Jesus Revolution movie: ’60s turmoil, radical responses

By Rusty Wright

(This article first appeared on

Is God Dead?” a 1966 Time magazine cover asked.  A 1971 Time cover heralded “The Jesus Revolution.”  What caused this cultural shift in the radical 1960s that still impacts us today?  Kelsey Grammer stars in a new film that tells part of the story: how a hippie, a drugged-out teenager and a straight-laced California pastor linked up to bring hope to millions.

A Lionsgate film, Jesus Revolution is based in part on the book of the same name by Greg Laurie and Ellen Vaughn.  The cast includes Grammer (Frasier), Jonathan Roumie (The Chosen), Anna Grace Barlow (The Big Leap) and Joel Courtney (Super 8).

Setting: the radical 1960s

Yes, take it from a survivor:  The U.S. 1960s were radical.  Revolution was a watchword.  Antiwar demonstrations abounded.  Civil rights marches, Kennedy and King assassinations, the sexual revolution, flower children.

Better Living Through Chemistry,” originally a DuPont advertising slogan, morphed into slang for recreational drug use.  “Turn on; tune in; drop out” counseled LSD aficionado Dr. Timothy Leary.

The Beatles sang about Revolution.  The Byrds about Eight Miles HighDon’t you want somebody to love? asked Jefferson Airplane.  (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction belted out the Rolling Stones.  The film aptly depicts the ’60s turmoil, chemical influence, and music.  So, how does Jesus fit into all this?

The characters

Southern California teenager Greg Laurie (Courtney) worked hard cleaning up his alcoholic mom’s life messes.  Married and divorced seven times, she often brought her lovers home.  Greg never met his biological father until adulthood.  Distrust and cynicism clouded his prospects of finding love and fulfillment.   Alcohol, dope and LSD eased his pain.

Living in another SoCal universe was Chuck Smith (Grammer), a conservative, buttoned-down, well-intentioned, middle-aged pastor of a small church.  The ’60s culture mystified him.  His parishioners were mostly establishment adults.  Chuck thought hippies should cut their hair, take a bath, and get a job.

Lonnie Frisbee (Roumie), a meandering California mystic, became what authors Laurie and Vaughn called “just another vegetarian nudist druggie.”  But that changed when Lonnie met some hippie followers of Jesus.  He chose to follow Christ and eagerly spread the good news about his life’s new meaning and purpose.

Hippies in my church?!

Lonnie met Chuck Smith’s daughter’s boyfriend, who invited him to Chuck’s home.  The film depicts many humorous moments as the straight-laced pastor adjusts to welcoming the hippie and his new wife to live with the Smiths.  Frisbee invited strangers on the beach to join him living in Chuck’s home, then to attend his church. 

Some members freaked out.  Chuck welcomed Lonnie’s help in understanding the day’s youth.  A music group wrote and performed contemporary music.  The church grew and moved into a tent to accommodate the crowds.

Lonnie spoke at a lunchtime faith meeting at a local high school, Greg’s.  Though he was first interested mainly in a young woman, Greg’s cynicism melted as he observed the students’ joy.  Lonnie talked about knowing Jesus personally as God’s Son who had died for everyone’s sins and rose again.  Greg accepted forgiveness and friendship with God as a “free gift.”

As the 1971 Time cover story indicates, similar things were happening among university students nationwide.  Including me.  The Jesus Revolution found this skeptic in 1967 in North Carolina, with lasting results. 

Ongoing influence

The film traces Greg’s involvement in Chuck’s church, Calvary Chapel, and the trio’s growing influence, setbacks, and challenges.  I won’t spoil the details – which include Greg’s love life, Chuck’s and Lonnie’s ups and downs, and a magazine reporter’s reactions to what he observed.

The Calvary Chapel movement spread to over 1,700 affiliated churches worldwide.  Greg Laurie regularly communicates with thousands in arenas and via media.  Sadly, Lonnie Frisbee succumbed to AIDS in 1993.  Chuck Smith died of cancer in 2013. 

Jesus Revolution is an entertaining, realistic, inspiring reflection on a significant cultural phenomenon with life-altering implications.

Regarding why he accepted this role, Kelsey Grammer says, “I wanted to do something that meant something….I was almost in a minor despair about doing something of value:  ‘Does it matter?’  And then this script was delivered to me the next day.  ‘Okay [he recalls], here we go!’  … I hope people feel tearful and joyful, all at the same time, and maybe inspired to rediscover their own faith.”

Rated PG-13 (USA) “for strong drug content involving teens and some thematic elements.”   In theaters February 24 (USA)  

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

Copyright © 2023 Rusty Wright

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Editors:  Note pictures below.  For access to these and more, check here, here, here, here, here, here, and here

Jesus Revolution movie poster.
Kelsey Grammer as Chuck Smith. Photo Credit: Dan Anderson.
Jonathan Roumie as Lonnie Frisbee. Photo Credit: Dan Anderson.
Joel Courtney as Greg Laurie and Anna Grace Barlow as Cathe. Photo Credit: Dan Anderson.
Kimberley Williams-Paisley as Charlene and Jackson Robert Scott as Young Greg. Photo Credit: Dan Anderson.
Jonathan Roumie as Lonnie Frisbee and Kelsey Grammer as Chuck Smith. Photo Credit: Dan Anderson.