Christian youth culture has become such a prominent, pervasive fixture on the American scene—witness the multi-million-dollar Christian contemporary music industry—that it may be hard to think of it as even having an origin. Yet, as we saw in a Christian History Corner, not only is the idea of a distinct, youthful way of "doing" Christianity now over half a century old, but it owes much to the energies and advocacy of the now-venerable Billy Graham.
Previously we caught a glimpse of Billy in the mid-1940s, with pastel suit and pomaded hair, delivering the gospel in between swing-band instrumentals and girl-trio numbers to crowds of bobby-soxed and zoot-suited teens. We also saw him as one of the central personalities and energetic promoters of the influential Youth for Christ organization.
Now we follow Graham into the late 1960s as, disguised in dark glasses, old clothes, ball cap, and a false beard, he joins with demonstrating youth at City University in New York. And as he sits with his wife, Ruth, at their family home in Montreat, listening intently to a collection of rock albums. And as (again disguised) he mingles and raps with the audience at a 1969 Miami rock concert, to the strains of the Grateful Dead and Santana. And as (undisguised) he takes that same stage, by invitation of the concert promoters, to tell the partying masses how to "get high without hang-ups and hangovers" on Jesus.
During those years marked by youthful unrest, we can also peer discreetly into Graham's home life, where, much to the distress of his famous father, the teenaged Franklin Graham smokes, drinks, and flouts authority. Though Billy has his "human" moments as he confronts this rebellion (he once candidly admitted that his reaction on first seeing a group of demonstrating hippies was a strong desire to "shave them, cut their hair, bathe them, and then preach to them"), yet Graham still responds to Franklin with a compassionate patience that also marks his public interaction with his son's generation.
So, for example, following him into the early 1970s, we find Graham riding in the New Year's Day 1971 Pasadena, California, Tournament of Roses Parade, where he picks up the raised-index-finger gesture and "One Way" chant of the Jesus People and echoes them back to appreciative crowds all along the parade route. And we read Graham, in his 1971 book, The Jesus Generation (Zondervan), rejoicing that the Jesus People movement heralds a new spiritual awakening for America.
Throughout this period, Billy Graham passed lightly over the stylistic eccentricities and excesses of the Jesus People and exulted over their on-fire faith—a reaction relatively rare among Christian conservatives.
At one point, Graham signaled solidarity with that generation by allowing his hair to grow down over his collar. After a TV appearance, the evangelist received a flood of negative letters for his trouble—some even enclosing money to pay for the haircut. Not every Christian was pleased with Billy's new friends and Billy's new attitude.
Graham advocated persistently for the "Jesus Revolution" in his Crusades of the early 1970s (these audiences for these crusades were made up of 60 to 70 percent young people) and threw significant support behind Explo '72, the period's "Christian Woodstock."
The age's young radicals for Christ responded in kind. At a Chicago Graham crusade in the summer of 1971, Jesus People surrounded disruptive demonstrators, praying for them, and chanting the name of Jesus to drown out their blasphemies. Later in the crusade a young suburban Chicago discipleship-group leader, Ron Rendelman, passed along the message: "Tell Billy Graham the Jesus People love him."
In short, Graham became for the youth of the Age of Aquarius what he had been for the zoot-suiters and bobby-soxers of the 1940s: not only a culturally savvy evangelist but an influential friend and advocate.
His final impact on the "Jesus Generation" is impossible to measure. But in a fascinating account of this period, "'One Way': Billy Graham, the Jesus Generation, and the Idea of an Evangelical Youth Culture" (Church History 67 from March, 1998), historian Larry Eskridge suggests a thought exercise to help us gauge that impact:
"It is tempting to speculate," says Eskridge, "what might have occurred had someone as visible and important in evangelical circles as Billy Graham actively led a fight against the Jesus People, their music, worship styles, and relational stance to the larger youth culture. Surely, such a crusade would have slowed the development of the evangelical youth culture that evolved in the 1970s and 1980s."
More positively, Eskridge argues, "Without the welcoming arms of Billy Graham and other evangelical leaders, there would have been no bridge 'back' for thousands of refugees from the counterculture—just another disillusioning hassle and prolonged battle with another facet of the Establishment." What the sympathetic advocacy of a prominent figure like Graham did was to preserve a "middle ground" upon which the day's adolescents could negotiate the "mine fields of culture and identity" that perennially confront that age group.
Graham's high-profile sojourn with the Jesus People, like his earlier efforts with Youth for Christ, helped ensure the continued growth of Christian youth culture. And it did so by smoothing the way for thousands of prodigal sons and daughters to return to the "old-fashioned" Christian faith of their parents.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
For more on Graham's role in the early Christian youth movement, see such biographies as John Pollock's Billy Graham: The Authorised Biography.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
Advent—Close Encounters of a Liturgical Kind | 'Tis the season when even the free-ranging revivalist pulls up a chair to the table of historic liturgy. (Dec. 6, 2002)
Dig that Billy Graham Cat! | How the grand old man of evangelism helped create Christian youth culture in the zoot-suit era. (Nov. 22, 2002)
From Swamped Creatures to Separated Brethren | Non-Catholics' spiritual status improved dramatically from Unam Sanctam to Vatican II, but where are we now? (Nov. 15, 2002)
An 'Ordinary Saint' in Wartime | William Wilberforce saw two long charitable campaigns through, even in war's distracting shadow. (Nov. 8, 2002)
Just War, Just Nation? | World War II preacher points America back to the nation's soul. (Nov. 1, 2002)
No Sex (Before Marriage), Please … We're Christian | Miss America preaches a 2000-year-old message. (Oct. 25, 2002)
The King Is Coming, Eventually | What if you announced the rapture, but God didn't show up? (Oct. 18, 2002)
Timeline of the Spirit-Gifted | Before Moody, Finney, Edwards, and Mather came a long line of Catholic and Orthodox believers reputed to enjoy "the promise of the Father." (Oct. 11, 2002)
Do Non-Charismatics 'Do' Holy Spirit Baptism? | Ask D. L. Moody, Charles G. Finney, Jonathan Edwards, or Cotton Mather. (Oct. 4, 2002)
Standing Alone for Unity | The attempt to bring European Christians together forced one reformer, Caspar Schwenckfeld, straight to the fringe. (Sept. 20, 2002)
9/11, History, and the True Story | Wartime authors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis help put 9/11 in perspective. (Sept. 13, 2002)
Evangelicalism's Decades of Fire | New historical survey highlights twentieth-century evangelicalism's impassioned middle decades. (Sept. 6, 2002)
A Protestant Bishop Speaks Out on the Stakes of Public Education | Why concerned parents should read the 17th-century Moravian educational reformer Jan Amos Comenius. (Aug. 30, 2002)
Spurgeon on Jabez | What history's most prolific preacher said, in 1871, about the Prayer of Jabez (Aug. 23, 2002)
History in a Flash | A new CD-ROM offers quick access to the facts of church history, plus interactive quizzes. (Aug. 16, 2002)
How the Early Church Saw Heaven | The first Christians had very specific ideas about who they would meet in the afterlife (Aug. 9, 2002)
Divvying up the Most Sacred Place | Emotions have historically run high as Christians have staked their claims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Aug. 2, 2002)