Jesus People USA

Shawn David Young



1965-1966:  The counterculture in several American cities, specifically in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

1968:  The Democratic National Convention met in Chicago.

1969:  Linda Meissner created the Jesus People Army in the Seattle area.

1969:  The Days of Rage, riots launched by the New Left’s “Weatherman.”

1970:  Author Hal Lindsey published his apocalyptic novel The Late Great Planet Earth.

1970:  A distinct Jesus People “scene” took root in Southern California with well over 100 hundred churches, coffeehouses, centers, and communal homes identifying with the movement

1970:  Significant Jesus People centers emerged in Atlanta, Kansas City, Wichita, Buffalo, Norfolk, Akron, Fort Wayne, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, suburban Chicago, suburban New York City, and other scattered cities across the country

1971:  With media coverage and backing by evangelical figures, such as Billy Graham, the Jesus movement went nationwide in evangelical youth circles, with particular strength in the Midwest.

1971:  Jesus People Milwaukee (later renamed Christ is the Answer, under the direction of evangelist Bill Lowrey) formed after a “Jesus march” in the city, culminating in the founding of The Jesus Christ Power House, a coffee house in the countercultural neighborhood of Brady Street.

1972:  Jim and Sue Palosaari’s Milwaukee Jesus People group tactically split into four separate groups., including the Jesus People USA Travelling Team.

1972:  The Jesus People USA Traveling Team began touring with approximately sixteen members, throughout the United States in a painted school bus holding “Jesus rallies.”

1971:  The Cornerstone magazine was launched.

1972:  The travelling community visited several small towns (Houghton-Hancock, L’Anse, Baraga, Ironwood, and Marquette) throughout the Midwest.

1972:  Explo ’72 was an important “Jesus music” festival where the Reverend Billy Graham publically affirmed the Jesus movement.

1973:  The Jesus People USA Travelling Team arrived on Chicago’s North Side, where they established a base of operations.

1974:  John Herrin, Sr., head of Jesus People USA’s leadership council, was asked to leave the Chicago commune due to sexual misconduct.

1976:  Jesus Music festivals emerged during the summer of 1975.

1977:  The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) was founded.

1977:  The community was offered 230 acres of land near Doniphan, Missouri, to be operated as a retreat center and farm.

1977:  After growing out of Faith Tabernacle and a house on Paulina Street in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago, the community purchased a two-story house across the street, a new dwelling quaintly dubbed “the Yellow House.”

1978:  Three hundred members of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy met in Chicago to discuss and adopt the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which was published in 1981 by Norman L.  Geisler.

1978:  New Life, an African-American community on the South Side of Chicago, merged with Jesus People USA.

1979:  The community purchased the Chapman Hotel at 4707 North Malden, in Uptown Chicago.

1980:  The community relocated to 4626 N. Magnolia St.

1980:  President Carter signed into law the Mental Health Systems Act.

1981:  To reduce federal spending and reduce social programs, President Ronald Reagan rescinded the law Carter signed.

1984:  The Cornerstone Festival began at the Chicago County Fairgrounds in Grayslake, Illinois.

1985:  JPUSA founded their primary in-house business, Lake Front Roofing Supply.

1986:  The JPUSA Covenant was written to outline the community’s financial expectations and functions as an official document.

1987:  JPUSA secured a two-story 21,000 sq. ft. industrial building, which served as a meeting place for Sunday services and a hot meal program.

1987:  JPUSA voted former Black Panther and SDS member Helen Shiller into office as Alderman.

1987:  JPUSA began to offer housing to the growing homeless population of Uptown.

1988:  JPUSA obtained a building at 939 Wilson to house the Crisis Pregnancy Center.

1988:  JPUSA joined with the Chicago Union of the Homeless and the Heart of Uptown Coalition to construct a tent city.

1989:  An old hotel located on 920 West Wilson Avenue, in the 46th Ward of Uptown Chicago, was placed on the market for sale.

1989:  The JPUSA Covenant was revised.

1990:  JPUSA purchased the hotel and named it “Friendly Towers.”

1991:  JPUSA purchased six hundred acres in Bushnell, Illinois, offering their Cornerstone Festival more space and freedom.

2003:  The Cornerstone magazine closed.

2005:  The community sold the retreat center in Doniphan, Missouri.

2012:  The Cornerstone Festival closed due to financial issues.


Evangelical Christianity has become a powerful force in American popular media, youth culture, and the political arena. Contemporary manifestations of popular evangelical culture remain connected to a history commonly associated with the American counterculture of the 1960s, specifically a revival of conservative Christianity among American youth.

The hippie movement was at its peak in 1967. Hoping to carve a new ideological path, a number of hippies converted to evangelical Christianity. The result was a new movement of countercultural youth who were dubbed “Jesus freaks” (Young 2015; Miller 1999:94; Wolfe 2008:8). The Jesus Movement was a significant American revival that changed the way a large number of youth experienced and expressed Jesus. Disenchanted with mainline Christianity, the hippie movement, and the New Left, “Jesus freaks,” sought emotional and spiritual security in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. With hopes of spreading the gospel to the fairly recent “teenage” demographic, various conservative denominations adopted the cultural vernacular of “hip,” pop cultural products. Many of these new converts were attracted to Pentecostalism, which endeared them to the spiritual seeker-sensitive hippie culture, and their enthusiasm for conservative interpretations of the Bible appeased traditional religionists (Young 2015:20-25; Donald Miller 1999:11-12).

This new version of evangelical Christianity became a powerful force, and it eventually made its mark on publishing, film, television, festivals, and music, which continued the lineage of American evangelicalism as a complex, growing expression of Christianity. As this movement found what many deemed a significant lacuna between American culture and Christianity, “new paradigm” churches offered countercultural evangelicals a way back to the dominant culture. Then, as membership in mainline denominations declined, conservative believers found themselves welcoming fresh-faced converts who had been nursed on a mixture of Christian revivalism and Christian rock music; [Image at right] this reinforced the greater movement’s ability to combine contemporary “hip” Christianity with traditional forms of biblical conservatism (Young 2015:1-3; 9-10; McCracken 2010:47).

The effects of this movement can be seen today in new paradigm churches, music, film, publishing, the gaming industry, intentional communities, social activism, and emerging versions of the Evangelical Left. The paragon for earlier evangelical approaches to culture (George Whitfield, Charles Finney, Billy Sunday, and Amy Semple McPherson) continued under the new auspices of evangelical hippies. These young people would later influence the way evangelicals understood, produced, and consumed cultural products (McDannell 1995:222-23; Young 2015:7-10).

The mercurial Jesus Movement’s core ideals were preserved in communal experiences often called “intentional communities” (Kanter 1972:39) and have been celebrated throughout American popular culture, most notably within the largely Nashville-based Christian music industry (Howard 1999; Stowe 2013; Young 2015). Although the movement has often been lumped into a larger history that associates evangelicals with the Religious Right, a number of veterans of the movement have challenged the dominant assumption that American evangelical Christianity is closely aligned with the principles established by Reagan and Bush-era conservatism. And while a great number of Jesus movement veterans were absorbed by the Right, others embraced ideas more similar to the New Left (Swartz 2014; Shires 2007).

As the larger Jesus movement gained momentum new communities emerged, comprised of new converts and veteran leaders. While historians have often focused on communal experiments of the West Coast, other regions cannot be underestimated for their significant contributions to the Jesus movement or to evangelical Christianity. Most well-known expressions of the movement emerged out of Southern California, but others developed throughout the Northwest and Midwest. One early convert, Linda Meissner, founded Jesus People Army which connected with others in Spokane and western Washington state, later establishing new outposts in Idaho and British Columbia (Eskridge 2013). As the nature of the larger movement began to change in Southern California, a groundswell of revival activity swept through the nation.

Out of this context emerged one of the most noteworthy communal experiments of the Jesus Movement and one of the “largest single-site commune in the United States” (Timothy Miller 1999:99). Jesus People USA (JPUSA) is an inner-city commune of post-Jesus Movement “Jesus freaks” located in Uptown Chicago. Inspired by the Book of Acts, the community embraced a form of social activism that was similar to the New Left. Rather than conform to “establishment evangelicalism,” JPUSA adopted a moderate tolerance that has aligned them closer with liberalism than the Religious Right (Young 2015). Their story began in 1971.

In the midst of that brand of American radicalism often associated with the Midwest, a community led by evangelist Jim Palosaari emerged with a focus on social justice and Christian evangelism. Jesus People Milwaukee (JPM) (later renamed Christ is the Answer under Bill Lowrey) formed in 1971. This led to the founding of The Jesus Christ Power House, a coffee house nestled within the neighborhood of Brady Street, and out of this developed a travelling music group formed. Communards Glenn Kaiser and John Herrin Jr. formed a “Jesus music” group (Eskridge 2013:104-22). The fledgling band and a group of about thirty others traveled from Milwaukee to Gainesville, Florida, where the search for a more permanent base of operations began. After their departure from Florida, the new, mobile community hosted a number of “Jesus concerts” throughout the Midwest, finally landing in Chicago where a series of short-term communal houses became home in 1973 (Young 2015:29-39).

By 1974, the community expanded in size and scope, [Image at right] but problems arose. Attracted to another woman in the community, John Herrin Sr. was asked to leave the community on March 18, 1974, which led to a change in leadership structure. After his departure, JPUSA’s governing council carried a new sense of power. A “plural leadership” emerged, and this became a pivotal moment in JPUSA’s success as a thriving contemporary commune. The new government would not only serve as the orbit around which policy would revolve, they also became keenly aware of socio-cultural disconnects that pervaded the larger Jesus Movement, a largely a white phenomenon. Thus, the new council began discussions about becoming an interracial community. Realizing the various similarities between their group and JPUSA, members of the African-American commune New Life and elder Ron Brown decided to merge with JPUSA in 1978. Unlike other communal experiments, this group would remain largely multiracial. Their method of governance continued to develop, despite their seeming fluidity of place. A permanent dwelling was yet on the horizon (Young 2015:39-55).

By the late 1980s, Chicago was in the middle of a housing crisis, but JPUSA was committed to its mission to help the homeless. After several temporary homes the nomadic group settled on its new home. Then by 1989, JPUSA’s mission to Chicago’s homeless was fully realized as they launched Cornerstone Community Outreach (CCO), a non-profit organization, offering housing for single women and men, single mothers and their children, and abused women. In 1990, the community purchased an old hotel at 920 West Wilson Avenue, in the 46th Ward of Uptown Chicago. Renamed “Friendly Towers,” [Image at right] JPUSA’s new base of operation grew in size and scope as community leaders answered a divine call to focus on Chicago’s growing homeless population (Young 2015:49-51).

Every communal experiment must eventually decide how it will sustain its own existence. Hoping to survive and serve, JPUSA created a number of in-house companies, each intended to finance the commune’s day-to-day operations. Carpentry, painting, roofing, art and design, all became “mission businesses.” Their most noteworthy of endeavors include Lakefront Roofing and Siding Supply; Belly Acres (a t-shirt printing company); Friendly Towers low-income housing for senior citizens); Tone Zone recording studio; and Grrr Records, a record production and promotion company. These mission businesses provided the community with financial stability, allowing them to reach out to Chicago’s inner city with a number of ministries. Through the years these have included a discipleship training for community members; care for the elderly; street witnessing; housing for the homeless; a soup kitchen; low-income senior housing; Big Brother/Big Sister (Mentoring); outreach to Mexico, Guatemala, Cambodian, Bosnia, Romania (Business supporting missions in Romania); the Pro-life Action Counsel; a Crisis Pregnancy Center; a new women’s shelter building for homeless women; a boy scout troop, Imagine DAT Model hobby building with kids; and the Cornerstone Community Outreach. While social justice quickly became JPUSA’s raison d’être, other developments would connect them to the larger world (Young 2015:23-26, 65-74).

With a growing interest in culturally relevant ministry, JPUSA established Cornerstone magazine (1971-2003), [Image at right] an edgy publication that once offered Christian countercultural perspectives on art, music, literature, film, theology, politics, culture, sexuality, global events, and other controversial topics notably absent from other evangelical publications. The magazine was a step toward cultural engagement outside the confines of their urban enclave. But more was needed.

In keeping with the evangelical impulse toward the cultural vernacular, JPUSA’s council decided to widen its cultural influence. Noting the power of pop culture, they attempted to emulate the Woodstock Festival (a “secular” countercultural event) and Explo ‘72 (A “Jesus Music event held in 1972). The annual Cornerstone Festival [Image at right] was launched in 1984 at the Chicago County Fairgrounds in Grayslake, Illinois. The event shocked the evangelical world as both staff and fans embraced innumerable subcultural expressions of Christianity. This did not dissuade the average church youth group from attending the multivalent festival. Cornerstone provided campers a week of concerts, visual art, film, rave dancing, sports, skateboard ramps, and spontaneous DIY shows offered by festival-goers. When campers finished their days learning about philosophy, theology, politics, globalization and sexuality at “Cornerstone University,” they enjoyed concerts of various styles of music, including rock, punk, hardcore, heavy metal, death metal, pop, rap, jazz, blues, new wave, goth, country, Celtic, and some that cannot be identified. The music was the main attraction, which contributed to changes yet-to-come (Young 2015:173-221).

Due to its enormous success within the evangelical subculture (and because of Chicago zoning regulations and noise ordinances), the festival was relocated to the newly purchased six-hundred-acre Cornerstone Farm near Bushnell, Illinois in 1991, a dream for hippies who longed for rural life. The location was a huge success, offering a bucolic setting complete with a lake and space for significantly more bands, circus tents, and festivalgoers. But despite its near-global popularity, Cornerstone was not immune to the same forces that spelled doom for the music industry. Having operated in the red since its genesis (as a ministry), the Council decided to permanently close the Cornerstone Festival after its final gathering in 2012.

The community continues its outreach efforts to Chicago’s homeless population. While the festival’s memory still animates its followers to create similar events across the U.S., the Jesus People remain dedicated to social justice, the arts, and the occasional album release and tour through their commercial recording studio and record label (Young 2015).


The Jesus Movement included four different expressions and have, in some fashion or another, contributed to remapping the landscape of American evangelicalism. These include evangelical new paradigm churches (Calvary Chapel and Vineyard); isolationist communes (Children of God); mainstream communes (Shiloh houses); and groups such as Jesus People Army (JPA) and JPUSA’s parent group, Jesus People Milwaukee (Chancellor 2000; Eskridge 2013:89-100). JPUSA cannot be considered a post-Jesus Movement, “new paradigm” evangelical community, nor can they be considered a doomsday group. In earlier years, they were “millenarian” (as were most Jesus Freaks). This belief was in keeping with a theological position squarely focused on the second coming of Christ, a secret “rapture” of all believers that included (timeline depending on your theology) the global rule of the antichrist, the Great Tribulation, the battle of Armageddon, and final judgment. While most members of the community still believe in the second coming, JPUSA leaders have remained more interested in the practical matters of social justice. But despite their penchant for left-leaning political ideas, the Council fully embraced evangelical positions on salvation, biblical inerrancy, the Church, marriage, the unborn, missions, last things, and apologetics. Through the years the Council has maintained nuanced (flexible) positions on all of these. In fact, biblical inerrancy and Christian apologetics were questioned in the 1990s, in light of critical literary theory, postmodern Christian culture, and the so-called Emergent Church. But despite an evolving theological paradigm, JPUSA’s focus has always been on the dynamics of inner-city Chicago (Gordon 1978; Young 2015:144-89).

Religious movements in the U.S. have often had an influence on how their followers understand social justice. And while evangelical Christianity is known for a fairly noble history of activism (Bebbington 2005; Balmer 2006), most American communal experiments (complicating the matter) have often been fairly limited in scope (Miller 1999). But rather than cloister, JPUSA chose to engage the world around them. Differing from other evangelical forbearers, JPUSA has been (in recent years) aligned with policies more akin to progressive/liberal political movements such as the New Left…though they retain a few theological positions more common to the Religious Right. While their parent denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, provides accountability, and conservative evangelicals still honor the Cornerstone Festival’s unique history, JPUSA’s fluid approach to ideology (though still quite evangelical) keeps them at arm’s length within certain circles. While the community spent the bulk of the 1980s engaged with full-throated evangelical apologetics (as evidenced in their magazine and at the festival), the 1990s bought with it a slow ideological burn that proved untenable with the context of “postmodern” Christian faith (Young 2015).

Although JPUSA began as a “hippie commune” that leaned to the left, their theological heritage remains tethered to orthodox Christianity, a position evangelicals prized throughout the Culture War. Indeed, social activism has often distinguished JPUSA from other evangelical “Jesus freaks,” but the Council adopted a rigorous biblicism during the 1980s, a position that gained them favor with evangelical apologist Norman L. Geisler (Young 2015:108-20). JPUSA’s politics (as well as emerging eschatological skepticism) certainly distinguished them from other establishment evangelicals. And while their urban location inspired them to feed the poor and entertain leftwing political ideas, JPUSA’s choice to make Chicago a permanent home would, ironically, tether them to positions more commonly associated with the Religious Right.

On October 28, 1978, Chicago became ground zero for a gathering that would decide the future of conservative evangelical belief (Young 2015:106). Founded in 1977, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) began a series of summits intended to clarify theological positions. Three hundred members met to discuss and adopt the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. The papers delivered at the conference were edited and published by Norman L. Geisler (Geisler 1981). Jay Grimstead, founder and director of the Coalition on Revival, stated that the document was a landmark church document” that represented the “largest, broadest, group of evangelical protestant scholars that ever came together to create a common, theological document in the 20th century. It is probably the first systematically comprehensive, broadly based, scholarly, creed–like statement on the inspiration and authority of Scripture in the history of the church” (Grimstead 2010).

Summit II met between November 10 and November 13, 1982 in Chicago, where they explored principles of interpreting the Bible. The gathering adopted the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics; papers were edited by Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus, then published in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible (Radmacher and 1984). Then between December 10 and December 13, 1986 Summit III met to discuss the Chicago Statement on Biblical Application; these papers were edited by Kenneth S. Kantzer and published in Applying the Scriptures (Kantzer 1987; Young 2015:106).

While Geisler’s participation in these historical documents is noteworthy, he remains an important figure in JPUSA’s development. In fact, Geisler was once a regular lecturer at Cornerstone University. The commune’s affiliation with Geisler and their own collective affirmation of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (Young 2015:106) helped establish their conservative credentials with other evangelicals. But the community’s location would continue to inspire a different political trajectory than other groups associated with the evangelical establishment.

Unimpressed by both the evangelical marketing machine and other fringe communal groups, JPUSA has often viewed both commercialism and isolationism as dangerous appendages to individuals and the church. In their attempts to find a space somewhere between theological and political liberalism and theological conservatism (a gray area), their grassroots activism helps us understand them as “practical contemplatives,” adding a social conscience to what would otherwise be a mere skyward gaze.

Terms often associated with JPUSA include “postmodern,” “emergent Christianity,” “emerging Christianity,” “progressive Christianity,” “Christian Left,” and Evangelical Left.” At their core, the community is considered to be Wesleyan, evangelical, and moderately Pentecostal. They have embraced the teachings of a number of authors, apologists, and philosophers, including Francis Schaeffer, C. S. Lewis, Blaise Pascal, A. W. Tozer, Søren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Walker Percy, and G. K. Chesterton (Young 2015:131-39).

In some ways, this community is a microcosm of the larger American political landscape. A balance between the public and the private (the value assigned to authority and resources) shifts according to the culture war and policies writ large. Even in the early years, JPUSA’s modus operandi included flexibility and adaptability. In his research on JPUSA, sociologist David Gordon pointed out that JPUSA’s ability to equally value the individual and the community contributed to a needed sense of balance. “One reason that this particular Christian identity is so compelling,” he argued “is that it simultaneously locates the individual at each of these various levels [a hierarchy involving God, Jesus, and various Christian expressions]. Each identity focus gains reinforcement and legitimation from the others. The search for personal identity becomes intertwined with God’s will and with the fate of the world” (Gordon 1978).

The successful commune, then, must maintain structures that collapse higher purpose and personal identity into one holistic being. That is, when the goals of the community and the “reinforcement and legitimization” of the individual become synonymous, both the communard and the community become indelibly linked, then driving individual commitment to the extent that leaving seems unthinkable. Although JPUSA has evolved, their earlier commitment to affirming member’s individuality within a communitarian context has proven to be a significant factor in their continued longevity. In this case, individual members were affirmed in their own unique expressions (long hair, beards, tattoos, body piercings, and other expressions of hippie, punk, goth, and heavy metal) [Image at right] and were provided a grand mission to which they were fully committed.


During the Jesus movement, membership in mainline denominations declined and conservative evangelicals began welcoming fresh-faced converts, who had been already been nursed on a mix of revivalistic Christianity and Christian rock music. The combination of “hip” Christianity and biblical conservatism inspired a number of groups, but it reached a larger platform with JPUSA.

As with others in the Jesus movement, JPUSA leaders were disenchanted with mainline Christianity and the hippie movement. The result was a blend of the countercultural vernacular (hippie clothing, long hair, beards, and rock music) and conservative theology. Ultimately, a conservative reclamation of popular culture was intended (in the spirit of evangelical Christianity) to meet non-Christians on their own terms and in their own language.

Early Jesus freaks adopted a rigorous form of street evangelism, largely because they believed Jesus would return during their lifetime. While JPUSA members certainly engaged in their fair share of street witnessing (especially in the earlier years), they have been more invested in their local urban community, than others from the larger movement, many of them convinced the world was about to end. But JPUSA was a bit different. David Gordon argued that the idea of balance was a major theme in their theology and lifestyle: “structure and spontaneity, submission and love, criticism and praise, teaching and worship, and recreation and work.” Gordon’s findings note the oft-held belief that early Jesus People were often “presented as proof-texters who quote Bible passages out of context, [Image at right] accept every word of scripture as literal truth, and generally have a simple-minded approach to the Bible.” Challenging this, Gordon found that those in the JPUSA community actually recognized that “the Bible is ambiguous and requires interpretation, that context is crucial to understanding passages, that the Bible does not contain all answers (although it does contain all necessary answers), and that careful study of the Bible and commentaries is necessary for full understanding….” (Gordon 1978).

JPUSA’s theological and political beliefs aligned them with both the right and the left. And these beliefs were made more concrete in daily practice. Common to other evangelical communities, JPUSA rituals tend to focus on a balance between protestant liturgical practices, Pentecostal/charismatic mysticism, social activism, and contemporary Christian aesthetics. While dress codes tend to range from business casual to punk and hippie urban, the true ideological and aesthetic center of JPUSA can best be described as “low church.”

As with any Protestant denomination, JPUSA observes Sunday services, which include contemporary praise & worship music, expository preaching, communion, and a modest acceptance of Pentecostal/charismatic doctrine (Young 2015).


A twenty-first century example of a service commune, JPUSA’s structure is based on the writings of Jean Vanier, Catholic founder of L’Arche communities. Vanier’s Community and Growth (Vanier 1979) has been a seminal document in the community’s organizing principles. Since 1972, the community has modeled itself after the organizational structure found in the Book of Acts.

American communes have often been retreat-based groups (Kanter 1972; Miller 1999). But JPUSA is a service-based community, confirming one sociologist’s argument that if communes are to survive, they must avoid insularity while still affirming negotiable boundaries, a sentiment which can easily be applied to an evangelicalism that continues to wrestle with the challenges presented by democracy and pluralism. Emergent Christians (as one example) maintain various orthodox boundaries, but remain porous, often negotiated based on socio-cultural contexts (Young 2015).

Housing an average of four hundred members (hippies, rockers, and “straights”)] JPUSA practices a form of socialism, [Image at right] where all earnings generated by their businesses are relinquished and placed in a common purse. The total population of the commune can be broken down into three categories that include veterans of the Jesus Movement; young, transient persons; and those who live in the commune’s low-income senior housing (Young 2015:20-26).

Given the short-lived nature of most communes throughout American history (Miller 1999), the fact that JPUSA has continued since 1972 is astounding. Communal sustainability is often decided by “commitment mechanisms” that animate community members. While commitment mechanisms often translate into community service (which then translates into long-term commitment from members), sustainability is also about second-generation members (those born in the community) who will determine JPUSA’s leadership and organizational structure (Kanter 1972; Young 2015:9, 8, 11, 25, 68-89).

Members of JPUSA’s second generation have been leaving for a number of years. As a rule, social experiments often attract seekers and drifters. Not surprising, every year JPUSA welcomes travelers in search of a community that is

based on the New Testament model.

an alternative way to experience church.

an outlet to serve the homeless.

a place of personal healing.

At one time their way of life attracted newcomers, but now often repels those who find communal rules too restrictive. In the end, the community’s future will likely be determined by how it chooses to handle newcomers (as the second-generation leaves) and how it chooses to evolve with American society. The future leaders (JPUSA’s structure) will likely be a combination of the second generation and others who have proven their value.

Along with Glenn Kaiser and Richard Murphy the Council includes (as of 2015) John Herrin, Jr., Denny Cadieux, Victor Williams, Tom Cameron, Neil Taylor, and Dawn (Herrin) Mortimer, who has since passed away. It is important to note that members of the community have discussed whether or not second-generation members will assume positions within the Council.


As with most communal experiments, longevity is of primary concern. A number of former members have left the community due to what was perceived as heavy-handed governance. As with mainstream society, this community struggles with how to appropriately balance the public and the private. JPUSA leaders have affirmed their attempt at striking a healthy combination of individualism and collectivism, quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Hoping to realize Bonhoeffer’s vision, the community sought balance as they avoided becoming a sheltered cloister. While engagement with the world around them through activism and pop culture has continued to breathe life into the community, JPUSA continues to weather challenges common to any evolving organization.

The primary challenges faced by JPUSA have been financial and organizational. A number of former members have complained about overreach by members of the Council, including permission for marriage, designation of childcare, and the freedom of expression or dissent from rank-and-file members. While the leaders say they have located an effective balance between the community and the individual, others believe the Council has been overly authoritarian (Young 2015). Complicating the matter (and in keeping with some of the radical practices of the counterculture), their past continues to resurface. In 1974, JPUSA accepted the teachings of Jack Winters (pastor to a suburban charismatic community known as Daystar) and engaged in “adult spanking,” a type of discipleship discipline. The practice was discontinued in 1978 (Young 2015:89-92).

By the end of the 1980s the community was able to produce former members who would hold an array of opinions about their experiences and perceptions of communal living. Then by the late 1990s, JPUSA’s longstanding relationship with the evangelical subculture earned them widespread attention, including negative press. In 1994, sociologist Ronald Enroth, whose work was later scrutinized by sociologist Anson Shupe, (Shupe 2000) published Recovering from Churches That Abuse, where he questions JPUSA policies on governance (Enroth 1994). Allegations of abuse circulated and news spread to mainstream media outlets. Then in 2001, Journalist Kirsten Scharnberg published a two-part article in the Chicago Tribune, where she explored allegations of excessive control by JPUSA’s council (Scharnberg 2001). By 2015, the community was under a full-throttled analysis by former members, many of whom had been born and raised in JPUSA.

Both positive and negative accounts of life in JPUSA continue to surface from former members. But as with many religious communities of note, JPUSA came under increasing fire with negative press. The most controversial included allegations of sexual abuse (including pedophilia), which surfaced when public discussions were brought forth by second-generation son Jaime Prater, who released No Place to Call Home, a documentary that includes first-hand recollections from former members (Prater 2013). Then came a piece published by the Huffington Post titled “Jesus People Documentary Sheds Light on Religious Community’s Darker Stories” (Valente 2014).

The praise and contempt offered by former members provide a tapestry of ideas that demonstrate the fluidity of individual perception and the fragility of communal life. And given the pluralistic nature of American society, accommodation to culture is necessary for the Commune’s survival. Furthermore, the way JPUSA manages their organization determines how they are perceived by their non-communal constituency, second-generation communards, and former members who remain outspoken about their experiences in the commune. If JPUSA resists change and criticism, it is possible that some within the second-generation will leave. However, if they continue to accommodate socio-cultural shifts (reinventing their ethos), there is an equal risk that first-generation members will leave.

JPUSA’s political and theological affiliations are a result of a myriad of social forces. The commune managed to break from other histories on the Jesus movement. Although their early years were marked by the same apocalyptic urgency embraced by other Jesus freaks, JPUSA refocused efforts toward the more practical urgencies of social justice. But despite their active involvement in Uptown, one thing remains clear. If the Council is to determine what the future holds, then a number of variables must be considered.

Members of the second-generation are leaving the community.

JPUSA retains approximately fifteen percent of the second generation, according to most estimations.

That JPUSA has continued well beyond its 1972 genesis is of enormous importance.

If any viable future is to be realized, the Council must identify new leaders and a new rank-and-file.

Given criticism brought by a number of former members, the public’s perception of JPUSA could make it difficult for them to maintain a positive image with its evangelical constituency. As for social justice (and despite all good intentions), JPUSA’s leftward journey complicates how we understand evangelical Christianity. And their continued success will largely be determined by how they are perceived by the evangelical establishment, which relies heavily on what evangelicalism will look like after 2017. In many ways, their successes, failures, and cultural influence parallels the evolution of American evangelicalism. As a case-study, this community offers insight into the complicated differences between religious conservatism, liberalism, and how an emerging Evangelical Left is neither liberal or conservative.

The Evangelical Left continues to emphasize faith over certitude, creating an ironic impulse that historian Donald Miller refers to as “postmodern primitivism” (Miller 1999:87). But this is not to suggest that JPUSA (and others on the left) have entered with fundamentalists into what Miller considers a “precritical worldview.” Rather, it is “to disavow the hegemony of the socially constructed ‘rational’ mind” (Miller 1999:122). That the evangelical subculture has been culturally pliable is not surprising. For the most part, the evolution of the JPUSA community underscores how the evangelical parent culture continues to evolve with contemporary American culture.


Image # 1: Photograph of a performance by a Christian rock band at the Cornerstone Festival.
Image # 2: Photograph of JPUSA, circa late 1970s, near Montrose Beach at Lincoln Park, Chicago.
Image # 3: Photograph of JPUSA Friendly Towers at 9 20 W Wilson Ave, Chicago, IL.
Image # 4 Photograph of Cornerstone magazine cover.
Image # 5: Photograph of the main stage at the Cornerstone Festival.
Image # 6: Photograph of crowds gathered for the Cornerstone Festival at the Cornerstone Farm.
Image # 7: Photograph of JPUSA members meeting in one of many early communal houses.
Image # 8: Photograph of Cornerstone festivalgoers.
Image # 9: Photograph of the Holy Bible.
Image # 10: Photograph of members of JPUSA eating a late-night snack.


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Updated: — 1:19 pm

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