Religion & Liberty Online

Jesus Revolution and Generation Z’s Religious Crisis

(Image credit: Dan Anderson/Lionsgate Entertainment)

A new movie starring Kelsey (Frasier) Grammer about the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and ’70s shows how true religious growth means turning passion into concrete action.

Read More…

My initial impression of the film Jesus Revolution was a simple one, albeit a bit self-centered from a Gen-Z movie reviewer:

This isn’t a Gen-Z movie.

Rife with bell-bottom jeans, hippie culture, and portrayals of anti-government angst, the film tells the origin story of the Jesus movement of the 1960s and ’70s, particularly the growth and struggle of the West Coast evangelical group known as Calvary Chapel. “If you’re old enough to remember the 1960s and ’70s, you’ll find Lionsgate’s upbeat new film Jesus Revolution to be a walk down memory lane,” writes Kathy Schiffer for National Catholic Register—and the overwhelming amount of decidedly not-Gen-Z moviegoers in my theater clearly concurred.

Yet, by the film’s end, it was clear that my initial impression was completely wrong: This is a movie Gen-Z should definitely see, and perhaps now more than ever. In the wake of revival controversies inspired by Asbury, this is the follow-up my generation needs. It answers the question that Asbury raised: What’s the fate of religious movements built on emotion?

The Jesus movement depicted in Revolution is one formed by the tension between an old-fashioned Calvary Chapel church in Costa Mesa, Southern California, and the broken, wild-eyed, but sincere hippies Calvary Chapel feels unable to reach. Jonathan Roumie shines as the dynamic but tortured hippie Lonnie Frisbee, in stark contrast to decidedly traditional pastor Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer). Through an unlikely meeting during which Frisbee explains his passion for sharing the Gospel (dubbed the “good news”) with his fellow hippies, Smith overcomes his skepticism of Frisbee’s unorthodox ways and opens Calvary to the hippie community. At the same time, the film follows the steps of young outcast and wannabe hippie Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney), who gets pulled into the new Calvary Chapel movement by his love interest (Anna Grace Barlow) and eventually rises to become one of the most successful preachers in the Jesus movement.

Although the first third of the movie can feel exposition-heavy, the plot balances itself as the Jesus movement starts to spread throughout California. The movie pulls few punches about the substance abuse of the hippies converted by Calvary Chapel or the problems faced by the main characters, including Laurie’s abandonment issues and Frisbee’s erratic temperament and power trips (although his noted struggles with homosexuality make little, if any, appearance in the story). Through Smith’s leadership and Frisbee’s charisma, Calvary Chapel expands exponentially, outgrowing its building and spurring a cultural movement that captivated American Christians and seekers on a national level. Although Frisbee ultimately leaves for Florida over creative differences, Laurie takes over from Smith and goes on to help grow the Jesus movement, becoming one of the most influential preachers in the nation and maintaining a successful ministry to this day. The Calvary Chapel movement would expand far beyond Laurie’s own congregation, currently fueling more than 1,800 ministries worldwide.

Yet the fate of characters like Laurie illustrates why Revolution is such a crucial film for our current moment and generation. When the film begins, Laurie is a high schooler too full of wanderlust for a life highlighted by JROTC. He starts his journey with no interest in Christianity, attracted more by the ecstatic high (and romantic appeal) of the hippies being drawn to Calvary Chapel. Through a series of worship encounters, along with the sober reality of witnessing a drug overdose at one of the film’s many parties, Laurie’s burgeoning passion for the Jesus movement goes on to propel him into the spotlight of the revolution taking over his world.

The rest of Frisbee’s drug enthusiast hippie cadre, however, don’t so much follow him into Smith’s conservative church looking for better theology or a morally high-horsed lecture (the movie as a whole is remarkably low on preachiness), but for a loving group of Christians willing to incorporate them into a community. “There is a generation right now searching for God … sheep without a shepherd,” Frisbee tells Smith early in the film. “And the door of your church is shut.”

The Calvary Chapel that follows grows by the enthusiasm and dynamism of the hippie movement—some might even call it a revival. Yet what happened to that passion when it came time to build a stable institution that would survive passing fads? The psychedelic-fueled quest for meaning eventually faded, and the enthusiasm behind the initial Jesus Revolution changed. This is the message of Revolution: The passion for discipleship had to become more methodical, concrete. It couldn’t stay nebulous and free-form, not if the movement was to last. Emotion and dynamism create communities, yet building the structures capable of carrying that community forward so it would be open to the next generation takes something more.

In the end, Jesus Revolution is a Gen Z movie. Generation Z epitomizes the “sheep without a shepherd” that drive the plot of the film: They’re desperately searching for meaning yet increasingly unmoored from any institutions capable of providing it. Like the hippies of Laurie and Frisbee’s day, we’re chasing after religious sparks due to disenchantment with traditional religious communities. Religious enthusiasm like what was seen at Asbury pique our interest just like the Jesus movement did in the 1970s. Yet, if you found Asbury intriguing, Jesus Revolution is the perfect follow-up: True religious growth isn’t ultimately about one-off student revivals of the present day any more than it was about the psychedelics of the ’60s. It’s about channeling the passion of the heart into stable communities of faith (presumably orthodox or traditional faith) that last longer than an emotional thrill or acid trip. Revolution isn’t about ridiculing religious enthusiasm—it’s about how enthusiasm translates to action.

Isaac Willour

Isaac Willour is a journalist currently reporting on American politics and higher education. His work has been published in a plethora of outlets, including the Christian Post, The Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review, as well as interviews for New York Times Opinion and the American Enterprise Institute. He studies political science at Grove City College. He can be found on Twitter @IsaacWillour.