‘Jesus Revolution’—A Movie and a Movement

By Diane Howard, Ph.D.

In the 1970’s, in the wake of the turmoil of the 60’s with the war in Vietnam, anti-war protests, assassinations, a Jesus Movement swept the nation. This was not only the age of hippies and psychedelic drugs; it was also a time of darkness, despair, and division. But in this darkness the Light shined, and many came to the Light to be transformed for eternal Good. They confessed their sins and received Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, who forgave their sins and led them into new and beautiful lives for eternity.

I lived during that time and was transformed eternally, as were many by that Light.  

The movie Jesus Revolution honestly tells the story of how a host of hippies during the early 70’s found the true love, meaning, and community they were seeking through a personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ and were eternally transformed after a college campus awakening. The movie is authentic and gritty in sepia tones that characterized that time. It honestly presents overcoming as well as the flaws and failures of the characters. It depicts a Christian awakening that is transforming in the midst of human messiness. It features the following Joel Courtney, Anna Grace Barlow, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Jonathan Roumie, and Kelsey Grammer.

It was directed by Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle, written by Jon Erwin and Jon Gunn, and produced by Kevin Downes, Jon Erwin, Andrew Erwin, Josh Walsh, Daryl Lefever, and Jerilyn Esquibel.

Inspired by a real movement, Jesus Revolution is the story of how grungy hippies experimenting with dangerous practices find new and abundant life. It follows the story of a young Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney) who is being reared by his struggling mother, Charlene (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) in the 1970s. Laurie and a host of young people descend on sunny Southern California to find Truth through potentially dangerous means of so-called liberation. Greg Laurie meets Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie), a charismatic hippie-street-preacher, and Pastor Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer) who have thrown open the doors of Smith’s languishing church to a stream of wandering youth. What unfolds is a great spiritual awakening.  Rock and roll, newfound love, and a twist of faith lead to a Jesus Revolution that turns one counterculture movement into a revival that changes the world.

What’s interesting (and a ray of light in our present volatile time), Jesus Revolution is now part of a growing new Christian awakening...not unlike the very revolution that the film chronicles. The audience response since the movie opened has been overwhelming. This movie, released by Lionsgate and Kingdom Story Company, took in an estimated $15.525 million the first (including pre-release awareness screenings), significantly over-performing pre-release tracking. Before the weekend, estimates for the film showed the film opening in the $6-7M range.

With a 99% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and an A+ CinemaScore, Lionsgate and Kingdom targeted the faith community, and the opening weekend audience at 2,475 North American theaters was 59% female and 89% 25+. The film is positioned solidly with faith-inspired moviegoers. With no other new titles for this underserved audience currently in the marketplace, Jesus Revolution has a long runway to connect with its core audience and perhaps expand even wider. The film is well positioned to become a solid hit for Lionsgate and Kingdom Story Company.

The film also set a record this weekend: the release of Jesus Revolution marks the first time in history that a director (Jon Erwin) has scored four A+ CinemaScore Grades since the company publicly released the results in 1986.

“Jon Erwin has now achieved four A+ CinemaScores, more than any other filmmaker since we have been compiling data,” said Harold Mintz, President of CinemaScore, “For a director to achieve that accomplishment once is a rarity. But to hit that mark four times is not only an incredible distinction — it’s unprecedented. Congratulations to Jon and Brent McCorkle and the entire team at Kingdom Story Company.”

Jon Erwin’s four A+ CinemaScore films are:

  • I Can Only Imagine (with Andrew Erwin)
  • American Underdog (with Andrew Erwin)
  • Jesus Revolution (with Brent McCorkle)
  • Woodlawn (with Andrew Erwin)

I have had the privilege of interviewing Jon and Andrew Erwin on numerous occasions.

In an interview with Jon Erwin for their movies I Can Imagine and The King of Cool about Steve McQueen, I asked Jon some of the following questions that related to these movies and to all their projects:

DH: What new insights have you learned since the making of “Woodlawn?

JE: I have learned the unique power of the true story that no one can refute. True stories of lives changed have power and are emotionally relatable. Stories of changed lives, redemption, and reconciliation provide hope. I have also learned that it is okay to be original as a filmmaker.  There are different kinds of ministries and film-making projects. Our films are outreach projects as we partner with churches.

DH: What have you learned recently about the importance of relevant themes?

JE: We need relevant and relatable themes. Our work should be personal. We must be moved personally by what we are working on. We must personally relate to it.

DH: What revelations did you learn about God through your projects?

JE:  God is a storyteller. He writes our stories.  What He creates is for Good. We need to let Him write our stories and to give us a voice.

DH: What has surprised you recently about how God works?

JE: God is Good. He gives value to our pain. He gives us voices. We learn more in failures.

DH: How is God working through faith-based films today?

JE: We are the first generation to be able to fulfill the Great Commission to take the Gospel to the whole world…we now have a new digital highway to reach the world. Movies can get into closed societies with the Gospel.

DH: How do your films offer the message of hope?

JE:  We learn that we can’t mess up life beyond redemption. Beauty can come out of ashes.

DH: How do your projects demonstrate redemption?

JE: Redemption means to buy something back. No matter what you have done or experienced it can be bought back.

DH: What have you learned about the art of filmmaking?

JE: It is a powerful form of communication. It wins hearts first and provides then a logical catch bucket. Stories must be emotionally relatable and then they can be explained, just as Jesus role modeled. They can make us crave on an emotional level then prepare us to learn. Stories need to appeal emotionally first then can be logical. The appeal needs to be to the heart first then the head. Movies are a new way to do an old form of storytelling and teaching.

In an interview with both Andrew and Jon Erwin for their movie I Still Believe I asked some of the following questions that applied to this film and their projects in general:

DH: What is a central theme in this movie?

Jon Erwin: A central theme is that of selfless love. Teens tell us they want to be loved like that. All want to be loved like that. This selfless love picturizes the sacrificial love of the Gospel.

DH: Hope is an important theme in this movie. Why is that theme important today?

Andrew & Jon Erwin: Today people are craving hope. We want to give audiences the rush of hope that we have experienced when we have come across stories like the ones we have presented in our movies. 

DH: How do your movies show how God is good, even amid human suffering?

JE: A big question today is why does God allow suffering? In our movies we see that in our greatest difficulties and pain we find purpose. God writes our stories through which He gives us voices to millions.  

DH: Why is “I Still Believe” timely?

A & JE: It is about the power of love. The younger actors especially appeal to younger audiences who want innocent love and hope. They want something to believe in.

DH: Why do you cast well-known, respected veteran actors and artists, as well as young talent in youmovies?

A & JE: We want to make movies with multi-generational appeal that bring a range of ages together. We want to make movies for families where everyone can share the experiences. We cast older veteran actors who appeal to older and wider audiences, as well as young talent who will appeal to young audiences.   

DH:  Many of your movies have been autobiographical. What is the power of telling a story based on true events?

AE : In Woodlawn, we found our voice for filmmaking with true stories. We found that movies based on real stories reach those outside church walls. We found that it is hard for viewers to debate true stories. 

DH:   Why do you tell honest, authentic, redemptive stories in film?

JE:   Audiences crave authenticity in movies. For us, we view our work as a sacred trust to present accurate portraits of real people. We want integrity in our films. 

DH:  What are some of the most important elements of a good, impacting movie?

AE: Good movies need to be authentic. Christian filmmakers need to tell real stories and the Gospel will emerge.

DH:  What advice would you give Christian filmmakers?

Their movies need to come from the maturing process of the filmmakers as they patiently find their own voices in telling real stories. I have been working at this process for years. Filmmakers need to keep dreaming and keep maturing. 

DH: What do you see happening with redemptive movies today?

A & JE: Christianity is making a resurgence. There is a developing spiritual revival and awakening going on around the world. God is also working in Hollywood. Storytelling through film is a key aspect of the redemptive work He is doing there, and out into the world.  

From another interview with Jon Erwin for their movie Woodlawn, Jon shared insights that continue to impact their ongoing films:

DH: This story involves racial tension, evangelism, and high school football. If you were asked to extract one point from each of those areas to highlight from the film, what would they be?

JE: What unifies those elements together is that this is a story about hope, on and off the field. It is a story about hope and the gospel, of tearing down racial barriers and racial tension. It is about the love of Christ overcoming hatred. We need hope: we are in this time of desperation.

Recently, I was in Dallas and we screened the film (Woodlawn) for several hundred kids at Prestonwood and hundreds of high school kids rushed the stage after the film to make a decision for Christ. Fellowship of Christian Athletes held several pre-screenings for us and we had many reports of where half of the room stands up at the end of the film to accept Christ.

I remember speaking with Governor Mike Huckabee about his experience as it pertains to the Sean Astin scene with the candles, the One Way. That is Huckabee’s personal testimony, he was 16, I believe, and was saved at a Jesus Movement, as my dad was. I asked Mike, “How much did desperation have to do with this, with what became known as the Jesus Movement?” And he said, “It was everything, that generation—we were desperate, we needed answers. You know, free love, rock and roll, drugs; it didn’t work and the world was scary. It was out of the desperation that the Jesus Movement was born.”

I told him I feel like the desperation is back for the first time in my lifetime, my generation is seeing that sense of unrest and cultural desperation. What an opportunity for the gospel to have another Jesus revolution. In fact, the cover of Time magazine a few issues ago was of Baltimore, and it had 1968 scratched out and replaced with 2015, so we are in one of those same moments. It amazing to see a film of a true story from forty years ago be so relevant today. It is my hope that God can use it at this time to say this is a true story that points to the true answer for the things we are wrestling with in today’s culture.

DH: You have mentioned the possibility of another Jesus Revolution around the corner. Do you believe this film could be the catalyst for that?

JE: I do believe that Woodlawn could be a part of sparking another Jesus Revolution, and we are betting everything on that. I believe it is something that God is already doing and that he has called us to be a part of it. One of my favorite quotes is, “Stop asking God to bless what you are doing, just find out what God is doing and get involved in it because it is already blessed.” It’s fairly simple, we believe God is moving and he is moving in a big way.

I spoke to the 14,000 students at Liberty University and I told them that I believe that God is going to show up in their generation and do something extraordinary. We believe in that and we believe in you and that is why we made Woodlawn. I was just talking to our good friend Alex Kendrick who directed War Room, a film that is on prayer and has recently shattered every record. Now our film is on revival and these films are perfectly distanced from each other yet in the same season.

Who could have planned that? We didn’t plan that. Every revival, every awakening in America has always been birthed in prayer, so the idea of prayer and revival in the theaters at the same season: that’s extraordinary. I think that this goes to show you that God is working, God is moving. We have always felt that we are the stewards of Woodlawn, but we are not the captains of the ship.

There has been a supernatural will behind this project. I believe that I am just trying to hang on and do my job and show up. God has His hand on this project and God is guiding the ship. When you open Sports Illustrated of all things, and there is this article on Woodlawn that blatantly shares the gospel with the headline “Jesus is my Quarterback”…that is extraordinary.

I can’t believe this is actually happening, when we are on ESPN and Fox NFL talking about Woodlawn. These are the venues where the gospel is being proclaimed. It’s exciting to see what God is doing and to be a small part of it. How big of a part of a Jesus Revolution is Woodlawn going to be? I’m not sure, but time will tell. I do believe that God is going to revive a generation and I hope to have played a role in that in some way.

Having become a born-again Christian in college through Campus Crusade for Christ in the ’60s, I experienced the Christian awakening at the University of Oregon. The experience at U of O was not unique—it was also happening at other colleges across the country. At the time, my father was an Army colonel in Vietnam, and he had also served as a leader in WWII and the Korean War. I was disturbed by the Vietnam War protests, the hippie movement, and immorality of the time. I had just become Miss Eugene, Oregon; but although I had much going my way, was a diligent student, and was involved in a church, I felt an emptiness in my life. It was exactly as French philosopher Blaise Pascal said: “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.”

The 60’s and 70’s were troubling times with the Vietnam War, assassinations, rampant immorality, and dangerous drug usage. However, in this darkness, young people were finding a personal relationship with Christ and eternal, beautiful transformation. My most treasured memory is the day in 1966 when I stopped by the free speech platform at the University of Oregon. I followed up on the invitation from the platform, where my future husband David Howard was standing and praying for the audience. I attended the College Life meeting where I then invited our Lord Jesus Christ to be my personal Lord and Savior. He filled my life to overflowing and has led me into an eternally meaningful and abundant life ever since! (Revelation 3:20) I continue to celebrate with great gratitude His sacrificial birth, life, and death for each of us. This put me on a new, developing, abundant path to today.

During the 60’s and 70’s as I and my future husband, friends, colleagues, and more were coming to know Christ personally, I saw their desire to know God’s Word and since have watched them develop and continue as Christian leaders. The awakening in their lives and countless others has brought lasting fruit. We then saw a “Christian awakening” happening in the Jesus Movement in the early ’70s and now, fifty years later, it is again growing from schools like Asbury College.

Alex Kendrick shares how this awakening—which started at Asbury College—has spread to schools like Lee University, Samford University, and Cedarville in Ohio, to mention a few. “A number of colleges are now seeking the Lord,” Alex said.

Today is much like the dark 60’s and 70’s: war, violence, division, dangerous drug usage, immorality and more. Young people are finding their way out of this darkness as we did before them as they discover a personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. Those of us who already know Him must pray fervently for those who do not yet know Him. We must persist in forbearance, grace, and forgiveness for them as our Lord has done for us. The Jesus Revolution movie is part of the growing Christian awakening. The stories of lives being changed mean far more than box office reporting. People have been getting baptized after seeing the film, worship services are happening organically outside movie theaters… Something eternally beautiful is happening.

The Kingdom Story Team reports, “…we have been praying for revival since we first began Jesus Revolution over seven years ago. As filmmakers, we marvel at how God is at work. If any part of you has wished you could experience what’s happened at Asbury, we hope this film will stir that flame—and help all of us catch the vision for revival like this in our own churches, our own cities, our own families, our own lives. These early days of awakening are beyond human control, and we’re filled with wonder at the miraculous timing as thousands have experienced a taste of revival this week. We’re humbled to be part of this moment in history. Something big is happening—it is sweeping the nation city by city, and we’re humbled to be just a small part of it, telling the story of what happened in this country 50 years ago. Revival has happened before. And we believe God can do it again…”

Tag us @JesusRevolutionMovie on Instagram when you go to the theater for a chance to be featured on our social channels. We can’t wait to see you.