Friday, May 4, 2007

The Jesus Movement is Jesus Moving

LAST OCTOBER, Christianity Today published a 50th anniversary issue, featuring an article by historian Mark Noll on Evangelicalism entitled “Where We Are and How We Got Here.” The opening layout featured a double-page photograph which, in such a prominent spot and under such an comprehensive-sounding header, should have been some representation of the length and depth and diversity of the topic at hand. (You'd think.) The historical picture they used featured a motley group of Jesus Freaks, circa 1976, in front of an old Jesus Freak bus, holding evangelistic signs in downtown Chicago. That CT editors would let the Jesus Movement function at least in part as an icon of their movement should inspire all sorts of discussion. I’m not sure I feel qualified to lead that one, but I can talk a little about that particular group of Jesus Freaks, since I know several of them. The photo, in fact, is of a group from our JPUSA community in Chicago.

This topic under consideration with that picture, in this publication, brought up all sorts of reactions and memories in me. I remember, for example, those years we used to send a group from Cornerstone magazine to the Evangelical Press Association convention – in some ways it must have been like setting the Marx Brothers loose at a society ball. One year a bunch of us sat at a table near the front dais of some stuffy plenary session we barely made it through. I watched as this older Evangelical dignitary at our end of the stage kept stealing glances at us merry pranksters (so obviously out of place), all the while smiling and seeming, almost, like he wished he could come down from the platform and join the fun at the hippie table.

I suspect it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the Jesus Movement should necessarily flow into the Evangelical Movement — and I'm not sure all of it did. Indeed, there were wings of the latter who remained resistant if not hostile to Jesus Freaks, their music, their embarrassingly informal ways and impolite table manners. The Charismatics, on the hand, who were generally open to most everything welcomed the Jesus People (our group and the larger movement) like the Prodigals they were. Early Jesus Movement history in its language and style was very Charismatic. Some of Jesus Freaks found a home with them, and became assimilated by that culture and/or vice versa. Others, once they’d gotten in the Evangelical door, continued on their noisy way toward the mainstream. I'm not aware of any hard data on this, but it would be interesting to see the statistics on how many people who identified with the Jesus Movement in the 1970s were identifying a decade later with the Religious Right. There certainly was a mixing of culture and transformations both ways — to the point that Jesus People (in general) drove their bus right onto the front page of a turn-of-the-century history and state-of-the-union of Evangelicaldom.

The state of that union turns out to be fairly precarious just now. And the irony of that particular recognition for this specific group in the photo is that it comes just as their story seems to be back on the bus and moving with the flow of so many others out of Evangelicaldom into — whatever comes next. People don’t seem to know what to call the age following Modernity other than to affix that prefix “post”. But they do know that Modernity is over. And more and more people are feeling the same way about their identification with Evangelicalism; it no longer feels like "home," or as much as it maybe once did. The reasons range across issues cultural to philosophical to theological. There’s no question that the political situation the last few years, along with the invention of the internet, have supercharged the process. In any case, for many of us, the Evangelical word is in play.

The Jesus People (the ones in the picture) never wanted to go it alone. They joined a denomination in the late Eighties: what used to be called the "Swedish Covenant Church" but later became the "Evangelical Covenant Church." And as high profile thinkers in that denomination join the discussion, one wonders if soon enough the E word could even be in play there. So it is with some serious stake in this conversation that Cornerstone Festival has brought the discussion into this year’s festival program. We’ve scheduled a seminar entitled “Engaging the E Words: Emergent, Evangelical, and Ecclesiology.” That first word has become a buzz word and even brand name among certain sectors of postEvangelicaldom. That last is a word is one that can help structure and direct the discussion of church forms and what it means to be the church. The seminar will be led by Vincent Bacote, a professor of theology at Wheaton College, who is inclined to think the Emergents should be careful about discerning baby from bathwater. No doubt he’ll have a broad spectrum of folks to engage those E words with him at Cornerstone, and the conversation will surely not end there.

For like the man sang so long ago, “Something’s happening here. What it is, ain’t exactly clear.” Some say this Emergent thing is just a fad. But then they said the same thing about the Jesus Freaks.

1 comment:

Shlomo said...


Praise GOD. A lot of the seminar topics look really interesting to me. In fact, not too long ago I wrote a post introducing Dr. Bacote on my Xanga site ( ). I'm sure that he will generate some lively discussions both at the Cstone Fest as well as right here on this blog spot.

Thanks for inviting Dr. Bacote to this year's festival, and for including this discussion on Emergent thought and ecclesiology. This is a very timely issue, IMHO.