My friend Karoline and I went to see a movie this past week. We sat down and, as the lights dimmed, I was transported in the “way-back machine” to my high school days. And what a wonderful trip it was! The movie we were seeing was The Jesus Revolution. It takes place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I remember the time and the excitement well, because this was part of my experience growing up.
No, I didn’t live in California and go down to Pirate’s Cove for baptism. I was living in suburban Baltimore at the time, going to school, and having the time of my life hanging with a bunch of “Jesus freaks.” I vividly remember the Time magazine cover article on the Jesus Revolution and remember my friends and I feeling very much a part of it because it was what we were experiencing. I was a bit more traditional in some ways. I didn’t really look like the stereotypical hippie, but there were definitely big, wide bellbottoms in my wardrobe. I wasn’t new to Christianity having grown up attending church on Sunday mornings.
However, what led to the decision to follow and a devotion to Jesus was a group outside of my church. I found a home in a non-denominational group called Young Life. We gathered every Wednesday evening under the leadership of a college-aged mentor. We sang songs, told some fun stories or jokes, and then heard a short message from the leader. The clubs were gathered in name by high school although they had no affiliation with the school itself. In our case, we were from Milford Mill High School in Baltimore. While this was a predominantly Jewish school and community, there were Wednesday nights when over 100 Young Life kids from Milford came to locations that varied including my home where we all gathered in close while sitting on the basement floor. We sang. We laughed. We heard about Jesus and his word. We prayed. And then we went out full of joy and camaraderie – sometimes to go home but often stopping for milkshakes or fries before going home. It was wonderful.
Through my involvement in Young Life, I also attended a Saturday morning Bible study. We went on weekend retreats in Atlantic City (where we stayed in an old hotel at Park Place and the Boardwalk) with hundreds of other students from high schools around the city. And two summers in a row I was able to climb aboard an old, kind of beat up bus and go to a ranch in Colorado for more singing, fun, study, and friendship with teens from around the country. This also led to my becoming much more active within my church.
There was a feeling very much like that depicted in the movie. It was not the stodgy, silent worship services many of us had grown up with. This was much more alive and vibrant. This was noisy, raucous, spirited and very spiritual – even if not every church or pastor recognized it as such. This message resonated with our lives in the here and now instead of just becoming a history lesson. We dug in to read and discuss, to make sense of the words of Jesus, and to grow closer.
I was lucky to have had this as my experience in that time of “turn on, tune in, drop out.” There were no drugs or alcohol where we were and in what we did. I had really good people surrounding me. There were the kids I hung out with from school who made me feel as though I belonged to something bigger, something vital. We had club leaders like Dick Filbert and Jimmy Cross who weren’t much older than us but who were people we respected. We never thought to question or act out under their leadership whether on a Wednesday night or a long trip to the other side of the country. It was also when I met Joni Eareckson Tada who is a woman I still look to for spiritual leadership and guidance. (If you aren’t familiar with her, look up her organization called Joni and Friends or read any of her books – starting with her eponymous memoir).
Watching this movie reminded me of those days. I enjoyed the memories it brought up and it truly made me smile. It also gave me the feeling that has at times escaped me in recent years – the feeling of just loving, living for, and being excited about what God is doing.
There have been times throughout history where something radical came along to shake up the church, to wake them out of complacency, to remind them that it is Jesus at the center of faith and not their rules or procedures or attitudes. Organized religion has often gotten it wrong and needed a correction. Even before Martin Luther’s seminal publication of the 95 theses, Jesus himself upset the status quo. He angered the established religious leaders, overturned the tables the moneylenders set up in the synagogue, and threw out rules. (Remember what he said when they complained about his disciples picking some wheat on the sabbath?)
The Jesus freaks of the 20th century demonstrated a faith in action that was full-hearted and not just going through the motions of tradition. They didn’t follow the liturgy and the norm. They showed up looking very different than the average church-goer and worshipping very differently. They impacted the way the church held worship creating some things that now seem commonplace. That worship band in church that looks so normal now and in some cases even seems old fashioned or cheesy, was an outrageous, divisive idea as the church sought ways to include more people. Unfortunately some of the ways of change eventually became as stale and rigid as what they replaced or they were mere window dressing masking an unchanged place.
Multiple polls and studies have shown that church attendance in our country has declined. In fact, the number of people who self-identify as Christians has also been declining. There is a great deal being written about this movement. This past week I heard an episode of the show 1A on NPR that was a discussion of this movement and the reasons behind it.
However, there is something new happening in Christian circles. I’ve been reading, listening, studying, and finding that many others have come to the same place I came to. And I think that once again I am in a place where the “same-old, same-old” status quo within the church is being shaken up. The more I read about what is happening throughout the country, the more I think I have found my tribe again. There is a change that is growing a movement within Christianity today that has been dubbed “deconstructing.”
In her article called “Books Multiply on ‘Deconstructing Faith’” in Publisher’s Weekly, Ann Byle reviewed a number of books on the topic. In the same article she quoted Katelyn Beaty, the editorial director of Brazos Press “who calls deconstruction a ‘re-examination’ of faith, while publisher David Morris of Lake Drive Books describes it as ‘the idea that you are looking closely at the hypocrisy of your religious community, analyzing it, and refusing to participate in it.’”(Sept. 24, 2022) In other words many are examining the doctrines and practices of their religious institutions and comparing them to the actual teachings of Jesus. And they have reacted by saying the words from the movie A Knight’s Tale, “you have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting.”
What they have found are churches that have come to be centered on some ideas and practices that are decidedly not measuring up. In the worst case scenarios the world can see easily where this is true, and it causes people to judge all Christians by the few. It even causes Christians to be ashamed to be associated with some churches. The image of Christians today is very far from the old song “they will know we are Christians by our love.” Today, many see Christians as angry and violent, willing to commit many horrors and atrocities in the name of the church in an attempt to make everyone toe the line. They have become more political than spiritual and demand blind fealty. They expect agreement on all things and adherence to voting a straight party line. Many are blasting “guns, God, and country” as if the three were equal and to be worshipped accordingly.
And they often spout hatred, racism, misogyny, antisemitism, and nationalism as somehow being part of their faith. None of those traits were ever shown by Jesus. If fact, his actions and teachings are the polar opposite.
In the 1A program as well as in the reading that I’ve been doing, there are a number of things that are seen as reasons for people seeking another way to live like Jesus. Many of those who are deconstructing feel:
- the church has become a judgmental place condemning anyone and everyone who looks different, is poor, is from another background or race, or who just doesn’t “fit in” — looking right, fitting in, and playing by the rules are valued above love and above Jesus
- the church has become exclusionary and not following the words of Jesus to love everyone, to welcome all — from the hippies back in the ‘60s to the same needy and desperate folks today, people of all hues, our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and anyone who is “other”
- that the church has betrayed them by condoning, through their silence as well as through their actions and policies, violent behaviors against their own members – the women and children who have been victims of sexual assaults that have been hushed up, blamed on the victims, and allowed to continue unabated because there were no consequences. In fact, often the victim was not believed, was harassed, or was punished as in the events within both the Catholic and the Southern Baptist denominations.
- that the evangelical church has become more of a political machine promoting hate and exclusion than a true place of worship – that they are willing to be loyal to politicians who do not exemplify any of the moral values they espouse. They get behind and believe people they wouldn’t allow to teach a Sunday school class.
But just like in my youth, I have found my way to others who will follow the words of Jesus and who don’t look for everyone to goose-step to the doctrines made up by men looking to further an agenda, maintain power, or who are just so busy looking for rules to follow that they miss the ones given in Matthew 22:34-40. I read their books. I listen to their podcasts. I talk to booksellers and others who can point me in a good direction. The church I’ve recently decided to join calls themselves a Matthew 25 church and a “more light” church. That’s what we should all be. Following those two passages in Matthew will be doing what Jesus was doing here on earth and what he asked of us all. Rules and hatred will never inspire the kind of faith shown in the movie and that I remember from that period. It is the spirit of the Jesus Revolution, the Jesus Freaks, and of Jesus himself that makes the difference.
FOR FURTHER READING
Some good places to start:
- Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People and Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber
- Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again and Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church Inspired by Rachel Held Evans
- The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right by Lisa Sharon Harper
Look for books, websites, blogs, videos, and social media presence from some of the following:
- Nadia Bolz-Weber
- Rachel Held Evans
- Austin Channing Brown
- Tony Campolo
- Brennan Manning
- Brian McLaren
- Red Letter Christians
- Bishop Michael Curry
- Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil
- Lisa Sharon Harper
- Tish Harrison Warren
- Stan Mitchell
- Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church
- Hearts and Minds Bookstore
- Following Jesus :: a life of faith in a postmodern world
- Everybody Church
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