Why "The Jesus Movement" movement does not always ring true.

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has made "The Jesus Movement" a rallying point and a touchstone for an important effort to focus in on a way to see the work of the Episcopal Church as a continuation of the work to which Jesus calls us, a call presented in the Gospels and the writings of the early church.  That "Jesus Movement," explores, meditates upon, and acts on, the core message of the Gospel, by a "drilling  down" to find strategies and agendas for this day. It is immediately and eternally important to the life of any Christian community. 

I am thankful that the Presiding Bishop has so clearly announced that he and this church of ours need to cling to the movement that Jesus proclaims by his words and actions, and by his death and resurrection.  So something like The Jesus Movement is indeed at the core of our life together in Christ.

The Episcopal Church, by way of the vision and insights of the  Presiding Bishop, has defined "The Jesus Movement" in the following way (from HERE).
What is the Jesus Movement?
 We’re following Jesus into loving, liberating and life-giving relationship with God, with each other and with the earth.
How do we join?
First, we follow Jesus. We are simply the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, seeking every day to love God with our whole heart, mind and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). Just like Jesus.

What’s our work?
We’re working on simple practices for each priority area – if it’s a Movement, then we should all be able to grasp the ideas and get on board. Then we’re mapping a strategy that inspires and equips all of us to join God and make a difference.

The Jesus Movement takes you places. For the Episcopal Church, it calls us to focus on three specific Jesus Movement Priorities: (Evangelism, Reconciliation, Creation Care)"

All of this is of course shorthand for a much more nuanced set of connections between being a follower of Jesus and a member of a movement. But it is a start.

There are problems, however, with the whole enterprise - the enterprise of understanding the work of the church as the work of the Jesus Movement (however conceived):

It is unclear who speaks for and who, if anyone, governs this movement, except of course Jesus. And, as you may recall, Jesus has returned to the Father, leaving governance of his community in the hands of the Holy Spirit.  It is unclear just how that Spirit acts in the Movement, and who speaks authentically with the Spirit's voice. 

This is not the first American expression of "The Jesus Movement."   The PB did not invent the phrase, "The Jesus Movement." There was a "Jesus Movement" which grew in the 1960-70's and which had considerable impact at the time and then subsided." (See the Wikipedia article HERE.) That Jesus Movement had local presence in Ann Arbor in 1968-72  while I was chaplain at the U. of Michigan. It was a very mixed bag indeed. It was both counter cultural and charismatic, communal, sometimes with authoritarian leadership. It was attractive and repulsive at the same time. This version of "The Jesus Movement" viewed being a member of an established church community (The Episcopal Church for example) as apostate.  It claimed to have the Spirit's voice in ways not available to the established church. I listened, but was not moved very much.

Surely this is not what the Presiding Bishop means by "The Jesus Movement." Still, when I hear people talk about "the Jesus Movement" with great facility and fluidity I become cautious and suspicious. The last Jesus Movement viewed my being an Episcopalian a visible sign of my being apostate. There was no "Episcopal branch" of that Jesus Movement then. This Jesus Movement seems more inclusive.

Having been accused of a "hermeneutic of suspicion" I am hesitant to voice my suspicions, but they are there.

My sense is The Jesus Movement (in both the 60's incarnation and in the present) is both life giving and also life absorbing, both enlivening and costly.  It seems a rallying phrase not to be used lightly or without cause.

Yet there is a lot of "climbing on the band-wagon" going on in the Episcopal Church these days. The phrase "The Jesus Movement" is invoked with considerable abandon, and I wonder about the sincerity of the invocation and wonder if those who lay claim to being part of the Jesus Movement have any sense of the costs of doing so.

Part of the problem presented by the "Jesus Movement" idea is that it is about personal life choices - choices to live in "liberating and life-giving relationship with God and each other and with the earth." At the same time the Episcopal Church, which is a institutional entity, is identified by its leadership as "the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement." But that is not true. The Episcopal Church is not the branch of The Jesus Movement. It might be the institutional tool for some people who are part of the Jesus Movement, but a church is not the incarnation of a movement.

It may very well be that some or even most Episcopalians see themselves as part of "the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement." If so they can move The Episcopal Church to institutional actions that support strategies held by those in the Jesus Movement. But we should be clear, the strategies are those of the Movement, not necessarily those of the Church. 

I find the whole notion that membership in Episcopal Church somehow means we are "a branch of the Jesus Movement"  problematical. The Jesus Movement is extra-ecclesial, that is it is not part of any church, rather churches are seen as institutional instruments for the furthering of the Jesus Movement's strategies and goals. That seems as true now as it did for the Jesus Movement of the 60's.

Beyond the question of the relation between "The Jesus Movement" of five decades ago and  the Presiding Bishop's "Jesus Movement," there is the question of how the Presiding Bishop's call to follow Jesus is picked up by church based media and how it is roundly applauded by various church sorts who in all likelihood have no intention of moving very far from the safety of the institutions of the church to take on movement status.

My diocese is in the midst of choosing a new bishop. Both its profile and the responses of many of those nominated reference The Jesus Movement as promoted by the Presiding Bishop.  The Jesus Movement, of which we are understood to be the "Episcopal branch," is similarly referenced by a number of dioceses and parishes around the country. All of which is fair enough, and indeed a sign that the Presiding Bishop's words have taken hold. Still, it is worth pointing out that the "we" in "we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement," is not the Episcopal Church, but rather some of its members. And, in my local situation, I find it odd to think of the Diocese, in which I have served for 48 years, as a movement.

We live in a world where it remains true that " “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven."(Matthew 7:21, NRSV) And, I suppose, not everyone who claims to be part of The Jesus Movement will enter either. Doing the will of the Father remains. And that will is larger and more life demanding than movement strategies of evangelism, reconciliation and creation care, or any other strategies.

Take care, lest the movement take the place of the Spirit, who as I remember, works through the Church, around the Churches, over the Church and Churches and underground, beneath every attempt to wall it in. May we always be moved by Jesus, and always moved beyond any movement, institution or cause.


  1. Thank you. There's another discourse in which the "Jesus Movement" has played a role and that is New Testament scholarship. it was deployed by scholars to distinguish the "authenticity" of Jesus and his followers from the institutional church that emerged later. In fact, in order to survive, "movements" need to develop structures.

  2. How is the Jesus Movement for The Episcopal Church different from business as usual? I have no idea.

  3. It may be helpful to understand that when you were at the U of M, the PB was just down I-75 in Lockland, Ohio. Perhaps he also remembers the movement to which you refer and is trying to place a particular institutional spin on his remembrance of those days. That said, I find that deep within there is a lot of what you have written that resonates with my own misgivings. For 44 years I have been a part of "that great cloud of witnesses" who make up the heart of the church catholic. I have not been a part of a movement, but a part of the living body of Christ in this age. I, too, am suspicious of movements for many of the same reasons you have illustrated. Movements take on a life of their own and that life, over time, may evolve further and further from the original purpose of the movement as membership and leadership exert their own understanding on the organization. I will continue to remain on the fringes of movements and focus instead on living an other focused life as set forth by the example of our Lord.

  4. Oh dear, more buzzwords, more slogans,....

  5. My problem with the phrase Jesus Movement is that the Jesus Movement is fine and will be fine. It's the Episcopal Church that is dying, and dying from a lack of confidence in its identity as a Denomination that itslf has value.Thus,few care if it exists beyond this generation.

  6. Splendid article, Fr Mark!


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.