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Christian History Home > The Past in the Present > Story Behind > The "Praise and Worship" Revolution

The "Praise and Worship" Revolution
The Jesus People movement of the 1960s and '70s generated new kinds of music that transformed worship in evangelical churches.
Larry Eskridge | posted 10/29/2008 01:47PM

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Arguably the single biggest alteration in the life of the average evangelical congregation within the last 30 years has been the sweeping change in the music that is played on Sunday morning. Where organ and piano, formal choirs, and vocal soloists and groups once held sway over a slowly-changing canon of staid hymnody and peppy gospel songs, a flood of guitars and "praise choruses" suddenly came rushing in during the 1970s. An irresistible, grassroots, pop-culture-driven force met the immovable object of tradition and sentiment, and the ensuing years saw no shortage of conflict and controversy as a result.

In telling this history, people often conflate the rise of "praise music" with the rise of "Jesus Rock" and its later avatar, "Contemporary Christian Music" (CCM). This is somewhat misleading. While the two subsets of music both trace their origins back to the 1960s Jesus People movement, their different settings and purposes created two distinct musical trajectories. "Jesus Rock" was geared towards evangelism, apologetics, and entertainment. It owed its musical ethos to Memphis, Liverpool, and the rollicking rhythms of rock 'n' roll. "Praise" music, on the other hand, was a mellower brand of music aimed at corporate worship. It had more in common with Greenwich Village, the spirit of the folk hootenanny, and the ambience of a prayer meeting.

Reaching out to teens and hippies

In the late 1970s, Hiley Ward, the religion editor of the Detroit Free Press, took a nationwide tour of Jesus People communes and houses and observed that the young "Street Christians" were preoccupied "with new music." Ward was mystified by the absence of the old canon of sacred song in their midst: "Rarely do you hear any of the old-time hymns. They write their own."

While musical change was everywhere in Jesus People ranks, some key developments centered around one of the movement's earliest and most influential centers, Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California. Under the leadership of its pastor Chuck Smith, the modest Pentecostal church took on a young hippie named Lonnie Frisbee as a missionary to the youth of Orange County. By the middle of 1968, the church was filling up with barefoot, blue-jean-wearing kids, and dozens of hippies and teenage runaways inhabited a string of communal homes sponsored by Calvary Chapel with names like the House of Miracles and Mansion Messiah.

The ministry of the "hippie preacher" Frisbee and the warmth and Bible teaching of "Papa Chuck" were winning converts, but one aspect of the Calvary Chapel experience that proved less appealing was its musical diet of traditional gospel songs and hymns. John Higgins, one of the co-leaders of the youth contingent (and later the founder and leader of the nationwide Shiloh commune), remembered that early-vintage Calvary Chapel music was hardly "something that made you just leave and go into another world." In fact, he found it "boring" and admitted that despite his zeal for his newfound faith he would sometimes come late "just to avoid the music."

A new brand of church music

Meanwhile, an exciting, spontaneous musical movement was beginning to emerge within the communal Jesus houses in Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, and Riverside. "We sang every day," Higgins recalled; "people were making up new songs all the time." And the new songs were not chained to the traditional conventions of hymnody; members were writing gospel lyrics "to things like Coca Cola commercials." By June 1968, Higgins estimates, guitars were making regular appearances in Calvary Chapel's services, along with some of the songs grown in the communes.

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