Generation Z is marked by an increasing number of “nones,” meaning people who claim no faith at all. Watchful Christian observers, then, take genuine hope in two recent notable events.
A simple chapel service at Asbury University became a round-the-clock worship service for two weeks. Described as “radically humble,” this awakening continues to spill over onto other campuses. Asbury’s president explained, “We cannot stop something we did not start.”
At the same time, theaters are playing Jesus Revolution, which chronicles the spiritual revival that caught fire in the parents and grandparents of today’s youth. It began in people involved in the drug culture of Southern California in the late ’60s but soon morphed into a mainstream youth movement found in various forms in every country on the winning side of WWII.
Might the Asbury “outpouring” be the beginnings of a similar spiritual awakening in this generation?
Why the Jesus Movement Was a ‘Revolution’
A closer look at the Jesus Movement from 50 years ago is possible now, courtesy of the popular movie that tells the story [read TGC’s review]. The film—which has earned nearly double the projected revenues at the box office—examines the early years (1968–72) of a movement that rippled out in influence far beyond those years. I came to faith during that time, but I confess I went to see Jesus Revolution half expecting to leave in the middle if it got cheesy. I ended up finding in the movie a reminder of just how inspiring that time was and how much my generation longs to see a “revolution” like this happen again.
The Jesus Movement began on California beaches. But it spread quickly to coffee houses and music venues in ordinary places like Chicago and Buffalo and in Bible study groups in college dorms too preppy to sport a hippie.
I found in the movie a reminder of just how inspiring that time was and how much my generation longs to see a ‘revolution’ like this happen again.
This massive, unexpected resonance with the ancient story of Jesus of Nazareth came in on a wave of equal parts hope and fear. These were the kids whose parents defeated Hitler. Anything seemed possible. Yet looming in the background was a hellish war in Vietnam, friends being drafted, and the general instability of the Cold War and late-1960s cultural upheaval.
Larry Eskridge, a former history professor at Wheaton College, wrote one of the first books on the Jesus Movement, explaining how this disillusioned generation began asking the Big Questions in earnest. What’s true? How do you find meaning in life? Is this life all there is?
What was notable about this revival (and evident in the film) was an emphasis on personal repentance and the need to respond to Scripture. There are a thousand untold stories. My husband was a young officer in the army in Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1970. Facing the prospect of going to Vietnam, he read the Gospel of John in one evening and, through the influence of a helicopter pilot, decided to follow Christ. My dentist friend with five generations of staid Episcopalians preceding him was moved by an experience of the Holy Spirit that led him to devote two days a week to fixing the teeth of poor people in eastern North Carolina for the next 40 years. Why? Because as he explains, Jesus told him to.
There was something beautiful about the passion of that time, as the movie effectively captures. Nearly 100,000 kids filled the Cotton Bowl in Dallas at Explo ’72. We lit candles and sang along with Andrae Crouch, “How can I say thanks?” This generation grew up in segregated schools. The Jesus Movement was our first taste of the power of the gospel to bring black people and white people into a working communion, with all its challenges. There was so much hope.
There were also real excesses. An overdraft of idealism led to disillusionment for many, as we discovered it was harder to walk out this newfound faith commitment (including the complexities of Christian unity) than it was to sing about it. Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, led the charge to “reach the world for Christ by 1980.” That seems like an embarrassing overreach now. The triumphalism of the time was more American than Christian.
The explosive growth of parachurch ministries, campus evangelistic organizations, and evangelical media organizations no doubt bore real fruit in many lives. But occasionally the excitement around these initiatives eclipsed the more mundane realities of sustained, steady discipleship in local churches (the vast majority of which never get profiled in Time magazine). Those who came to faith were often reached outside the walls of a local church and slow to discover its central importance. Still, many of today’s faithful pastors and elders received their first experiences of discipleship through the parachurch ministries that came out of the Jesus Movement. And for that we’re grateful.
Spiritual Awakenings Have Unexpected Effects
No one knows what will become of the Asbury “outpouring.” Participants on that campus, and other campuses now, report a profound sense of being bathed in the love of God. Genuine spiritual awakenings among youth have a way of rippling out in different forms than the original version.
The Jesus Movement spread to the United Kingdom with everything from coffee houses to high church Anglican expressions, John Stott being the patron saint. The Alpha course on Christian basics went around the world. Youth in Norway filled empty Lutheran state churches at night for months on end, lighting candles and singing. A Christian bikers’ group made headlines in Australia. Urbana, a large postwar missions recruiting conference for youth, was newly invigorated during this time. Many seminaries and Bible colleges experienced a huge uptick in attendance.
Genuine spiritual awakenings among youth have a way of rippling out in different forms than the original version.
Knicker-clad philosopher Francis Schaeffer founded L’Abri in Switzerland, where disenchanted college students discovered the Christian faith from a logical, reasoned place. Schaeffer’s books were so popular they created the first bidding wars in Christian publishing. Together with Harold O. J. Brown and C. Everett Koop, he fathered the budding pro-life movement, in full force today.
Chuck Smith’s original church—Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa—was the birthplace of one of the first Christian music labels, Maranatha Music. As the new film shows, the Jesus Movement spread through youth-friendly contemporary folk-rock music, and it unintentionally invented the “contemporary Christian music” industry along the way.
Differences and Parallels to Today
Todd Hunter, today an Anglican priest in Nashville, once served as president of Alpha USA and Vineyard USA. In an interview, Hunter told me that when historians look back on the 20th century, the Jesus Movement will likely be remembered as one of the top five influential religious events.
He feels the major difference so far in the Jesus Movement and the Asbury outpouring is that the first represents youth coming to faith by conversion while the latter is more about a renewal of faith already established. Indeed, it remains to be seen whether the outpouring currently happening among Christian students will spread to non-Christian spaces as well. I hope it does.
Jesus Revolution codirector Jon Erwin sees parallels between Gen Z and the generation that experienced revival in the late ’60s. Both are spiritually aware, deeply attuned to what’s authentic and what’s not. He says kids now—like kids in the ’60s—feel their own spiritual vacuum.
Also like in the ’60s, the threat of war looms. Social unrest stews. The pandemic’s disruption, partisan rancor, and the toxic dynamics of digital technology leave young people wanting more. There’s an underlying existential angst, an emptiness not easily satisfied. The “nothing matters” philosophy of the recent Oscar-winning film Everything Everywhere All at Once (a film made by a pair of millennial filmmakers) captures it well. Organized religion may be the last place young seekers are currently looking for spiritual meaning; but like their forebears in the ’60s and ’70s, it may still end up being the place they find it.
Time will tell whether the Asbury phenomenon will become a larger-scale spiritual awakening in this generation. We can hope and pray it does. If another “revolution” happens in our lifetimes, it will be a new thing shaped by God, exactly as he pleases. It will likely spread organically and take unanticipated forms. It will be led by people whose hearts God has deeply touched and whose names few of us currently know. And it will happen in places, and on timelines, none of us can predict.