Evangelicalism and Youth Culture, 1967-1972

John Turner, one of the contributors to the new Patheos blog The Anxious Bench, wrote last week about the 40th anniversary of Explo ’72, which brought over 80,000 youth together in Dallas’ Cotton Bowl for several days of preaching (Billy Graham six times), evangelistic classes, and music. A closing festival drew an even larger crowd (as many as 200,000, according to John) to hear eight hours of performances by Christian rock pioneers like Larry Norman, plus Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.

Campus Crusade sponsored the event, which makes John an ideal person to reflect on its significance, as the author of the acclaimed Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America. John first noted that Bright and other Campus Crusade officials kept politics out of the event, even rebuffing Richard Nixon’s attempt to invite himself to speak. But then he observed something that resonated strongly with one of my own recently concluded writing projects:

In my mind, Explo vividly illustrates just how dramatically evangelicalism had changed in the previous five years.

In 1967, most evangelicals kept the cultural changes gaining momentum on college campuses at arm’s length. Bill Bright and Campus Crusade in particular had a reputation for clean-cut, cultural conservatism. Bright loathed long hair and rock music. He wouldn’t let male staff members grow out their hair (well, maybe an inch or two beyond their early-1960s crew cuts), and he put a halt to one Crusade musical group’s experimentation with “hard rock.”

By 1972, however, Campus Crusade had made its peace with the Jesus Movement. Bright decided that it was more important to win a new generation of young Americans to Christ than to fight a losing cultural war over music and hair. Those who attended Explo ’72 raised their index fingers upward to show that Jesus was the “one way” to heaven. Every night, Christian rock music had the delegates in the Cotton Bowl swaying and singing before Bright or Billy Graham took the stage.

As it happened, I read John’s post just as I was putting the finishing touches on a new article that, in its second half, looks at then-Bethel president Carl Lundquist’s annual reports for two of those five pivotal years: 1969 and 1970. My focus is Lundquist’s attempt to integrate pietistic devotion and evangelical activism, but I was also struck that Lundquist — who was politically and socially conservative himself — spent considerable time in both reports defending anti-war activists and other members of the youth movement then becoming so visible on college campuses.

For some context… Bethel was sponsored by the Baptist General Conference, whose denominational magazine (The Standard) in January 1969 put out an issue focused on youth ministry. The editors kicked off the issue with a diatribe against counter-culture activism:

The radical proponents of ethical and political nihilism offer no solution for a world that is already sick because of rejecting the gospel that offers a scathing diagnosis of man and his society. The activity or our spiritual enemy is evident. His greatest success is to deceive Christians into thinking that their primary concern is to engage in issues that do not relate to the building of Christ’s church. Blessed is the Conference church that has young people so busy for Christ they do not have time to rebel against Christian principles.

Then four pages later the BGC’s director of youth work, Gunnar Hoglund, sneered at young radicals:

During Youth Week when we try to bring into focus what we are trying to do with young people, it might be useful to declare that the hippies and yippies are, in our judgment, nothing more than a sick part of a sick society. They are first class phonies.

Carl Lundquist in 1969
Carl Lundquist (right) as photographed for Bethel’s student newspaper, The Clarion, in 1969 – Bethel University Digital Library

All of which makes what Lundquist had to write in that year’s report quite remarkable. On the one hand, Lundquist’s view of personal holiness would seem to run headlong into the values of youth culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He reassured readers that “At Bethel there exists a wholesome concern about the development of a Christian life style appropriate to God’s people in the twentieth century western world” and expected students “to exercise discretion in all of their entertainment and recreation and to order their behavior both on and off campus” in light of school guidelines banning the use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, gambling, “social dancing,” and “indiscriminate attendance at the theater.”

But he also affirmed that “a wholesome philosophy of Christian conduct can best be developed in an atmosphere of personal freedom,” and affirmed a high view of freedom meant to liberate student expression. In particular, he viewed as “vital campus concerns” that students have “freedom to challenge traditional norms in Christian life style and freedom to espouse unpopular but Christian-oriented views on such student issues as Vietnam and the Selective Service System.”

Tentatively, Lundquist embraced “the youth revolt of our day” — not the “alienated youth who, in effect, have seceded from society” or those “that had lost hope for society” and descended into nihilistic violence, but those who were “intent about sensitizing the conscience of America” and those who sought “reformation from within” through “existing channles [sic] of democratic action.”

Fearing that his country was failing “to respond thoughtfully to her young,” Lundquist encouraged his readers to listen to disenchanted youth: filtering out “things that are superficial, trivial, hypocritical, rude, and anti-intellectual” in order to hear

the real message. That message can be heard in the lyrics they sing, the simplistic signs they raise, the confrontations they force. The notes I hear are the insistence that every human being is a person of importance and worth, that material security ought not have the highest priority in life, that love ought to characterize all of our interpersonal relationships, that right ideals are worth suffering for, that honesty should characterize our actions, that unconventional methods may open exciting new doors into the future, and that whatever ought to be done ought to be done now.

It is at this point that Christians have something in common with the youth of the revolt movement. These ideals have been held by Christians for centuries but sometimes have been lost to sight. Suddenly they are being sounded dramatically in a variety of strange places. An opportunity has been given to the church in our day to show how relevant Jesus Christ is to the new revolutionist. He may not be interested in the church. But he can be interested in Jesus Christ. And under God self-renewal—revival—is possible for the church also! This is no time to deplore the new American revolution. This is a time to identify with its valid emphases and to witness about the greatest revolutionist of all—Jesus Christ.

His 1970 report echoed several of these themes, and advanced a self-critique of evangelicalism (Lundquist would go on to serve as president of the National Association of Evangelicals at the end of that decade) for losing its “social conscience” and making young people conclude that the church was irrelevant to the present age.

No doubt, there was a degree of condescension (“the simplistic signs they raise”) in his response. And, anecdotally, I’ve heard colleagues who were Bethel students or faculty at the time chuckle at Lundquist’s awkward attempts to refashion himself for a new era (e.g., growing out his hair somewhat) and dialogue with a new generation. But I think Lundquist might offer further support for John’s thesis: the years 1967-1972 were pivotal for evangelicalism, as at least some of its leaders perceived the need to reach out in new ways to — and, for Lundquist, even to leave themselves open to insights from — a generation that professed itself impatient with, or even hostile to, Christianity.

After visiting Bethel in 1975, a Wall Street Journal reporter found that:

Carl Lundquist in 1977
Lundquist in 1977, wearing what the Clarion reporter described as “a subdued plaid suit” – Bethel University Digital Library

…Bethel hasn’t any dress rules because it figures Christ didn’t have an opinion on blue jeans. Indeed, neat jeans for both men and women and fairly long but trimmed hair for men prevail. President Lundquist dresses in mod suits and drives an orange Fiat sports car. (“I figure I can justify it on grounds of fuel economy—saving the world’s resources,” he says.)

And that same year, the mod suit-wearing, Fiat-driving Lundquist told editors from Christianity Today that changing campus mores didn’t “represent any deviation in theology or disloyalty to Christ,” since “The world setting itself is amoral, and many of its prevailing moods are neither good nor bad. Such things as length of hair, style of clothing, and hours kept in the dormitory are incidental. Where compromise takes place is at a much more fundamental level than that.”

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