Sunday, March 5, 2023

The Jesus Revolution Film “Tells It Like It – Was…”

 image from Lionsgate:

Youth, adults, and families may find themselves unsettled but encouraged by the Jesus Revolution’s positive retelling of Jesus pouring out the Holy Spirit during the time of the Jesus movement as he did at Pentecost (Acts 2:2, 33). “A true story of revival JESUS REVOLUTION was based on the real-life revival of the 1960s and ‘70s, featuring Pastor Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer), Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie), Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney), Cathe Laurie (Anna Grace Barlow), and others. It was a time of great social upheaval; a time in which many American—especially young people—were no longer willing to swallow conventional ‘churchianity.’ They longed for what was true, real, and transformational, but had been searching in all the wrong places—much like this generation” (” [1]With these modest urgings, Harvest Christian Fellowship, a church in Riverside, California, introduces what has become an important, and in some quarters controversial, chronicle of its long-time pastor Greg Laurie’s experience in the Jesus Movement.

For ourselves, we liked this film. We were both deeply involved in the east-coast Jesus Movement. From 1966 on, we were active in various ministries: street ministry, coffeehouse ministry, and even a Jesus band, writing our own songs, because, being east-coast, we didn’t hear any others playing Jesus music except what we were all writing ourselves. The first generally released Jesus songs to which we were exposed would not be for several years after we had already had a burgeoning set of our own originals filling our play list.[2] We may have known about Chuck Girard as part of the Castells of “Sacred” and “This is Love” or heard about his brief stay in the Hondells, but we’d never heard of Love Song, featured in the movie, and wouldn’t until songs from the eponymous 1972 Love Song album began to filter into our youth groups. In short, in 1966, we didn’t know anything was happening in California – and wouldn’t –until copies of The Hollywood Free Paper and Christian World Liberation Front’s Right On began to be hand out among us from travelers from the far west. All we knew was the Holy Spirit was moving in our hearts.

But we did experience the exuberance we see in this film. The mass feeling of community and bonhomie looks real to us, because it was real. In New Jersey, we may not have seen the mass fervor that the movie depicts was seen in California, but, Bill remembers, at the end of a concert we played, youth massing the front of the stage to catch Bibles we had been given by well-wishers as Bill tossed them into the crowd. The Holy Spirit, like the wind, blew everywhere. Dan Malachuk in 1967 set up Logos, the charismatic publisher (now Bridge Publishing, Inc.) in the back of his Plainfield, New Jersey, jewelry store, where Bill’s dad used to bring the family watches to be restored. Dan would give us copies of Nicky Cruz’s Run Baby Run and Merlin Carother’s Prison to Praise, which we distributed to our zealous college students when we were college chaplains, still playing in the next version of our band. Therefore, if we’re asked, was the acting too idealized and the crowds too big? No. We saw our east-coast version of that, and, though our weather in the winter limited the kind of outdoor baptisms, et al., California’s coast allowed, we still found our two coffee houses flooded with youth, one at First Presbyterian Church of Dunellen and the other in St. John’s Lutheran Church in Newark, both in New Jersey. And most exciting was not just the eager youth who came in to see what the excitement was all about, but at the center of our Dunellen coffee-house was prayer and Bible study during these summer months that its Agape coffee house was open, because our staff was our high school kids. They prayed and studied and sat at each table in our large converted church basement, amidst the posters and flashing lights, sharing the good news of Jesus as well as serving up the iced tea (nobody wanted coffee in this “coffee house” in the hot New Jersey summer). So, yes, the movie fervor resonated with our experience; it appeared real as portrayed. 

Also real was the movie’s showing that even the most well-intended leaders could have their heads turned by the attention they received and could veer off the united mission. But refreshing was that this film did not center on the cultic fringe of the Jesus Movement where young and nubile innocents could be sexually exploited by cults like David “Moses” Berg’s Children of God (Berg supposedly received guidance from a spirit guide named Abrahim), or Dr. Victor Paul Wierwille, whose anti-trinitarian The Way International, allegedly sexually exploited its members, as reported by one member, Kristen Skedgell’s autobiographical account of her sexual abuse by Wierville: Losing the Way; A Memoir of Spiritual Longing, Manipulation, Abuse and Escape.[3]

Here we also underscore something else not emphasized in the film: a solid program of discipleship. In one sequence Pastor Chuck wonders if new high school graduate Greg is ready to take over an empty church pulpit, if he feels called. While no film is able to reveal everything that happens, we are not shown what kind of training the youth is receiving. The Old Testament is written in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek. Norman Geisler would work with the leaders of Jesus People USA to veer them from heterodox ideas at their outset. As a result, Cornerstone Magazine featured exposé of a variety of divergent theologies to protect its members. Likewise, David Gill and his team set up New College, Berkeley, offering classes in Church History, Biblical Studies, Old Testament, Romans, Christianity and Marriage, and others. Under Brooks Alexander and his team Christian World Liberation Front’s Spiritual Counterfeits centered on protecting members from heterodoxy and Right On featured articles with sophisticated topics like the complete text of apologist Clark Pinnock’s debate with atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair (April 1975). In the film we do see a difference of opinion between Chuck and Lonnie on the use of healing gifts, but a glimpse of deeper training for new pastors for churches would have been helpful.[4]

Instead, Jesus Revolution, based on the actual reflections of a long-term, faithful pastor, deals with a sound Bible-believing church, and records how God can use authentic, flawed, but well-meaning people to do God’s will and bless many. Pastor Chuck Smith’s wife captures it well when Chuck is so distraught by his separation from team-member Lonnie, that his wife gently takes him in hand and asks him if he has become so arrogant that he thinks God can’t work through his failures. It’s a wonderful moment in the film and an encouragement to us all who want to please God and edify others but we can get derailed, filled with regrets at our missteps, and God can still use us. Why? She points out that the revival they are witnessing doesn’t belong to her husband, or his colleague, but it belongs to God. And, when God is at work, God can multiply our little efforts into a multitude of loaves and fishes.  

Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a 60% rating and the reviews, as usual, are mixed. Interesting to note is that the majority of the more scathing criticisms appear to come from female critics rather than from the men (though there are some men who are put off by it). For the women, perhaps, part of the core of their negative reaction may be due understandably to the lack of leadership by women displayed in the film – a lack the film makers appear to attempt to ameliorate by including a guest sequence with famed charismatic evangelist/healer Kathryn Kuhlman (who died in 1976 before the Jesus Movement was considered over by some and she is well portrayed as looking fragile in the movie). Evangelist Kuhlman has a chance to say a few words and is treated as an honored guest.

However, for many facets of the movement, the top-heavy male leadership model was accurately portrayed. After all, viewers should bear in mind that the story is basically from the viewpoint of Pastor Greg Laurie of Harvest. Even today the Harvest Community Fellowship church’s eighteen member pastoral staff is all male ( For Pastor Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel, according to reports: In accordance with Calvary's interpretation and understanding of the Bible (see 1 Timothy 3:2 and 1 Timothy 3:12), Calvary Chapel does not ordain women.”[5] As for Lonnie Frisbee, who died at the young age of 43,[6] he was active in the early years of the Association of Vineyard Churches, which “celebrate the call of women leaders in the body of Christ.” “Since the beginning of the Vineyard, women who aspired to church leadership were welcomed as prayer leaders, group leaders, and worship leaders.”[7] Since the film focused on Pastors Smith and Laurie’s on-going ministries, it reflected accurately the more male hierarchical complementarian position of their segment of the Jesus Movement.

Had the film been about Berkeley’s Christian World Liberation Front with women in leadership like Sharon Gallagher, editor of its printed voice, the newspaper Right On (which became Radix, or if the movie featured the Post American team out of Chicago, which formed the basis of Sojourners (now based in Washington, D.C.), we would have seen a more balanced view between the use of spiritual gifts by women as well as men. Noteworthy is CWLF’s Editor Gallagher writing an article for the Post-American, “The Second-Rate Rib” (August-Sept. issue, 1974), in which she deplores, “Women are kept out of status jobs by white male hierarchies, regardless of their training. Non-white men are kept out because they don’t have the opportunity to become as well qualified, in terms of education. Thus the importance of the repeated biblical injunctions to defend the stranger and the widow. The stranger today would be the non-white. The widow in the Bible was the only woman alone in a society where virtually every woman married at an early age. Thus the radicality of Paul in asserting that the highest aim in life for a woman was to serve the Lord (1 Cor 7:34)."[8] This use of her spiritual gifts she exemplified, as did the other women leaders in this part of the Jesus Movement.

Readers who want to supplement this other expression of the Jesus Revolution should read the brand-new chronicle of the Christian World Liberation Front, named aptly The Christian World Liberation Front: The Jesus Movement’s Model of Revival and Social Reform for the Postmodern Church. This book is built on primary source interviews with both female and male participants of CWLF put together by noted author Jeanne DeFazio, who previously chronicled CWLF’s guerilla theater in Berkeley Street Theatre: How Improvisation and Street Theater Emerged as a Christian Outreach to the Culture of the Time[9] a ministry in which she herself acted.

The women portrayed in Jesus Revolution were content to see their role as solely supportive of men and this is still viable in some of the complementarian churches today. In others, women have fuller ministries, some serving in a variety of ministries to women, some teaching children, some serving as deacons, or even assistant clergy in higher tradition churches. In egalitarian circles, women have complete access to all leadership positions.

This brings us to the early scene where some of Chuck Smith’s male parishioners walk out, and others don’t. Did that happen in the Jesus Movement? Yes. For instance, Bill’s folk rock band of Jesus music (e.g., “Our Rebel Lord”) was not allowed to repeat its performance at his fundamentalist home church although a band member’s nonChristian father had come to hear them. The youth pastor declared: “I never heard anything like this in Bible college!” The diaconal leaders agreed.[10]

Sometimes, too, it was even harder for women elevated to leadership. In our own experience, Aída and Bill were ordained together in 1973 by Elizabeth Presbytery of the PC(USA) at First Presbyterian Church of Dunellen, N.J. Shortly afterwards, we were invited to speak at a nearby independent church. The pastor was very supportive and we shared the pulpit one Sunday morning, each taking half of the sermon. After, as we greeted at the door, one elderly man stormed up and asked Bill why he would allow his wife, who the man identified as “under” Bill’s “covering,” to preach. The answer was: She had already earned a 3 year Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary (with a year in Philadelphia at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s campus there), was conversant with the Bible’s Greek and Hebrew text,[11] trained, and now ordained to preach by unanimous vote of Elizabeth Presbytery (ordination being the church’s official recognition of God’s calling), and was now working on her Masters of Theology degree. Unimpressed, this gentleman stalked out in a huff.

Does someone stalking out in a huff in Pastor Chuck Smith’s church because hippies are there seem real? Of course. At least our malcontent stayed to hear the whole sermon. A few years ago, we spoke in a seminary in Colombia. Several of the students were still today forbidden to be in a hall where a woman was teaching, despite the fact that Aída now has her PhD in New Testament studies from a Southern Baptist school and world-wide recognition for her high view of Scripture and the expertise the Holy Spirit has given her to interpret it. What did the students do, caught between pastor and professor? They exited the hall as the pastor told them to do (after opening the windows, so they could stand outside and lean in and thus not miss any of Aida’s lecture).[12]

What to center on in this film is the sweet fellowship that comes when the Holy Spirit is at work among the family of Christ, when brothers and sisters can dwell together in unity (Psalm 133:1) . We encourage everyone young and mature to see the Jesus Revolution, especially as we approach the celebration of Easter and Pentecost, April 9 and May 28. The drug scene, for example, was well done and harrowing enough that no thinking youth would want to waste their health on something that might end their life while nearly everyone sits giggling foolishly beside them. For the whole family, this is like seeing the book of Acts come alive. Was this film[13] fiction or is this fact? It happened and it can happen again, as we read in Acts 2, for as James the brother of Jesus tells us in James 4:8, if we draw near to God, God draws near to us. And, as this movie reveals, that’s when the miracles happen.

Bill and Aída

[1] A similar revival is now occurring at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky:

[2]The earliest we heard were by singers and groups like, Jonathan [Guest] and Charles’ Another Week to God [1968], Sons of Thunder’s Till the Whole World Knows [1968], Linda Rich’s There’s More to Living than I Know So Far [1969], Larry Norman’s Upon This Rock (1969). The pop hit, “Put Your Hand in the Hand” by Gene McLellan and performed by the Canadian group Ocean, would not appear until 1971. Campus Crusade for Christ’s Explo ’72 with its Jesus Sound Explosion album was still 3 years away from letting those of us who had to work and couldn’t attend learn about Love Song (whose album came out the same year), Randy Matthews, and some of the other Christian singers and bands. The Doobie Brothers’ (“doobie” being slang for a marijuana cigarette) “Jesus is Just Alright,” which was featured in the movie, was not released until 1972).

[3]Bay Tree Publishing, 2008. See also the website:

[4] Sometimes these unprepared pastors come later to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary to receive the knowledge and skills they missed because they have been burned out in ministry.

[6] See Greg Laurie’s blog, “The Long Strange Life of Lonnie Frisbee” (Oct 21, 2022) at


[8] Sharon Gallagher, “Second-Rate Rib,” cited in William David Spencer, “Afterword,” in Jeanne DeFazio, The Christian World Liberation Front: The Jesus Movement’s Model of Revival and Social Reform for the Postmodern Church, House of Prisca and Aquila Series (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2022), 115-16.

[9] House of Prisca and Aquila Series (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017).

[10] Listen to his recent CD entitled “Songs from the Cave, Ballads from the Papers.”;

[11] For Aida’s biblical defense of women called to ministry see Beyond the Curse (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985) and Christian Egalitarian Leadership: Empowering the Whole Church according to the Scriptures [co-editor W.D. Spencer] (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2020).

[12] The split between complementarian and egalitarian persuasions still exists, but we are not at war with each other. Christians for Biblical Equality, the egalitarian organization which we support and for which Bill served for a decade as editor of its journal, welcomes soft complementarians into its membership. A soft complementarian, Rev. Bill Iverson of Crosscounter Ministries married us, though we were already convinced egalitarians.

[13] For purists who separate movies (made to make money) and films (made for many purpose besides money), this picture appears primarily to be made to start another Jesus Revolution.  Maranatha, come Lord Jesus…