I can still smell the popcorn popping in the old carnival machine. I can remember the endless pots of coffee brewed into the evening to keep the audience caffeinated and upbeat. I can hear the warm tones of the guitars strumming a Larry Norman tune from the stage and the murmur of good friends and family as they discussed their weeks and their plans and their faith. Christian Brothers SKYLIGHT was a fellowship, a coffeehouse, a venue, and a ministry—and it was one of many that defined the Jesus People movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Reading Larry Eskridge’s impressive history of the Jesus People (God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America) is like reading a religious biography of my family in Gadsden, Alabama. Eskridge presents an intricate account of how this California-based movement that became known as the “Jesus People”—believers who adopted the dress, musical stylings, and overall vibe of the counterculture and redirected it towards evangelical/Pentecostal designs.
Like many of the coffeehouses described in God’s Forever Family, the Gadsden group started as an informal meeting of young people who sought a way to outreach to their peers in a way that seemed more meaningful than the stuffy, traditional denominational churches in town. Started by a teenager named Emory Boggs (who happened to be engaged to my aunt Irene) in 1975, Free Relationship Everlasting Enduring (FREE House) began meeting in the back of a doctor’s office but as it grew it moved into a permanent home in a downtown storefront. My parents and my mother’s brothers and sisters served as founding members of the incorporated organization and renamed themselves Christian Brothers SKYLIGHT.
Transforming their new space, they set up a stage (with the only door to the bathroom on it, making pee breaks awkward), bought some café tables and chairs, and invited the community to come eat sandwiches, drink coffee, and
One of the groups that participated in the Jesus People festivals was the Twelve Tribes. Founded by Gene Spriggs in Chattanooga (an hour or so north of Gadsden) the Twelve Tribes established communes across the United States and opened restaurants like the Yellow Deli to fund their ministry. Members would work in the deli as part of their commitment to the communal spirit of the group. Unlike Christian Brothers, Twelve Tribes drew negative attention from groups like “The Parents’ Committee to Free Our Children from the Children of God,” who believed it was just as dangerous as David Berg’s famous communal society. Accusations of child abuse and child labor brought negative press to the Twelve Tribes in several states. My uncle Dan (who married into the
Eskridge also describes the strong connections between Jesus People groups and local Baptist and Methodist Churches (and some contentions that arose over the Jesus People’s countercultural vibe and rejection of traditional hymns). My family’s church maintained a closeness with the local Central United Methodist Church and my parents served as youth pastors there for a brief time. There were times when Christian Brothers musicians played for traditional churches and congregants left in the middle of their sets in protest. But, in all, the relationship to the local congregation remained firm and served both institutions well as it provided some additional structure and teachings for Christian Brothers and drew in additional members to the Methodist congregation.
Although many of the Jesus People fellowships and coffeehouses in Eskridge’s study disband in the mid-1970s, Christian Brothers lasted until 1998. For financial reasons, the coffeehouse finally closed its doors but soon reemerged (with many of the same members) as a Vineyard Fellowship. As
This post was largely inspired by a panel discussion at the American Historical Association’s CHS panel on Kate Bowler’s book, Blessed. A topic that dominated much of the conversation involved how a Christian’s faith impacts their work. KellyBaker’s reflections on returning to church also encouraged me to consider how my religious past impacts my historical writing. While I do not subscribe to the beliefs of my family, I acknowledge that spending my early years at Christian Brothers had a significant impact on how I view the connections between various religious movements. In my current research on southern megachurches (due to be published with LSU in 2016), I can clearly see what Eskridge mentions in his study: “The rise of these new styles of evangelical music, easily accessible to anyone familiar with the larger popular culture, bespeaks another way in which the Jesus People movement has impacted American evangelicalism: the rise of the seeker-sensitive megachurch.” (8) My early exposure to music from Love Song, Larry Norman, and Phil Keaggy tuned my ear to the evolution of praise music and then the musical productions put on in seeker-sensitive megachurches. The Pentecostal leanings of the Jesus People movement also helps us see the powerful way that neo-Pentecostalism has shaped megachurch teachings and how seeker-sensitive strategies developed in these congregations. The emphasis on hip youth groups in these large churches smacks of the Jesus People emphasis on reaching young folks through familiar mediums and fun times. I’m excited to continue exploring the relationship between Jesus People and megas—and to find out a little bit more about the place of this child of Jesus People within that larger history.