is a former heroin addict from Spanish Harlem with a sixth-grade education.

Current Diaspora. The division of the Milwaukee Jesus People last year into three new groups illustrates the movement’s current diaspora. One group became Jesus People U.S.A., 44 youths who evangelize in Chicago’s counterculture areas. Sixty others joined a tent revival called Christ Is the Answer, which, with 200 youths aboard, is now working the Midwest. The third Milwaukee segment, which numbers 70, toured Europe, then landed in a dilapidated house in South London and called itself the Jesus Family. The group was one of many youth organizations involved in SPREE ’73, a week-long mass rally in London last month that featured Billy Graham and Johnny Cash.

Abroad, the revival takes a different tone in each nation. In France, the small movement is “more meditative and reflective” than in America, says ex-Professor Brian Tatford, who operates 22 l’Eau Vive missions. On the other hand, Johny Noer says his Young Christians of Copenhagen are more activist than the Americans, combatting godless philosophies, liberal theologians, pornography and the government. In Australia, where the movement involves 10,000 youths (four years ago there were none), leaders say they want to avoid the Americans’ mistakes. John Holbertton of Melbourne’s Jesus Light and Power House thinks that many in the U.S. “didn’t realize that there is no instant spiritual fix. Instead, there’s a lot of homework to be done.”

The most remote Jesus outpost to date is run by Floyd McClung, who once worked with Youth with a Mission, a go-getting organization that fields some 10,000 part-time young evangelists round the world. McClung, a giant of 6 ft. 6 in., and a group of youths started Dilaram House in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1971. He says: “We identify with the Jesus movement in belief but not in methodology.” He means that his ministry−mostly to foreign students, many of them drug users−is easygoing, not lapel-grabbing. This is a wise policy, since Afghanistan has a fiercely Moslem regime that just tore down the only church in the nation. This month McClung was in Katmandu, Nepal, where conversion to Christianity is a crime, to check on a similar Jesus house that a colleague started last year. McClung also has a small house in Pakistan at the foot of the Khyber Pass, and last week he acquired another in New Delhi.

What is the Jesus movement doing to Christianity? A staff memo for the U.S. Catholic Conference last year raised the standard objections: It tends to be simplistic, emotional, antirational, naive and, because of the leaders’ authority over their young followers, “very manipulative.” Robert S. Ellwood Jr. of the University of Southern California, in his new book One Way, says that the Jesus movement has only converted a hundred thousand people at most. But he thinks that it has at least held a generation of evangelical youths to their churches and made this style of Christianity a live alternative again. Liberal religion is “culture-affirming,” according to Ellwood, and functions best in a stable society. By contrast, the Jesus movement epitomizes the evangelicals’ “survival Christianity,” in which alienated groups find religious stability amid social turmoil.

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