Jesus Music

The Jesus Movement gave birth to the music that helped shape contemporary Christian music in the U.S. It gave Christians a new way to express themselves through folk, psychedelic, and rock and roll music. Wenei Philimon looks into the birth of the Jesus Music, some of its pioneers and its influences.


00:00 – 00:49//WENEI PHILIMON//:

By the early ‘70s, Jesus Music, which is a genre of Christian music that came out of the Jesus Movement, was impacting the lives of those who listened to it. Keith Green, one of the pioneers of the Jesus Music, held concerts across the U.S., where many vowed to live their lives for Jesus. 

Mark Roberts, who was 18 years old at the time remembers driving 20 miles to Mobile, Alabama. It was April 8th, 1982 and excitement filled his veins as he got closer to seeing Keith Green. He arrived four hours early and raced to the very front row. 

(SOUND EFFECT: Highway Traffic Loop by Sound Jay) 

00:50 – 01:08 // MARK ROBERTS//: 

It’s probably the only concert I’ve ever been to that I actually remember the date. We sat on the front row, right in front of him, just a few feet from him. The piano was on the edge of the stage and I will never forget, he came down during the concert on several occasions and he sat on the edge of the stage and just talked.

01:09 – 01:19 //WENEI PHILIMON//: 

Keith believed that no one should miss out on the gospel experience due to money. He played about a dozen songs at his free concert and encouraged listeners to do more to spread the gospel. 

01:20 – 01:45 //MARK ROBERTS//:

It was a very positive concert. It was a very challenging concert. And basically, he was challenging us to look in the mirror and say, ‘Okay, what are you doing to make a difference in the world for Christ? How is the world coming to know Christ because of who you are?’ And so we left that in kind of stunned silence. I remember that night, we just kinda walked to the car and it was a transforming moment for me.

01:46 – 02:00 //INTRO// MUSIC//:  I’m Wenei Philimon and this is ‘Till Shiloh Comes,  a podcast about the Jesus people, their music, and the movement. 

(MUSIC: Everything has a Beginning by Joel Cummins)

02:01 – 02:56 //WENEI PHILIMON//: 

Music played a significant role in the lives of hippies during the late ‘60s and throughout the early ‘70s. Psychedelic and rock music gave them a way to express themselves while experimenting with drugs. Then, with the rise of the Jesus Movement, Christians began to mix similar music genres with biblical concepts.

“The Jesus Music” documentary’s historian John J. Thompson said the Roman Catholic Church, the Vietnam War, and the civil rights movement were the building blocks for the Jesus Music. It all began with the Roman Catholic church when the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council removed obstacles between people and worship. This change included worshiping in your native language and the usage of other instruments outside of the pipe organ in Mass. This led to Catholic musicians leading the way for future Christian artists. 

02:57 –  04:36 // JOHN J THOMPSON//

Since the late ‘50s, this move towards more spiritually dynamic worship led a lot of people to also try to love their neighbor better. So, religion became something more social and music definitely fueled some of the biggest early Jesus music songs. Songs like Pass It On…Every Christian in the world was singing that song at youth group, and at rallies and at campgrounds. It was a massive global song, but it wasn’t connected to any artist. It wasn’t a record that was a hit. It was just a song. The version they knew the most was the version that they sang with their Bible study group, right? So, Pass It On was one. A song called They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love was a huge-huge song. Those both came out of the Catholic community and they came out before and then kind of fueled the beginning of the Jesus movement. So, when you think about movements, maybe think about the civil rights movement in the early 60s, music whether it was the spirituals songs they sang Down by the Riverside, you know, they would kinda take biblical imagery and turned it into anthemic song, or if it was Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye, people singing songs about social issues. Music, for lack of a better term, marketed the movement. Music fueled and keep those feelings going whether they’re positive or negative, so protest songs can keep you angry about the things that need to be changed. Praise songs and worship songs can keep you feeling emotionally connected to God as your hope. So, the Jesus music that came out early on was much more about the songs than about the artists.

04:36 – 05:41 //WENEI PHILIMON//

While hippies were making music that fueled the Jesus Movement, church leaders said folk, psychedelic, and rock music made Christians look like they were assimilating into the world. 

When musician Larry Norman brought Christian rock in as a way to worship, his friend Ed Weyman, said it was hard for the church to accept it. Ed helped start a communal house in Los Angeles with a group of Christian musicians, including Larry. 

05:03 – 05:42 // ED WEYMAN // 

When the music came in the church, I think the best example is Larry Norman. Well, he even wrote songs about that, you know, how they didn’t like him, cause he had long hair and had played the guitar. He was like the Christian Bob Dylan. It was a slow conditioning process, but Larry bridged the gap and Larry did it as an individual performer. As young people grew older, they accepted music more. But we found the music was the absolute most important thing for gathering a group. You know, if you just went in the park, two guys got the guitar out and started playing some music and then somebody grab a little conga drum or something, you know, that would start things going.

(SOUND EFFECT: Kids Playing in Park Ambiance by Sound Jay, Ethnic Conga Drums by Hollywood Edge)

05:43 – 05:50 //WENEI PHILIMON //:

Larry, whom scholars labeled the “Father of Christian rock,” once said that churches stopped playing his music once they discovered it was him.

05:51 – 06:43 //JOHN J THOMPSON//:

Larry had a couple of interesting things like, he had a song called, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” which was an anthem of the Jesus Movement cause it was basically like, ‘You better get saved or we’re all gonna get sucked up to heaven and you’re gonna get left behind,’ and it was terrifying. I mean, the song was very powerful but very scary. So, controversy was part of his brand. He knew that rock and roll was a big part of the appeal was that it was dangerous. And so between his hair and his clothes and singing about venereal disease and stuff in his songs, he knew that he was going to be scrutinized and rejected and it made him cooler. It was very calculated. I’m not saying it wasn’t authentic, but it was definitely–he knew what he was doing. He was very image-conscious and one of the things that Larry said that I think is true, although I’m not sure how comprehensive he was thinking about it, was when he would say regularly,   ‘Rock and roll isn’t the devil’s music; rock and roll started in the Church.’ 

06:44 – 07:04 //WENEI PHILIMON//: 

Larry believed he was stealing rock and roll back for the church by creating Christian rock and roll. However, there was no market for this, considering churches rejected it. And unlike non-Christian music, which spread through radio, MTV, Top 40–Jesus Music primarily spread through coffee shops and word of mouth. 

07:05 – 7:48 //JOHN J THOMPSON//:

Coffee houses were to the Jesus movement kinda like what record stores are. The bands would sell tapes or records of their show, so it was actually where you could get music. But, really, it was about the fact that these Christian coffeehouses popped up around the country. So, that meant that artists had a place to play. Churches weren’t welcoming in rock music or even folk music at first. And you know, if you just went and played at a regular club, they probably don’t want to hear you sing about Jesus there. Then it was just very underground. You just had to hear about it. So you hung out with me and we went out for coffee and I was like, “Hey, have you heard the new John Michael Talbot record?” You’d be like, “no, what’s that?” And I’d play it for you, and then you would become a fan, and then you would tell your friends, but there was not a lot of or any mass media for it.

07:49 – 08:24 //WENEI PHILIMON//:

With Time Magazine labeling 1967 as the year of the evangelicals and politics at play, there was now a market for Christian music. “Contemporary Christian Music” magazine, later changed to Christ Community Music, also came out in the late ‘70s and reported on Christian musicians. 

There are many stories similar to that of Mark Roberts, who after attending a Keith Green concert, life was completely transformed by what he heard. Mark followed his convictions and entered into full-time ministry while attending college and later became a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force.

08:24 – 08:42 //MARK ROBERTS//:

Fortunately for me, a lot of my friends really liked it. So we encouraged each other and we shared music and it just became a real encouragement to my faith. It was a part of the ministry that God called me to because it had that big of an impact on my life. I’m not sure I’d even be in ministry today if that had not happened.

08:42 – 09:19 //WENEI PHILIMON//:

Through listening to Jesus Music, Mark found his calling and later spent years in the military inviting musicians to perform at the Air Force base. But, as the younger generation grows up, contemporary Christian music has gained momentum and Jesus Music is fading away with its artists. Nevertheless, those similar to Mark can never forget the people who paved the way for Christian music and who have helped strengthen how they worship.

(MUSIC: Everything has a Beginning by Joel Cummins )