Many Jesus people still follow faith

Woodstock 1969

Many Jesus people still follow faith

Paul Asay - The Gazette (Colorado Springs)

Armin Sommer was a bushy-haired, pot-smoking, draft-dodging college student back in 1973. He was sleeping with his girlfriend, playing with Ouija boards and driving his parents crazy.

Then the Jesus Freaks got him.

He’s a man of God now, pastor at Pulpit Rock Church. Nearly 35 years ago he dumped the pot and picked up the Bible. And, while he may not look it, he’s a Jesus Freak now, too.

“It completely changed my life,” he said. “It really did.”

Sommer was caught up in the Jesus Movement, a tie-dyed Christian revival that clattered across the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They called themselves Jesus People and they were all about ocean baptisms, groovy folk rock and taking the Gospel to the streets. Many of those who were part of the movement — unlike most of their secular, Woodstock-going contemporaries — still practice what they preached.

“A lot of my friends, they went on staff for Campus Crusade for Christ, or became missionaries or pastors,” Sommer said. “I can probably think of 40 or 50 right now that are in full-time Christian services.”

The Jesus Movement took root in the late 1960s on the West Coast. It looked, at least superficially, like the broader counterculture movement: Jesus Freaks were hippies for God.

Jesus, with his long hair and sandals, would’ve fit right in.

Paul Harvey, an American history professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said the Jesus Movement was an effort by evangelicals to take their message to the counterculture.

“I just think they understood that their product, if you will, needed a different movement,” said Harvey, who focuses on American religious history.

But according to Duane Pederson, who edited the Hollywood Free Paper — the Jesus Movement’s most influential underground newspaper — this wasn’t just a counterculture add-on.

“The Jesus Movement was something separate, struggling to be born at a time when the dream of the Sixties was dying and the shallow, cynical Seventies were moving in to take its place,” he said via e-mail. “But it’s really a product of neither.”

Pederson was ministering to prostitutes and drug addicts in Hollywood when he started the paper in 1969. Pederson and his friends handed out the first 10,000 copies themselves.

Like most Jesus People, his goal was to introduce folks to Jesus, because he’s the best friend they’ll ever get, he says.

“It wasn’t about political or social agendas,” he said. “It was about Jesus and his life in us and centering our lives around his teachings.”

The movement took off. Jesus Freaks preached on street corners and in coffee houses, and they baptized new believers at surf points. Some participated in peace marches and formed communes.

If 1967 was the Summer of Love, 1971 was the Summer of Jesus. The movement snagged stories in Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Look and Time. “Jesus is alive and well and living in the radical spiritual fervor of a growing number of young Americans who have proclaimed an extraordinary religious revolution in his name,” trumpeted Time in a June 1971 cover story. “Their message: the Bible is true, miracles happen, God really did so love the world that he gave it his only begotten son.”

The Hollywood Free Paper was distributing 200,000 copies by 1971. Christian music was taking off, with folk-rock artists mouthing God-centric lyrics. Broadway rolled out “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell” — a musical based on the Gospel of Matthew.

The army of Jesus radicals was a downer for folks who just wanted to be left alone. Sommer was one of them. He was quite content with his life in the early 1970s as a music major at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. — college being a handy ploy to keep him out of the draft. He dabbled in lots of faiths, growing increasingly interested in the occult. He had a steady source of drugs. “I think I smoked dope just about every day,” he said.

But Jesus Freaks infiltrated the college, including his own fraternity house. Some frat brothers began to “share the Gospel” with him.

“We made fun of them,” Sommer said. “We thought it was hysterical.” But he also grudgingly respected them. “There was a potency in their lifestyle that was unmistakable.”

In the summer of 1973, Sommer became a Jesus Freak. He kicked the drugs and lost many of his old friends. He evangelized all the time, leading several of his frat brothers to God.

The Jesus Movement was fervent, but not long-lived. By the mid-1970s, it was fading. Jesus Freaks dropped the love beads and left the communes. The Hollywood Free Paper stopped publishing in 1975.

Some dismiss the whole thing as a fad.

Not Pederson. “The lasting impact of the movement is in the lives of those individuals who were a part of it and have stayed true to Jesus all these years. “Do they, and the people whose lives they have touched and continue to touch, think differently about God? Undoubtedly, and many of them write and tell me so.”

Harvey and Pederson agree that the Jesus Movement had a big impact on contemporary American Christianity. Most notably, according to Harvey, is the music.

Groups such as Love Song and 2nd Chapter of Acts opened the door to rockin’ contemporary Christian music artists such as P.O.D. and Switchfoot. Harvey said the informal dress found in many of today’s churches can also be traced to the movement.

But for Pederson and Sommer and many involved in the movement, the influence goes far deeper. Sommer — one of several Colorado Springs pastors who owe their faith to the Jesus People — said that he wants to bring God’s message to new generations in new ways, much as the Gospel was brought to him.

And Pederson believes that, for many Jesus People, the movement was the first time they felt connected.

“I believe the Jesus Movement was a spontaneous, miraculous stirring of the Holy Spirit in the lives of thousands of young people across the U.S. and Canada and ultimately around the world,” Pederson said. “That’s no fad.”